Eager Iraqi readers struggle for access to books

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Iraqis are book lovers. So much so that there's a saying in the Arab world: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Iraq reads. But lately it's been hard for Iraqis to lay their hands on the books that they crave.

Reporting from Iraq for McClatchy Newspapers, Corinne Reilly writes that throughout Iraq, "Libraries and schools are understocked, and many bookstores are closed.... College-level texts, books on specialized subjects and recent editions are the hardest to come by. Most elementary and high school students use decades-old materials."

"You could say we are starving for textbooks," May Youssef Saour, a microbiology professor at Baghdad University's al-Kindy College of Medicine, told Reilly.

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Apparently the problem is not just the result of the recent years of fighting in Iraq. According to Reilly, access to books began to drop off under Saddam Hussein. Although his regime offered free education to all Iraqis, it also banned certain books. Then, after Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, sanctions slowed the flow of new books into Iraq.

The growing poverty of the 1990s further limited access to books for many Iraqis. Government funding for education also dropped.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, looting and violence have destroyed library collections and caused booksellers to shut their shops.

More recently, however, bookstores have begun to reappear. "Some of the shops and companies have come back," Alaa Makki, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker told Reilly. "But not enough."

The government has also begun to sponsor book fairs. Ahmed Basim, a local bookshop owner, helped to organize one of the fairs. "It's true it may be hard to find academic books in Iraq," he told Reilly, "but the Iraqi reader is still an educated reader. So they appreciate this fair. They long for these books."

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