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Najaf, Karbala, Kufa — Bookstore Itinerary

Author: Mehdi Ali

PhD Candidate in Religion, University of Southern California

As an avid book collector, I am often asked why I bother to pay money for books when most texts can be easily found for free online. Or, if my interlocutor is less kind, the conversation usually consists of me being told that buying books is completely antiquated. This was the reaction I received from a lot of people when I told them that I was making the journey to Najaf, Iraq, to spend time exploring its centuries-old book market.

For those who love books, however, we know that purchasing a hard copy of a book is about so much more than just obtaining the necessary information from a text. Knowledge cannot be reduced to a rote transfer of facts or data from the screen to one’s mind. The experience of searching for a book, or perhaps even coming across a title while browsing for something else, is part of the serendipity that makes book-buying so deeply satisfying. There is also something to be said about being able to flip through the pages of a book at a moment’s notice, or to look at a bookshelf in order to seek inspiration. And of course, it is truly awe-inspiring to see the fruit of someone’s years of toiling and labor manifested in physical form in your hands.

Najaf

Although Najaf is widely known to be a center of Shi‘i scholarship, I did not truly understand the extent to which it is a city of scholars. One of the most beautiful things about spending time in Najaf was seeing the sheer number and diversity of people who frequented bookshops. Walk into any bookshop in Najaf and you might find a seminary student inquiring about a philosophical text, or a cleric asking about a commentary on an important legal work, or a pilgrim looking for a book of supplications, or a Westerner like me, overwhelmed by the tremendous respect for and love of books displayed by the people who come here. After having spent eleven days in Najaf, I often catch myself day-dreaming about walking the narrow streets, greeting the booksellers I came to know by name, and browsing through the tightly stacked shelves with beautiful Arabic hardcovers.

In Najaf, one cannot help but feel a deep appreciation for the city’s erudite book culture. In the United States, bookstores like Barnes & Noble are commercial spaces, usually attached to a shopping mall, where people gather to grab a coffee, buy board games or arts & crafts, and look at the latest magazines. Although books are available, scholarly works are very limited (and I will not even begin to describe the travesties that are typically found in the “Islam” section). Najaf, on the other hand, is a city of books where no scholar will be disappointed.


Suq al-Huwaysh

Any conversation about books in Najaf must begin with Suq al-Huwaysh. This is the city’s famous book market, consisting of about two-dozen bookshops, that is located directly across from Imam Ali Masjid in Najaf. I had the pleasure of visiting during Ramadan, which meant that the market was buzzing with people until the late hours of the night. The market consists of one main street with the majority of bookshops, and a handful of side streets that are easy to miss, but absolutely must be explored. All of the bookshop owners know each other, and will sometimes even tell you to go to a neighboring shop to find a title that they may not have in stock.

One note of caution/apology in advance: I did not note down the names of some of the shops in Huwaysh. However, because all of the shops are within a stone’s throw of each other, they can be easily identified/found by the pictures I have taken, or the names of the owners. I should also note that I have only written about a handful of the shops in Huwaysh. There are many more stores I did not mention, but which should definitely be explored.


Books left outside

Perhaps the most striking part of Suq al-Huwaysh is the collection of books that are left outside. The store is apparently the stack of books itself, with no structure within which to house the books. There is usually no one there supervising the books, meaning that theoretically anybody could swipe a book without any consequences. And yet, as one bookseller in Baghdad noted regarding the phenomenon of leaving books outside, the books are left unsupervised because “thieves don’t read and readers don’t steal.”

I couldn’t figure out the name of the shop, but if you walk down the market even a little bit, you cannot miss this place. The selection of titles is fantastic, including interesting titles relating to the modern religious seminary (known as the hawza) and its connection to Iraqi politics. Unfortunately, whenever I wanted to buy something, there was nobody there to sell books. And when I finally saw someone there, I forgot the title of the book I wanted!


