You can tell a lot about a place from the books it sells. As the son of a librarian I have learned to appreciate the careful thought that goes into the presentation of a bookshelf. A good bookseller will display the titles they think you will read, but they will also try to draw your attention to those they think you should read.
On a small stall in the shadow of an imposing ancient citadel in Erbil, the flourishing capital of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, one particular arrangement caught my eye.
The usual suspects were there – history’s big thinkers and fighters. Mahatma Ghandi peeked out from a dusty dust-cover, alongside Albert Einstein. A few copies of Che Guevara’s diaries. The prison writings of a local hero, the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, took up a prominent position on the front shelf.
But an unlikely pairing in the centre of the stall stood out. In pride of place, side-by-side, were George W. Bush (Decision Points) and Saddam Hussein (The Life Of). Some browsers might consider this pairing a rogue’s gallery. But not in Erbil.
Saddam’s most heinous crimes were committed against the Kurds. More than 50,000 died during the 1988 Anfal campaign, at a time when Iraq still had the support of the West. In the same year, 5,000 were killed in a gas attack in Halabja.
Unlike the rest of Iraq, the US-led invasion of 2003 is not referred to as a war here, but a liberation. So this bookseller’s careful arrangement of Bush and Saddam together was not to categorise them as one and the same, but to contrast them: a hero and a villain.