BAGHDAD (AFP) — Abdul Rahman still has shrapnel in his body from the bomb that devastated the renowned Mutanabi Street book market, but his concern right now is with reclaiming the area as Baghdad's centre of arts and culture.
"I hope they restore Mutanabi Street in keeping with its heritage because it is Iraq's intellectual face," Abdul Rahman, who lost a brother and son in the March 5 blast, told AFP inside his bookstore, one of the oldest in the market.
"The officials should imitate Rafiq Hariri who rebuilt central Beirut after the civil war according to modern standards but in keeping with its historic traditions," said the retired judge, referring to the assassinated Lebanese prime minister.
In early November, workers moved into Mutanabi Street after Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih laid the cornerstone for a 5.7 million dollar project to rebuild the market, which was once renowned throughout the Arab world.
Abdul Rahman said the restoration had come "too late". Business had fallen off drastically in the eight months since a suicide truck bomber blew up his vehicle, killing more than 30 people and wounding at least 60.
His own store was destroyed in the blast, killing his brother inside. His son, a lawyer, was killed when the specialist law library he ran nearby was also badly damaged. Abdul Rahman himself was injured and has undergone surgery in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt.
The attack quickly emptied the area of the writers, poets, artists and intellectuals who used to hang out in the cafes dotted among the rows of bookshops and libraries on the east bank of the Tigris. Opened in 1932 by King Faisal II, it was named after Arab poet Abu al-Taib al-Mutanabi.
Debris left by the horrifying explosion is still scattered across the streets, which have been sealed off to traffic to allow digging machines and pavers to start their work.
Many bookshops, some of which had their entire stocks burned in fires, have reopened, while CD vendors have joined sellers of academic textbooks in setting up small stalls on the sidewalks.
Al-Shabandar, the market's most famous cultural cafe, is still closed but artisans are hard at work restoring it, along with adjacent bookstores.
Booksellers struggling to get back on to their feet are still wary of displaying some political and religious books which may offend -- in case those behind the March bombing return to wreak further carnage.
"It is unwise to show some books lest they provoke this or that party or group," said Abdul Rahman, whose Al-Nahdhah bookstore is considered a heritage site by the culture ministry. He reopened it about three months ago after carrying out extensive and expensive repairs.
"But a bookstore is like pharmacy which sells all kinds of medicine. We are neutral," said the judge, whose black beard was long ago invaded by white hairs.
The security situation is better now, however, and booksellers are a little less fearful than they were in the years immediately following the 2003 US-led invasion.
"Many fundamentalist booksellers were eradicated... and a bookstore owner with family ties to Iran was killed when a suicide bomber attacked him," said Abdul Rahman, who suffers from diabetes brought on by the shock of the blast and the deaths of close relatives.
"Unidentified gunmen also killed a fellow bookstore owner in late 2006 when he was going home," he said.
Mustafa Mohammed, 27, had come to Mutanabi Street in search of wedding invitation cards but could not resist buying a book making the somewhat lofty promise, "Learn English in Seven Days."
"The security situation has improved; I was not able to come here just a few months ago," he said.
"But the improvement is relative -- I am now worried about my car which I had to leave in a distant car park because Mutanabi Street is closed to traffic," said Mohammed.
"Terrorism is really blind. This is evident by what happened in Mutanabi Street -- it targeted Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds," he added.
The owner of another wellknown bookstore, who would not be named, said there are still reasons to be fearful, despite boasts by Iraqi and US military commanders that Al-Qaeda has been virtually chased out of Baghdad.
"Fear still exists because no one is fully in charge of security," he said.
Memories continue to haunt him.
"I still remember when people dressed in the uniforms of the security forces, driving four-wheel-drive cars and using a security forces radio arrested the owner of Al-Qairawan bookstore last year.
"His body was found later," said the man, in front of piles of books on medicine, computers, art, novels, poetry, as well as historical tomes.
Abdul Rahman, while eagerly awaiting the completion of the street's renovations and the return of teeming crowds, is not looking forward to the coming winter.
The cold, doctors have warned him, will cause him to suffer. Doctors say the small bits of metal still buried in his arms and legs are going to be difficult to remove.
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