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Notes from Baghdad on street sales, schooling and survival skills

By Robert Wiener
CNN Producer

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- There's an old saying around these parts: Cairo writes, Beirut prints, Baghdad reads.

For one who has come to know this country well over the past 10 years, it is especially painful to witness what happens every Friday morning on Mutanabbi Street in downtown Baghdad.

Here, on what is usually a traffic-clogged lane next to the bustling office-supply souq, people gather at first light to begin displaying their things, laid out on weathered strips of cardboard that will soon cover the ancient pavement.

There's an old saying in Iraq: Cairo writes, Beirut prints, Baghdad reads. But many Iraqis have had to sell their possessions to survive almost 10 years of economic sanctions. Now, every Friday, Iraqis come to sell their books.

Many Iraqis have had to sell everything they own to survive almost 10 years of crippling United Nations economic sanctions. For some, the first things to go are their jewelry and antiques. For others, their furniture and household goods. And when those were gone, many turned to the merchants on Mutanabbi Street.

This is where Iraqis come to sell their books.

The number of books and periodicals on Mutanabbi Steet -- in Arabic and other tongues -- is a barometer of just how well-educated and intellectually curious Iraqis are. And it is sad and somehow even offensive to see prized personal libraries that once graced bookshelves now scattered on the ground.

"It's our life," says Sha'lan Zeidan Khalaf, who Saturday through Thursday runs a small bookshop near the Mujamma' al-Udaba,' or Writers' Compound. "We have no other choice."

On this day, Khalaf's makeshift stand includes a baffling and eclectic number of titles:

      • "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie;
      • the 1967 edition of Arthur Frommer's "Europe on 5 Dollars a Day";
      • "My Congo" by Patrice Lumumba;
      • a 1959 edition of "The Bobbsey Twins Wonderful Secret" by Laura Lee Hope;
      • "Corneal and Retractive Surgery" by Kenneth Wright;
      • R.S. Khuri's "A Textbook of Hydraulics";
      • "Inside Russia Today," by John Gunther; and
      • "All You Can Sew for Children: 30 Patterns."

I point to a first edition of Seymour Hersh's "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House" and ask, "How much?"

"Twelve dollars," he says without missing a beat.

"That's outrageous," I laugh.

"Okay, 10."

"How about three?"

"Ten," he says firmly, knowing only a visiting journalist would pay the equivalent of what it costs an average Iraqi family to eat for a week. Perhaps out of guilt, or because I am an author, I don't prolong this bargaining over written words and fork over the money.

"I'm especially fond of Shakespeare," Khalaf explains as he searches for a thin plastic bag for me to haul away Mr. Hersh. "I'm a classical reader."

"Aside from the economy," I ask, "what effect do the sanctions have on Iraq's cultural isolation?"

"I think that the English say, 'Seeing is believing.' All you must do is look at the faces of people here and you can see how they suffer -- in every way."

"Well, I hope life improves. It's tough for the Iraqi people."

"I hope so," he says. "It is tough ... but the sun also rises."

"I'm sorry?"

"'The Sun Also Rises,'" he says softly, as if to convey a secret message, "a good novel by Ernest Hemingway."

During a trip to Vietnam a few years back, my colleague Bruce Morton observed the construction everywhere in Hanoi and remarked wryly, "The country's national bird could be the crane."

That crane has migrated to Baghdad.

Vast areas of this capital are now under construction. Gone is the once popular racetrack where Iraqis loved to wager on gallant Arabian stallions. In its place will soon be what's being billed as the world's second-largest mosque. The largest, I'm informed by my driver, is slated to go up in another part of town.

Near the Ministry of Information, a long, non-descript building has been given a complete makeover -- a motif straight out of "The Arabian Nights," topped by a life-size gilded statue of Iraq's president, looking confidently presidential as he straddles the bow of a boat.

Across the street, workmen are putting the finishing touches on a new wall with parapets, which will front the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

And in the rich residential neighborhood of Mansour, there is hardly a street where a new villa is not being built.

Businessmen from France, Italy and around the globe are signing contracts with the Iraqi government -- a clear violation of United Nations resolutions. Today, Iraq's borders are more porous than a colander.

Mansour is where the Qatar Embassy recently opened its doors. The Iraqis fully expect other Gulf States to follow suit and re-establish diplomatic relations soon.

"They will come," a senior Iraqi diplomat told me, "in spite of the United States and Great Britain. Even the Gulf States know they can no longer ignore Iraq. They need Iraq. They need good relations with Iraq."

So, apparently, do the businessmen from France, Italy and around the globe who are signing contracts with the government -- a clear violation of United Nations resolutions.

"I tell you frankly," said one official here. "The world knows the U.S. and British policy is bankrupt. It is not a secret. We [the Iraqi leadership] are still here. We have the support of our people. And we have learned how to live with the sanctions. We are bombed again and again, yet we are still standing."

