I traveled to Baghdad in mid-February, not as an Indian writer but in the course of my ''other life'' as a United Nations official. The world was largely focused on two dramas at the time, both involving (in very different ways) issues of access to presidential sites -- the Monica Lewinsky investigation in Washington and the crisis over United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq. I had nothing whatsoever to do with America's internal affairs (if the dreadful pun can be forgiven), but the other crisis took me to the Iraqi capital, at very short notice, with an advance team to prepare the visit of the Secretary General of the United Nations. The necessary groundwork completed, there was just enough time away from United Nations business to catch a few glimpses of Baghdad before the political negotiations began.
Where does a non-Arabic speaker go in quest of literary pleasures in Baghdad? The answer, I was told by a senior United Nations colleague resident there, was to what visitors call the ''book souk.'' This is actually a street market on both sides of a long block, rather than, as the word ''souk'' implies, a full-fledged bazaar. Along Almutanabi Street, old (and some new) publications are laid out for sale on the sidewalks -- magazines and volumes arrayed on sheets, racks and in cartons from a busy intersection at one end to a cul-de-sac at the other. This was not, for a visitor familiar with the third world, extraordinary in itself; it reminded me of the pavement bookstores of Calcutta's College Street. But what was different was the added pathos that many of the books and journals on sale were from the personal libraries of families devastated by life in post-sanctions Iraq, who now had to sell them to buy food.
And what a cornucopia there was for the indiscriminate reader! Books and periodicals overflowed the dusty sidewalks. