Baghdad's residents go about life despite threat of war

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In Baghdad's Friday book market, you can get "The Guidebook to Nuclear Reactors" for $2, and for about a buck you can have your own copy of "Saddam Hussein, His Struggle and Political Thought."

A bustling area of several streets and small alleys lined with bookstores and hawkers, the book market has for decades brought together academics, artists and students in a leisurely hunt for bargains. Now, it also tells the story of a people determined to carry on with a normal life even as the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion gets closer every day.

"I began painting in 1991 after the Gulf War ended," said 27-year-old artist Issam al-Azawi. Speaking over a glass of sweet black tea after browsing through the market, he added, "We in Iraq no longer care if America attacks us or not. For me, I just have to carry on painting."

The United States is assembling the biggest ground, air and naval force in the Persian Gulf since it defeated Iraq in 1991.

Baghdad and its 5 million residents have been through a great deal since 1980, the year war broke out with neighboring Iran. For eight years, the city endured sporadic missile attacks and bombings that killed scores, injured many thousands and caused wide damage.

That war ended in 1988, but during the Gulf War less than three years later, the city went through six weeks of intense bombardment by the United States and its allies, which crippled the city's utilities and killed hundreds.

Busy as usual

The city's book market was busy as usual Friday, attracting academics in suits and ties, women trying to sell books that have been in the family for years, and university students looking for cheap second-hand books. Most of the browsers look for what they want from among the hundreds of books laid on the streets by hawkers rather than at the more expensive stores.

The books on offer in the Baghdad market vary greatly. The Arabic translation of "The Guidebook to Nuclear Reactors" by American physicist Anthony V. Nero, Jr., for example, is possibly the oddest offering. The 370-page work is a 1987 publication by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and is on offer for 4,000 dinars, or about $2.

On display next to it is "Saddam Hussein, His Struggle and Political Thought," a 1982 book by Shafiq Abdel-Razak Al-Samara'i, a French-educated author and civil servant.

Baghdad's book market is by no means the only evidence of normalcy in Baghdad as the prospect of war looms. The city's bumper-to-bumper traffic in the morning and evening rush hours demonstrates best the resilience of a city whose medieval splendor, the stuff of legend, remains alive. There has been no exodus to the countryside to escape a possible U.S. attack, and no sign of residents hoarding basic food items.

Wealthy Baghdadis still frequent what passes for expensive restaurants, with restaurateurs obliging the joyful spirits of their patrons with live music, Lebanese wine and scotch.

It is not just books and fine dining that demonstrate the spirit of the city.

On Friday, Rex, a 35-day-old Doberman, stood restlessly in his tiny cardboard box waiting for a buyer as hundreds crowded a pavement in al-Ghazal market in central Baghdad looking to buy from among the guard dogs, rabbits, tropical birds and fishes on display.

Rex, who looked in desperate need of a grooming, had a $6 price tag.

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