Fouad’s Bookshop

This extremely tiny shop has almost any religious and/or legal book that a student might be interested in. I don’t remember the exact name of the shop, but it is run by Fouad, the gentleman on the left in the picture. I bought some seminary textbooks from his shop, including Muhammad Rida al-Muzaffar’s seminal textbook on logic. Fouad also spent some time telling me what books are popular among seminary students. Again, like almost every other bookshop on the main street, this one is impossible to miss. It will be on your right side once you walk a couple of minutes down the main street in Huwaysh.


Photocopy Shop

This small store is not a bookshop per se. It offers various photocopying/stationery services. Interestingly, the shop has made available study guides for various difficult texts that are required reading for examinations taken by seminary students. These are relatively cheap (about 2,000 Iraqi dinars, or $1.50) and lightweight because they have been bound manually by the shop, rather than being sold in the form of a hardcover book. I bought a few of these study guides, including one for the famously difficult book of commercial transactions called “Al-Makasib” to aid me as I read through legal texts as part of my dissertation research.

Dar al-Ghadeer

This is the bookshop where I spent the majority of my time. The bookstore is run by Haider al-Jabir, and his brother, Abu Mahdi. Haider spent a lot of time suggesting and locating a variety of legal and philosophical texts for me. I loved spending time here because, as Haider himself said, the bookshop is almost a personal endeavor, rather than a corporatized business. As such, even though there are perhaps less books here than some of the other stores, the experience of buying from here is pure joy. Haider was able to find some books (by going to other shops) for me that I didn’t know where to get, and he also recommended several books that will be important for my own PhD research. By the end of my stay in Najaf, I would just wander over to the bookshop to sit down and have a chat with Haider. In addition to buying several books and commentaries in the genre of principles of jurisprudence, I also found in this store a rare edition of a commentary on Ibn Arabi’s Fusus al-Hikam by Dawud al-Qaysari.


Dar al-Baqir

This is the only bookshop in Huwaysh where I came out a bit disappointed. The store itself is huge, and the selection is fantastic. Among many interesting titles was a nine-volume commentary on Sahih Muslim, which I did not expect to find in a Shi‘ center of learning. For all the interesting books to be found in the bookshop, however, I was disappointed because I felt like the person selling the books took undue advantage of me. I bought two sets of books from him: One was a five-volume commentary of Kifayat al-Usul (an important advanced seminary textbook in Usul al-Fiqh), and the other was a four-volume set of lectures on theology. The owner charged me a price that I know was at least double what I would have paid anywhere else. However, I have two personal rules when I visit bookshops in foreign countries: Firstly, I like to give my business to the store where I found the book I’m interested in. I feel like this is fair and also necessary in today’s age where independent bookshops are going out of business. Secondly, I never negotiate, because as an American, the price difference is, for all intents and purposes, usually negligible, whereas for the bookseller, it might be a meaningful amount of money. So I bought the books without complaining. However, I don’t think I will be going back there anytime soon.


Ma‘rid al-Kitab al-Da’im

This is another wonderful bookstore in Najaf, although it is not located in Suq al-Huwaysh. I was not able to figure out if it is a chain of some sort, as there was one location within the mosque area itself. However, the location where I bought a lot of books was near Shari‘ al-Rasul, close to the office of Shaykh al-Fayadh. It was a new location with a very rich selection of books. Especially important for me was the fact that the books were arranged by genre, and were easily viewable. While many of the bookshops I went to had a huge selection of books, it was sometimes difficult to look at all of them. The limitation was almost always due to space. Sometimes books were stored in a back room or closet; other times they were stacked so high that they could only be accessed with a ladder; or, if the books were all available for viewing, they were often not categorized according to genre. So, in this respect, I really appreciated this bookstore, which made it easy to find interesting new titles. I bought about about 50 hardcover books from here, and spent a grand total of approximately $250. I am most excited to read a six-volume history of the city of Najaf. My hotel was about a 15 minute walk from this store, so I was able to have the books delivered to me for 5,000 Iraqi Dinars (a little over $3).

I should also note that the guys who work here are awesome. I had a really fun time chatting with them. They also offered me the best cantaloupe I have ever had.



