A Stroll Through The Old Market In Baghdad

The market district in Old Baghdad is packed. People flow past vendors set up on sidewalks and then into the labrynthine covered market. Some are doing their weekend errands. Some are just shmying around and hanging out with friends. It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in mid-March, all blue skies and air that’s warm rather than hot. 

Saturday is the second day of the weekend in most Muslim countries, as Friday, al-jummah, is the first day of the weekend and Sunday is the first day of the work week. Arabic for Sunday is, الأحد (al-aHad), aHad being a version of the word for “one.” 

The maze-like old market is one that you might imagine wandering through in a city such as Baghdad. There’s a swath of leather vendors selling wallets and belts in various shades of brown. A long row of shop after shop selling art supplies. Some of these have a full floor to ceiling wall of pencils stacked together in different outer colors so that it creates both a wall of color but also it’s got the graphite in the exact cener of each color circle. 

Vendors selling colorful, modest women’s dresses. A few shops down, vendors sell pastel shades of lacy lingerie. Shops that sell dried fruit and nuts, including what I’d call fruit rollups, but fatter and fresher. The red one I buy tastes like a combo of raspberry and cranberry flavor and I have no idea what it actually is other than tasty and sticky. 

We turn into the copper market row. The shops overflow with gleaming hand-made goods. The government subsidizes these artisan-shop owners so they will choose to continue their centuries-old craft. Why is this necessary? Importing cheap, plastic goods that folks buy for daily use has become more profitable than making labor-intensive, beautiful copper accouterment. 

We pause at an artisan’s shop, filled with goods such as a set of copper tea cups encircling a copper tea pot on a copper tray. Serving platters hang on the walls next to home decorations and elaborate staffs used during festivals. 

Ali tell us about the traditional way these goods are made as we watch the shop owner in the throes of creation. Squat down on the floor he whacks his strong mallet against the copper to shape it – clang ClannnnG CLAaaaang CLANG CLANG. I crouch down to take a video while the others look through his wares and choose what to take buy for their homes. 

There are people with their stuff set out on the sidewalk and the street. Each street or corridor of this market area is dedicated to a certain type of good. The first area we walk along is called Al-Mutanabbi Street, named for the great Abbasid-era poet. Especially before all the conflict, although it is coming back, intellectuals, creatives, artists, poets would gather in living rooms and cafes and read poetry to each other and discuss literature and philosophy. I know there are stores fronts as well, but we’re walking in the center of the street, as one does, and the book offerings cascade towards me enticingly, even if they’re all in Arabic. The novels and win-in-business books feel more exciting to me because they’re filled with Arabic. I see a copy of Anne of Green Gables, drawn on the cover iconically with her red curly hair, straw hat, blue eyes, and, in the background, a white farmhouse with… green gables. 

Ali shares the history and the aquifer of poetic/literary/intellectual energy flow in this section. Al-Mutanabbi, an Abbasid (a ruling dynasty) era poet. The poet’s given name was Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Ju’fi, but he’s known by the epithet al-Mutanabbi (The One Who Claimed Prophethood), which speaks to his poetic greatness and the reverence people had (and still have) for him. 

I tell one of my companions not to let me too near the books because I will not be able to control myself and I will buy at least one to take home, which I almost always do when I travel. Like the National Geographic issue in Serbian I have sitting contentedly in my storage unit. It makes me happy just knowing it’s there, and who knows – maybe one day I’ll be able to read it (slowly, but that’s fine!) 

As we continue I notice many booksellers have this copy of Anne and after the third one my stride slows and I edge closer to pick it up. Just to see the plastic-wrapped jewel up close, feel its paperback weight in my hand. Noor, the photographer documenting the trip for us (and soon to be good friend), asks if I want to buy a copy. I bashfully say no, but that I’m just curious how much it is if I were interested. It’s 5000 Iraqi dinar. Aka $3.82 USD. I hem and haw for all of 34 seconds and say, “ahhhhh…. YES I do want this!” 

There’s been no time since arriving to convert my US dollars to dinar, so Noor fronts me the cash, handing it to the bookseller. I am beaming and giddy because I get to keep this book from this Bagdadi street vendor in this famous book market steeped with centuries of artistic and intellectual discourse AND it’s filled with the Arabic words comprising my favorite book that maybe one day I’ll be able to read (slowly). 

We hustle back to the group who, now on day two, are already used to me being the straggler pulling up the rear. 

Mary asks, “did you get the book?” 

I reply, “YES!” 

I show her my prize and we ooh and ah over it. Some of the others come over and add to the oohing and ahing. I love this group of humans. We’re cut from the same cloth. We are, each one of us, deeply interested in every little detail we see around us, and love talking to locals/connecting with whoever is nearby, asking such interesting and insightful questions along the way. We travel to see the world with open eyes. People who have shaken off the dust and travel awake, fascinated, and compassionate. We are immediately a tightknit group and easily shuffle from person to person as we walk along or find our places on the bus or sit down for lunch. 

We stop for lunch and our next planned stop is a boat ride on the Tigris River. Yes, that Tigris River. We walk back down Al-Mutanabbi Street towards the river bank. Lots of people mill around the dock and wait in line for a leisurely boat ride. There are groups of friends, families with small kids, couples. If a group pays extra, they can take a private boat tour, which is located on the left side of the dock. We walk left and some of our group express concern for two big dogs tied up with rope under the shade of a small pedestrian bridge. They’re napping in round holes they’ve dug out next to their water bowls. It’s sunny out and pretty darn warm. Would they have preferred to be inside? Maybe. Have they ever been inside? I don’t know. Does it seem like they are owned and taken care of? I would say yes. 

We queue up and gingerly step down into the private (although not exactly yacht-level) boat. And since I’m trying to get something (aka this post) shipped I am going to leave that story for another time.

5 thoughts on “A Stroll Through The Old Market In Baghdad”

  1. Evocative and enticing. I would like to see this market someday—and now I feel I already have. Love the photos and especially the video clip.

  2. Julie, I must concur with Mary, I recall every detail you mention just as if we were there yesterday. You have a lovely gift.

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