"It's an old disease in Iraq – people spend their money on books, not on food. Iraqi intellectuals are very poor because of it," our NBC News translator* said as he carried an armful of books into the office after a shoot at the Al Mutanabi book market.
"Your wife will kill you," I teased him, remembering how concerned he'd been after already spending a good proportion of his salary on books only the week before.
"I know, but I just couldn't help it. It's so fascinating there right now. I even saw some Harry Potter books," he joked. His face was flush with the unaccustomed exposure to sunlight after the months and years that he, like most Iraqis, spent being cooped up inside.
|AFP - Getty Images|
Iraqis shop for books as workers repair buildings that line Baghdad's Al-Mutanabi street on Nov.22.
As the security situation improves, our local staff seems increasingly hungry for action, volunteering to dash out all over the place. Our translator's love of books made him the natural choice to go and check the pulse of Baghdad's legendary Al Mutanabi book market (the area is still not safe enough for Western TV crews to wander around).
Book market – intellectual heart of the city
The book market has always been a favorite for international TV crews. In Saddam's days, it was the place of choice for thoughtful interviews and good English.While there, we'd often rummage through the fascinating array of new and second hand books.
Sometimes, amid the stock-in-trade Iraqi government propaganda, we'd come across a favorite old out-of-print paperback or a must have memento, like an elegantly illustrated book of Arab love poetry that I found one day.
|AFP - Getty Images|
|The formerly lively Al Mutanabi book market seen here in May 2006.|
After the fall of Saddam, the book market became a perfect place to test the ever-changing mood of the city. We would marvel at the quirky mix of all the new titles flooding in along with the technicolor posters of revered Shiite leaders, forbidden under the old regime.
But the insurgent attack on the book market in March that killed 38 people really ripped the heart out of Baghdad's intellectual and artistic soul.
Our translator had been there the week before and returned like a person transformed.
"I've had conversations there I haven't been able to have for years. It's just so free. It's brilliant," he beamed.
By the time he returned from the shoot, seven hours after we'd sent him out with a camera crew, our translator was so excited I decided not to ask what on earth he'd been doing all that time. Instead, I inquired about the pile of books now on his desk.
A flood of memories
"I bought two novels about dictatorship and torture in prisons in the Middle East and some other books on extremism and the changing political face of Iraq," he replied. Harry Potter was clearly not for him.
"The novels on torture are exactly the same ones I read after I was released from prison back in 1993, when I was only 17 years old," he said. "I found it really comforting back then to read how other people had been through the same thing as I had."
We'd never spoken about this before.
"So you were imprisoned and tortured?" I asked, tentatively.
"Oh yes, there were five of us who were arrested for a so-called coup against the government. It wasn't true of course. We were all kept in a dark, damp room dressed only in our underwear and chained to the wall. We were beaten regularly with thick cables, which hurt like hell, but don't leave scars."
Our translator says his friends didn't survive captivity – one committed suicide and the rest were hanged years after being arrested. He said that his friend's families only learned their fate when Iraqi authorities sent them a letter and asked them to pay for the rope they were hanged with.
"I was really lucky, though, and was released three weeks [after being arrested]. To this day, I still don't know why," he said.
He said he's suffered from the trauma of the experience, as well as survivor's guilt.
"I've tried and tried to write about it, but just can't," he said. "Yet books have been my escape."
Judging from the popularity of the long revered book market and the push to bring it back to life, it seems he is not alone and that many Iraqis look to books as an escape from the harsh reality of life.
* The names of local journalists are not used to protect their identity.