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Vol. 81/No. 19      May 15, 2017

(feature article)

100,000 visit international book fair in Kurdistan

As Kurdish parties call 2017 independence vote

ERBIL, Kurdish Region, Iraq — The 12th Erbil International Book Fair took place here April 5-15. More than 100,000 people from Kurdistan, the rest of Iraq, and elsewhere in the region visited the event, at which more than 200 publishers had booths to sell their books. Visitors included Kurds, Arabs, Iranians, Yazidis, Assyrians, and Turkmen, including refugees now living in the area from Syria, Mosul, and other battle-torn areas nearby.

Inaugurated by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the fair was a display of the growing numbers of books written or translated into Kurdish, as well as a chance for workers and youth to purchase titles in Arabic, English, Farsi and other languages. Publishers, most from the Middle East, also met here to make translation and distribution agreements.

Kurdish bands and dancers, as well as artists and performers from elsewhere in Iraq, added to the festive atmosphere.

Independence referendum

The cultural event opened less than a week after the KRG’s two main parties, Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, announced a joint call for a referendum in 2017 on Kurdish independence from Iraq. Governments and ruling classes across the region — from Baghdad to Ankara, Tehran to Damascus — condemned the planned vote. Meeting in Italy, the “G-7” alliance of Washington and other imperialist governments — the same regimes that have spearheaded Iraq’s brutal pulverization since 1991 — hypocritically called for its “unity and territorial integrity.”

The more than 30 million Kurdish people in the region are spread over parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and the Caucasus. They are the largest nationality in the world without their own country.

Since 2015 the Iraqi government has slashed the 17 percent of its budget due to the Kurdish region, on the pretext that the KRG sells oil directly on world markets instead of through Baghdad. In face of declining crude oil prices, spreading war and the global capitalist crisis, the KRG has cut wages and delayed payments to teachers and other government employees. Workers have organized strikes and other protests against both KRG and Iraqi government policies. Several teachers said they couldn’t buy as many books this year due to salary cuts.

Some 2 million refugees, mostly Syrians, also live in the region.

Less than two weeks before the fair opened, U.S. airstrikes killed nearly 300 residents of a neighborhood in nearby Mosul, some 50 miles east of here. The second day of the event, Washington sent 59 missiles against a Syrian government air base in northern Syria, killing both Syrian soldiers and civilians, including children. These developments were a topic of discussion, and often heated debate, over the 11 days.

Pathfinder booth

For the first time, Pathfinder Books of London participated in the fair. Although books in English were on sale at quite a few booths by bookstores from Kurdish cities such as Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, Pathfinder was one of a handful of exhibitors from outside the Middle East. Under the boot of the Saddam Hussein regime until the early 1990s, Kurds in Iraq were educated from childhood mainly in Arabic, not their own tongue. For the past quarter century, however, schools in the KRG teach in Kurdish, and the speaking and reading of English is rising as use of Arabic declines.

Among the some 200 titles Pathfinder had on display was communist and other revolutionary literature on politics, the class struggle and the labor movement in the United States and Europe; Malcolm X and the struggle for Black rights; Cuba’s socialist revolution; women’s emancipation; Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution; and much more.

Although Kurdish national confidence pervaded the fair, it was uncommon for visitors to the Pathfinder booth to start out by asking, “What do you have on Kurdistan?” Or, “Do you have any books about the Middle East?” Most were either attracted by the breadth of Pathfinder’s political titles, or were directed elsewhere in search of Ernest Hemingway or Agatha Christie novels, an English dictionary, or titles on science, computers or business.

Pathfinder’s best seller was Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? Class, Privilege, and Learning under Capitalism by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S.

That was followed by The Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record: Why Washington Fears Working People , also by Barnes; Is Socialist Revolution in the US Possible? A Necessary Debate Among Working People by SWP leader Mary-Alice Waters; and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Other titles that sold well included Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom by Cuban Gen. Harry Villegas (“Pombo”); Is Biology Woman’s Destiny? by Evelyn Reed (both in English and Arabic); Che Guevara Talks to Young People ; How Far We Slaves Have Come! by Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela; Lenin’s Final Fight by V.I. Lenin; and My Life by Leon Trotsky.

The Pathfinder booth also featured several shelves of translations of books into Farsi, a language widely read in Iran and Afghanistan. Some 45 Pathfinder titles have been translated into Farsi by the Tehran-based Talaye Porsoo, one of several publishers in Iran producing such translations.

During the book fair Pathfinder signed a license with Endese, a major publisher here of Middle Eastern and European literature, to translate 10 titles into Kurdish. The agreement includes books by Jack Barnes, Fidel Castro, Vilma Espín, Che Guevara, V.I. Lenin, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Mary-Alice Waters.

“We want to encourage reading,” explained Hazhar Majeed, owner of Endese, which has a large bookshop in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdish region’s second largest city, and a smaller store in Erbil. “So we hold festivals where writers can meet their readers and organize children’s activities. It is important for us to have relations with other publishers, especially from the U.S.”

Rwafaed, a publishing house based in Cairo, Egypt, has participated in the fair since 2007, except two years due to Islamic State and the war. “It’s been a very good book fair over the years,” said owner Islam Abd El Moady. “Apart from general sales, the KRG used to buy five copies of 20 titles for the schools.” This year, however, he and other exhibitors of books in Arabic said sales were down.

Rwafaed reached an agreement with Pathfinder to publish five of its titles in Arabic.

Political discussions

Discussions at the Pathfinder stand were wide ranging.

A journalism student visited the stand the first day and bought The Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record and three other books, following a discussion of the domestic and military policies of the two main U.S. capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans. “I always attend the book fair,” she later said. “I go the first hour it’s open, and then maybe four more times.” She came back to the stand several other days to buy more books, bringing others along with her.

“Just what they told me could happen is happening right now,” she told a friend, after Washington launched its air assault on Syria.

Another student picked up An Introduction to the Logic of Marxism by George Novack. “I’ve read about many philosophies but not Marxism. How is Marxism different?” he asked. A Pathfinder representative showed him a section from The Communist Manifesto explaining that the conclusions of Marxists aren’t a philosophy but “merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”

That’s different from Marxism as he’d heard it explained before, the student said, as he bought Novack’s book.

Another visitor identified himself as Yazidi, a religious minority among the Kurds who were massacred and dispossessed by Islamic State a few years ago and have faced persecution for centuries. Picking up The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon, he said, “I’m Yazidi, so you’ll understand why I’m interested in this title.”

A young man took four books on women’s liberation from the shelves. Ribbed by one of his buddies, “You’re not a woman,” he put one back and bought the other three. Advances in the fight for women’s equality is a point of pride among Kurds of both sexes.

Nearly 500 books in English, Farsi and a few in other languages were sold from the Pathfinder booth during the book fair.

Catharina Tirsén represented Pathfinder Books of London at the book fair.  
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