In a nook of the library at Baghdad University, sturdy histories of the American Revolution and the Vietnam War line up next to Alexis de Tocqueville and John Updike. Paperbacks from Tom Clancy and Michael Connelly, even Judy Blume, dangle guilty pleasures. And, as if to close the loop on Americana, baseball makes a token appearance with a copy of “Farm Team,” a novel about a boy who builds a ball field in a cow pasture.
Yet, the readers never come.
On a recent morning, this section was empty, as it is most days. As far as Kamal Yunis, a research librarian who oversees what is formally called the American Corner, can tell, no student has ever opened one of the books. The collection was assembled by the American Embassy here and is an example, writ small, of the sort of cultural programs — “soft power,” in the diplomatic nomenclature — that the State Department will emphasize after the last troops leave. Even in this arena of cultural and educational links, United States diplomats say they hope to gain leverage over Iran — whose political influence here is vast and likely to grow after the departure of the American military — by steering more students and academics toward American ideas and, hopefully, more opportunities to study in the United States.
Like nearly every American pursuit here, a battle of ideas will be difficult to win given deep suspicions toward the United States and the shattered civil society that is only slowly re-emerging. Iraq’s losses from war, tyranny and sanctions can be tabulated in physical terms, in lives and property, and in soulful shades, in identity and peace of mind. Less momentously, on the same ledger, sit the cultural losses of reading and academic striving.
“In our society, there is a great disconnect between people and books,” Mr. Yunis said, explaining the absence of students in the American Corner. “They are not used to reading in Arabic, much less English.”
It was not always so. A famous and old Arabic phrase, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads,” evokes the literary culture that flourished here before it was snuffed out by a government that left little space for individual expression and, eventually, little money for scholarly pursuits.
Over the summer, the Ministry of Culture held a book fair in a drab industrial park in the center of the city, its first since the 1980s. Book publishers arrived from around the Middle East, some old enough to remember when Baghdad was a beacon of Arab intellectualism. “I’m looking for distributors all over Iraq,” said Wafic Wehbi, the chief executive of Madarek, a publisher based in Beirut, Lebanon, in an interview at the book fair. He said his best seller at the fair was a book called “Against Sectarianism.”
Most literary commerce is conducted on Fridays by booksellers clustered around Muntanabbi Street in the capital’s old district. “That’s like the big library of Iraq,” said Besma Nejim, browsing English titles at the book fair. Despite the impact the war has had on Iraq’s learned classes, she said, “we are all bookworms.”
The embassy’s book collection is part of a hub established here — this one at Baghdad University opened last year — and at other universities around the country, intended to allow students to browse carefully selected books about America, and to find information about studying in the United States. Posters entice students with idealistic visions of a multicultural society, with one depicting a Muslim member of the Yale band performing at a basketball game.
For immigrants in the United States, one poster reads, “Islamic schools have sprung up to meet their educational and cultural needs. Others find that public schools provide a good education and promote their interests in a multicultural society.”
The reality, however, is that students are put off by the byzantine visa process — not to mention rigid security checks recently put in place that have drastically reduced the numbers of Iraqis allowed to travel to the United States.
“We always alert people that there is an opportunity to study in the United States,” Mr. Yunis said. Many consider the possibility, he said, but find the process too difficult. Instead, he said, many go to Ukraine.
After the military withdrawal, the State Department hopes to widen opportunities to study in the United States. It recently sponsored a university fair in Erbil, in the Kurdish north, and the Iraqi government plans to offer more scholarships for study in the United States. Still, the numbers of Iraqi students attending universities in the United States are much lower than they were under Saddam Hussein — 423 last year, the Institute of International Education says, compared with more than 1,500 in 1985.
Diplomats, and some Iraqi officials, believe that sending more students to study in the United States would help counter Iranian influence here by helping to rebuild the educated, Western-oriented middle class that was decimated by Iraq’s traumas of wars and sanctions.
“If you take 500 students from high school and ask who wants to go to the U.S. and who wants to go to Iran, all would say they want to go to the U.S.,” said Adnan al-Zurufi, the governor of Najaf. Mr. Zurufi, who holds American citizenship, added, “Iranians don’t have anything to give people because they don’t have democracy.”
On the shelves in the American Corner at the university library, thick layers of dust coat copies of “GMAT for Dummies” and “Exploring Corporate Strategy.” A big doorstop of a Lincoln biography stares out, daring to be read, and lined up back to back to back are three hefty titles fit for a graduate student’s reading list: “The Creation of the American Republic,” by Gordon S. Wood; Louis Menand’s “American Studies”; and “Dilemmas of Pluralistic Democracy,” by the Yale political scientist Robert A. Dahl.
While Mr. Yunis has never seen a student open one of these books — possibly because students are not allowed to borrow them — he did say that every once in a while someone would drop in and flip through a big volume on American geography that sits on a table, or peruse the leaflets that explain how to pursue studies in the United States.
“They take a minute to think, and realize it’s too difficult, and then they leave,” he said.