The heroism of everyday life in Baghdad
- 4 May 2014
- From the section Magazine
More than 1,000 people were killed in Iraq in April, making it one of the bloodiest months for years. Despite this, Iraqis went to the polls in large numbers, which the BBC's Kevin Connolly describes as nothing less than heroic. He's also impressed by those who make sure ordinary life continues.
The book market in downtown Baghdad is a joyful testament to the durability of the human spirit. The sellers spread their wares out like carpets of all the world's learning stretching from the covered walkways out into the middle of the pedestrianised street.
It's an odd selection. There's a copy of Practical Electronics from the pre-transistor age, a Handbook of Civil Engineering that would take two people to lift it up and a book with a picture of the tough but tragic French boxer, Marcel Cerdan, on the cover. He was the one who dated Edith Piaf and died in a plane crash.
On more than one stall you find stacks of Mein Kampf in Arabic which you can interpret in one of two ways. Adolf Hitler either has a disturbingly big print run in these parts - since there are a lot of them - or gratifyingly low sales, since they're still there.
There are also a couple of copies of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's autobiography. The agent who handled his Middle Eastern sales in Arabic must have been quite a negotiator.
There are more browsers than buyers in truth although I picked up a couple of things myself and was quite tempted by what looked like the Arabic version of an American self-help book called with engaging directness Don't Be Sad.
I think the English original might have had a slightly more inspirational title.
On your way into the street you pass through a four-man police checkpoint in which the first officer has the grim job of searching people to make sure they're not wearing a suicide bomber's vest.
The first one he finds, of course, will be the last thing he ever finds. And yet he sets about the task with a kind of brusque courtesy which is rather impressive in the circumstances.
In this baking, dusty, chaotic, friendly city no-warning bomb attacks have become so commonplace they barely move the needle on the dial of international attention.
When you're out and about there's a curious feeling that sits somewhere near the back of your mind like a tune that you can't quite remember and can't quite get out of your head.
It's not fear exactly, more a heightened awareness of how fragile the bonds are that bind us to life and how easily they are broken. It's why we look before stepping into the road. But for Iraqis it seems painfully close to the surface of thought and never seems to leave for a moment.
Nearly 8,000 civilians died here last year mainly in suicide bombings or other sorts of no-warning attacks that grind down ordinary people's ability to lead ordinary lives.
That's getting on for three times the number of people who died on 9/11 and more than double the total number of deaths in the long agony of Northern Ireland's modern troubles.
Think for a moment of the devastation and despair left in the wake of the Omagh bombing which killed 29 people in 1998 - how we live with the political, emotional and legal fallout from it to this day.
In the last few days alone in Iraq there have been two bomb attacks that killed more people than Omagh. All those lives lost and the lives beyond them broken beyond repair.
I've no idea if the Baghdad book market might ever be a target, and nor do the people who go there every week.
A truck-load of explosives was detonated outside the local tea house a few years ago killing dozens of people but that's no reason to believe it won't happen again. Or that it will. It's the uncertainty that eats at everyone's nerves.
Iraqis are voting in the first parliamentary elections since US forces left in 2011 but no solution seems to be available in these elections - Iraq is drifting dangerously in the uncertain waters of the Middle East.
Shia fighters leave here to fight for Bashar al-Assad in Syria but then Sunni fighters come from elsewhere in the Middle East to join the insurgency against Iraq's Shia government in Anbar province.
In theory the bomb attacks support that insurgency here but in truth the motive seems to be sectarian hatred and the target daily life itself, in coffee shops, markets and cafes.
It makes places like the Baghdad book market a pretty special kind of place.
The buyers and the sellers and the saunterers and schmoozers don't look like they're doing anything exceptional. But there is a kind of heroism to be found in ordinary things done in extraordinary circumstances.
Not the kind that wins medals perhaps but the kind of fatalistic ability to endure that gets you through the day - Londoners must have known it during the Blitz.
Iraq is the kind of place that makes a mockery of optimism; but in the ability of its people to simply keep going there is reason for hope.
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