A Tale of Two Book Markets: Baghdad & Kolkata

Hey everyone, I’m back with another post about my travels in Iraq. This time, I want to share with you my experience of visiting Al Mutanabbi Street, the famous cultural hub of Baghdad.

Books are an ocean of knowledge; books are a companion for life.

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.

Charles William Eliot

Al Mutanabbi Street is named after the 10th-century poet who was born in Iraq and is considered one of the greatest Arab poets of all time. The street is lined with bookshops, cafes, and art galleries, and has been a meeting place for intellectuals, writers, and artists for centuries. It is also a symbol of resilience and hope, as it has survived wars, sanctions, and bombings.

Al-Mutanabbi Street lies at the heart of old Baghdad, between al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad’s other major artery, and the Eastern bank of the Tigris River. It was founded in the 10th century when Baghdad evolved during the Abbasid period as the largest city. At the time it carried an Aramaic name, Darb Zakha (Zakha alley), and housed shops, outdoor stalls of scribes, booksellers, and stationery vendors as it does today. Baghdad was the first UNESCO City of Literature in Asia.

The street’s name change to Jaddat Ali Basha (Ali Basha’s Avenue) when the Ottomans occupied the area and housed the military headquarters there. When the country came under the British rule, the street bore the name of Souq al-Saray (al-Saray Market), which is still the name of a famous adjacent stationary market today.

The current name was acquired in the 1930s when King Faisal, the first king of Iraq, decided to choose more culturally and historically laden names for the major streets in Iraq. The old street acquired the famous Abbasid poet’s name, which it still bears today: al-Mutanabbi.

The statue of the famous Arab poet Al Mutanabbi on the bank of Tigris River
The statue of the famous Arab poet Al Mutanabbi on the bank of Tigris River

Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University says that when the Abbasid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the 8th century, the district surrounding Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops.

The Archgate at Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad
The Archgate at Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad

The old Arabic proverb “Egyptians write, Lebanese publish, Iraqis read” was especially true until the end of the 1980s, when literacy rates were higher than in some American states. Iraq’s public education system was the pride of the Arab world. Name the book you’re looking for and it’s said that you will find it in one of the tens of bookstores lining this fa­mous cultural avenue in the heart of Baghdad.

In the title story, “Bookless in Baghdad”, Shashi Tharoor writes about his experience when he visits Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad on a United Nations initiative soon after the Gulf War.

One of the most tragic events that happened on Al Mutanabbi Street was the car bomb attack in 2007, which killed more than 30 people and destroyed many buildings and books. The attack sparked a global movement of solidarity and support for the street and its people, with artists, poets, and activists creating works inspired by Al Mutanabbi Street and donating books to rebuild the libraries.

I visited Al Mutanabbi Street on a Friday morning, which is the busiest day of the week. The street was buzzing with life and energy, with people browsing through books, drinking tea, and chatting with each other. I felt a sense of awe and admiration for the people who have preserved their culture and identity despite all the hardships they have faced. I also felt a sense of sadness and anger for the senseless violence that has robbed them of so much.


The books are generally in Arabic language and it is difficult to find books in English. I looked at a few books from one of the vendors, who told me stories about his life and his love for books. He said that books are his friends and his teachers and that he hopes to pass on his passion to his children. He also said that he hopes that one day, peace will return to Iraq and that Al Mutanabbi Street will be a place of joy and celebration for everyone.


Mutanabbi Street has always been a hotbed of dissent. Under the long leadership of Saddam Hussein, anti-government cells published and sold illegal copies of their tracts here under fake names.


There is an Ottoman castle on Mutanabbi Street. The Ottoman Castle of Baghdad was built in the nineteenth century. The castle is known as “Qishla,” meaning fortified site, or more accurately, a military defense building. Having been half destroyed, the Iraqi government has progressed with the structure’s restoration. The initial planning concept incorporated the restoration of the clock tower, now visible from many points within the old city. Later restoration efforts in the surrounding area included its gardens, antique markets, and significant cultural events.

Book reading in the garden of the Ottoman castle a.k.a. Qishla
Garden at the Ottoman Castle
Old horse cart at Qisla, Baghdad
An old horse cart at the Ottoman castle (Qishla)
Antique center at Qisla, Baghdad
Antique market at Qishla
An artist drawing at a corner in the Qishla

Shabandar Cafe was opened in 1917, at the beginning of the British occupation of Baghdad. From British rule to modern-day Iraq, the cafe has lived through the birth of a nation, the toppling of its monarchy, decades of domination by Saddam Hussein, the drama of the US-led invasion and the bloody chaos that followed.

shahbandar cafe
Century-old Shabandar Cafe at Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad

Shahbandar Cafe is a cozy and welcoming place, where you can enjoy a cup of lemon tea and a shisha pipe, while surrounded by photos of famous figures from Iraq’s past and present.

Inside Shahbandar Cafe, Baghdad
Inside Shahbandar Cafe, Baghdad

Shahbandar Cafe is not just a place to relax and have a drink, it is also a place where ideas are exchanged and debated. For decades, the cafe has been a hub for writers, poets, journalists, politicians, and activists, who come here to discuss the society, politics, philosophy, cinema, poetry and arts of Iraq and beyond. The cafe has witnessed many historical events and changes in the country, and it has also been a source of inspiration and creativity for many artists.