Dar al-Badhra

This is another bookstore that is outside of Huwaysh. While smaller than the prior bookshop, it is one of the most well respected bookshops in the city. Several students and scholars that I met told me that this bookshop has titles that sometimes are not found even in Huwaysh. I should also mention that the prices are very fair. I wanted to buy a book on the logical foundations of induction from here, but unfortunately I had already bought too many other books.

This bookshop is located on Shari‘ al-Rasul, just a few steps away from a Pakistani restaurant that serves amazing tea.

Karbala

Mu’assasa al-Thaqlayn

This bookshop is in Karbala, not Najaf, but I wanted to bring attention to it as it has a phenomenal variety of books. Like the prior bookshop, I was pleasantly surprised here because books are arranged according to genre. I spotted a dictionary of technical terms here, which made me realize that this is one thing that has been lacking in my Arabic education. Usually when I want to translate a technical term, I try to figure it out via context or by asking a teacher. However, there are dozens of books available that define technical terms (the definitions are in Arabic of course) in various genres. The bookshop owner was kind enough to find all of the dictionaries he had for me, and he also went to a neighboring bookstore and got several more dictionaries for me. I think this was another place where I was over-charged a bit, but as I said earlier, ultimately the dollar amount was not particularly high, so I didn’t make a fuss about it.



Dar wa Maktaba Ibn al-Fahd al-Hilli


This is another bookshop in Karbala which is very close to the prior bookshop. The selection is a bit smaller and less organized, but there were some unique titles here that were available and quite cheap. Note: Both this bookshop and Mu’assasa al-Thaqlayn are located nearby Anjuman-e-Faiz-e-Panjetani Hotel.



There was also a bookstore attached to each of the main shrines in the city (Imam Hussain and Abbas Ibn Ali). The stores were quite small and crowded, however, so I didn’t spend much time there. Although I am happy to report that one local Iraqi woman thought I was the owner and started asking me questions about a book!


Kufa


Mu’assasa Masjid al-Sahla


This bookstore is run by an organization affiliated with Masjid al-Sahla in Kufa. It has a fantastic selection of titles, many of which are focused specifically on certain supplications associated with this mosque. One of the features I loved about this place is that it is a huge open space, so I could take my time browsing without feeling like I was impinging on anyone’s space. This is also one of the few stores that I believe is not owned by a private seller, so there was a bit of a different feel to the book-buying experience. The gentlemen who sold the books were very kind. I was able to buy a history of the City of Kufa during the time of Imam Ali.




My experience in Kufa was fascinating. I had been told by a fellow friend and PhD colleague that there are some great bookstores in Kufa. However, I spent two hours walking around the city, asking various shop-owners about where I can find religious books. I was almost always told that either, (1) there were no bookshops in Kufa, (2) there are no religious books that are sold in Kufa, or (3) that I need to go to Najaf.


Thankfully, none of these things were true, although unfortunately, due to the fact that I was in Kufa only for an afternoon, I did not get a chance to explore much more. There was one bookshop attached to Masjid al-Kufa, but unfortunately it was closed for a break when I went there.


Some Concluding Thoughts


I spent the majority of my time in Najaf exploring bookshops. I think the biggest conclusion I have come to is that I have only begun to touch the surface. My understanding is that Baghdad, and especially the famed al-Mutanabbi street, is a treasure trove of its own. There are also more bookshops I would love to explore in Kufa, Karbala, Hilla, and other cities.


All in all, I purchased about 150 kilograms of books (approximately 330 pounds). It was truly an adventure getting these back home. I had to throw away all of my underwear, socks, sweatshirts, and even some new clothes I had bought in Iraq to make things fit! I still had to pay fees for additional luggage, and, as luck would have it, the airport in Najaf did not accept credit cards, and all three ATM machines were out of order. Somehow, however, I was able to borrow cash from a friend in the nick of time, and my books arrived safe and sound :).


I hope to go back to Iraq later this year, and if/when I do, I will definitely write a second part to this bookshop itinerary.

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