"He's entirely correct," an international diplomat said during dinner. "Look, my government sent me here with one brief -- to erode the sanctions. Not to violate them, but to erode them. We want to do business."

Today, Iraq's borders are more porous than a colander. Although the consignments Iraq orders under the oil-for food program are subject to scrutiny, there is no international mechanism for regulating or inspecting other cross-border traffic. And the United Nations knows it.

"Only one in 20 trucks at Trebil [near the Jordanian border] is searched," a local U.N. official admitted. "And at Zakho [near the Turkish border], only one in 200 is ever looked at."

"So what's the point, when the government is importing everything it wants? I mean, is New York aware of this?" I ask, referring to U.N. headquarters.

"Sure they know. Everyone knows."

Well, not everyone. There are many people in Iraq who know little about international politics or the diplomatic chess game in which many observers regard them as pawns.

Cherine turned pro a year ago.

If you drive down 28th of April Street (a reference to President Hussein's birthday) toward the Al-Rasheed bridge, before making a U-turn that leads to the Ministry of Information, you will find her.

When I first met young Cherine, she was timid, rarely approaching the cars idling at the traffic light. Then she came to approach cars and to beseech occupants to roll down their windows and give. These days, she sometimes sells sticks of incense, but she makes more by simply batting her lashes and using her innocent beauty.

She is a lovely doe-eyed, 8-year-old Kurdish girl whom I have seen begging for the past three years.

When I first met Cherine, she was timid, rarely approaching the cars idling at the traffic light. She would stand on the median, smiling sweetly and meekly, silently beckoning for a handout.

She was there daily, from sunrise to sunset, next to a wizened old man in a soiled black and white kafiyyah who sold cigarettes not by the pack, but by the smoke.

As the months passed, Cherine became more assertive, approaching cars, tapping the vehicles, beseeching occupants to roll down their windows and give. Once she had a younger brother in tow, but she soon learned she was quicker and better at it on her own.

And on her own she is, apparently the principal breadwinner of her family. Cherine reports earning 3,000 to 4,000 dinars (about $2) a day, more than her father -- apparently an alcoholic -- could ever earn. She no longer attends school -- that is, a school with a classroom.

These days, Cherine sometimes sells sticks of incense. But she makes more by simply batting her lashes and using her innocent beauty. The other day I was convinced she was wearing makeup, but Cherine says her mother will not permit it. For now.

August 2, next week, will mark the 10th anniversary of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Next January, a decade will have passed since the Persian Gulf War itself.

Iraq no longer permits U.N. weapons inspectors to work here and some former inspectors admit, even if they spent a lifetime digging up the desert, they would never find everything they seek.

Iraq says it has given the U.N. all the information it can to comply with Security Council resolutions, and will give no more. Veteran diplomats and seasoned observers here believe the regime would probably allow long-term monitoring of its weapons program in return for a lifting of sanctions.

But the United States and Great Britain, whose warplanes continue to bomb Iraq almost daily, will not accept that.

"We know we can't shoot down their planes," explained an Iraqi official. "They fly too high and too fast, but still we shoot at them. It is our way of saying we still resist."

So the trucks continue to cross Iraq's borders, unfettered. Businessmen come and go, striking deals. Malnourished infants and children still die at alarming rates. And the United States and the U.N. struggle to come up with a solution acceptable to Baghdad and all members of the Security Council.

At the corner of Mutanabbi and Qushla Street, just around the block from Sha'lan Zeidan Khalaf's piece of turf, is the Shabander coffee bar.

It was built in 1907 to house a printing press but was taken over in 1917 by the Shabander family, who began serving coffee and tea. Today it is the oldest coffee bar in Baghdad, frequented mostly by writers and historians.

I recently asked the waiter if Iraq's president ever stopped in.

"No," he replied, "but he did walk down Mutanabbi Street to look at the books."

"But why didn't he stop in here?" I asked. "It's such a historic place. Perhaps he couldn't afford the price of your tea."

The waiter and others within earshot doubled over with laughter.

Despite the hardships and repression, Iraqis still enjoy a good laugh. And that made me feel good as I left the coffee bar and headed down Mutanabbi Street.

A few yards down the street, a series of "Teach Yourself" books were displayed on a cardboard mat. The titles claimed the books could help you teach yourself many things.

There was "Teach Yourself -- The Slide Rule" and "Teach Yourself -- Stamp Collecting." I thought of one "Teach Yourself" book that was not in the series, but if it were, no one in Iraq would need to buy it. They already knew.

"Teach Yourself -- To Survive."

Robert Wiener led CNN's coverage in Baghdad for six months prior to and during the opening days of the Gulf War. He has made more than 30 trips to Iraq since 1991 and is author of "Live from Baghdad: Gathering News at Ground Zero."

RELATED STORIES: World News: Middle East In-Depth: Strike on Iraq

United Nations
   •U.N. Office of the Iraq Program
   •U.N. Special Commission
Iraq Net Information Network
CIA World Factbook 1999: Iraq

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