I left Al Mutanabbi Street feeling inspired and humbled by the people I met and the things I saw. I think that Al Mutanabbi Street is not just a street, but a state of mind. It is a place where people come together to share their ideas, their dreams, and their hopes. It is a place where people resist oppression and violence with creativity and courage. It is a place where people honour their past and look forward to their future.

If you ever have a chance to visit Iraq, I highly recommend you visit Al-Mutanabbi Street. You will not regret it. After visiting Al-Mutanabbi Street, I remembered the famous College Street in Kolkata.


College Street is an eminent center of Kolkata’s literary crowd. Its name derives from the presence of many colleges and educational institutions, including Presidency University (established in 1817), the University of Calcutta (established in 1857), Medical College & Hospital (established in 1857), Sanskrit College (established in 1824). This book market is regarded as the Mecca of students who are either in search of a lost edition of an academic bestseller or want a new book that has just released. It’s hard to come out of the market empty-handed.


The College Street is most famous for its small and big bookstores, which gives it the nickname বই পাড়া (Boi Para) or “Neighbourhood of Books”. The street is also dotted with countless very small book kiosks which sell new and old books.

… a half-mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over onto the pavement, carrying first editions, pamphlets, paperbacks in every Indian language, with more than a fair smattering of books in and out of print from France, Germany, Russia and England.

An article in the journal Smithsonian described College Street

According to Wikipedia, it is the largest second-hand book market in the world and the largest book market in India and collectively boasts of a collection of almost any title ever sold at Kolkata.

Kolkata Boi-Para
Kolkata Boi Para

In 2007, College Street featured among the famous landmarks of India which have made it to Time Magazine’s “Best of Asia” list. The magazine has mentioned:

Thriving beside the rusted tram tracks of College Street in north Kolkata is the boi para, or “neighborhood of books,” offering the largest mass of secondhand volumes in Asia. Generations of Kolkata’s famous writers and revolutionaries have come of age amid its chaos.

Time Magazine
Bookstalls at College Street in Kolkata
Bookstalls at College Street in Kolkata

The Indian Coffee House, popularly known as Coffee House, on the College Street is a favourite hang-out place among the students, youth, scholars, editors, artists, and writers. It has been the rendezvous place of many illustrious and notable personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen, NK Roy Choudhury, and the list goes on. Many talented geniuses have penned down pieces of lyrics, poems, story scripts or exchanged brimming ideas related to the world of art and culture in this cafeteria.


In 1883, the first session of the Indian National Conference was held at the prestigious Albert Hall of College Street that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. College Street has been the hub of Political meetings since 1930s and is witness to many historical political congregations led by iconic Indian leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. College Street has also witnessed the beginning of the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal.

Bookstalls at College Street in Kolkata
Bookstalls at College Street in Kolkata

Although far apart, Mutanabbi Street and College Street have striking similarities — some crowd bookstalls on the street, some discuss idealism, some dream revolution; others watch poets reciting to their friends as they sip tea in a coffeehouse.

27 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Book Markets: Baghdad & Kolkata

  1. Far apart, but Mutanaabi and College street share similar vibes. The name ‘Baghdad’ somehow reminds me of Arabian Nights… ছোটবেলায় পড়া সেই আরব্য রজনীর গল্প আর সেই বাগ্‌দাদের খলিফা… 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. সেই শৈশবের শোনা কতো রূপকথা,
      উপকথা ভেবে যখন এলাম বাগদাদ শহরে
      মন যেন খুঁজছিল আলিবাবা, মর্জিনা,
      সিন্দবাদকে মানুষের ভিড়ে।
      হারুন রশিদের রাজসভা ধুলোয়ে মিশে গেছে,
      তার পরিবর্তে আছে সাদ্দামের মহল।
      সাদ্দাম তখন নেই, তার স্বৈরাচারী রাজত্ব শেষ,
      তার মহলে তখন মার্কিনের কবল।
      স্বপ্নে ঘেরা, কল্পনায় ভরা সেই বাগদাদ শহর
      আর নেই, তছনছ করে দিয়েছে উগ্রবাদী লস্কর।

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The rich Egyptian civilization is evident in the streets of Baghdad. Kolkata has always been a book paradise and we have a street called Avenue street here in Bengaluru that sells all kinds of books!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great to read a description of Baghdad that is so different from the common, conflict-driven images created in our minds. We often forget that Baghdad is also populated by ordinary people with ordinary dreams and ambitions like most of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Shahbandar Café | A century-old café in Baghdad – INDROSPHERE

  5. Kaustuv Seal

    A society that reads is a progressive society. Hope all the best for them.
    And yes, narratives change -through an exchange of information -like the way u r doing. Even earlier today, I hardly knew that there is some street in Baghdad that can b equated with our very own College Street.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kaustuv Seal

    Thanks for sharing. Never knew Iraqi ppl were so literate. Thanks for introducing me to the proverb “Egyptians write, Lebanese publish & Iraqis read “.
    Good to learn that even after the Americans messed up, Iraqi ppl were interested to get back to their reading habits.

    Liked by 1 person

Please add a comment if you enjoyed this post.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s