There was nowhere to buy books in Al Muthanna, Iraq when Nashwa Naser was growing up so now she is opening Ishtar Bookshop to fill the void.
There are many pressures pushing Nashwa Naim Naser to abandon her dream of opening a bookstore in Iraq. Financially, logistically and socially the barriers are considerable, not to mention opposition from her family – and being female in a place where very few women-run businesses. But after growing up with no bookstores in the impoverished Iraqi province of Al-Muthanna, she is determined to provide others with the access she lacked. “I have always loved reading, but whenever I wanted to buy a book it was a struggle. I either had to go to Baghdad or ask someone coming from a big city to bring it for me,” the 27-year-old says.
At university, she decided to help other students by purchasing volumes on demand. Her venture grew as fellow students flocked to buy books so she created an Instagram account, posting pictures and writing blurbs to market the volumes she ordered. The next step was to set up stalls at student events, selling her books from a physical space for the first time. Mostly, she says, it was female students who crowded around to browse and buy books, reinforcing her desire to establish a physical space.
“In this province, every place is for men, even cafes. There are no spaces for women to meet, have discussions and read books,” she says. Not only that, but having a proper shop will be an inspiration to other aspiring female entrepreneurs in the province. “It will also encourage parents to allow their daughters to gather in a place owned by another woman. Usually, parents don’t feel comfortable allowing their daughters to go out and mingle because it’s mostly guys outside,” she adds.
Finding the funds to secure space has been difficult. While friends and customers support the venture, there has been opposition at home. When Naser’s brother discovered she was selling books online, he went to her room and ripped them from the shelves. “He told me we don’t have women dealing with people outside and selling things,” she says.
Nor were Naser’s parents supportive. “They stopped fighting me when they saw how determined I was to do it,” she says. However, they won’t allow her to sell books from a market stall in the street. Instead, she has found space in a commercial compound, funded by an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders, which will cover rent and furnishing so she can host discussions and cultural events.
“Nashwa represents the energy for the new generation that is fed up with archaic and arbitrary rules of what women can and can not do. And she is doing it in the best way possible, with knowledge,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.
The space is small, but Naser has lined every wall with shelves, packing in books that cater to the diverse tastes of her readers, from philosophy and poetry to self-development and novels. “There are no taboos for me because I’m a reader and respect all kinds of books and authors, even those whose views I don’t support,” she says.
With the new Ishtar bookshop set to open this week, Naser is forging ahead with plans for the launch, regardless of criticism from some members of her community. “People ask me why I would want to open my own business. They say you’re a girl, you studied at university, go and find a job in a government position that’s more suitable. Why spend your money on something that may not work.”
For Naser though, it’s about more than building a career. “The thing that excites me most, aside from fulfilling a dream to have my own bookstore, is to provide access to books for people who love reading,” she says.
Iraq is a country of readers
As the popular saying goes, ‘Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes and Iraq reads,’ but Naser isn’t only targeting literary enthusiasts. She hopes that the cultural events and workshops she plans to host will reach some of those who don’t read and inspire a wider interest in books. “Reading can change the way people think, exposing them to new ideas and making them assess their thoughts and beliefs,” she says. “A person with radical ideologies might become more lenient and accepting of others, while people who don’t believe in rights for women might just see them in a different way.”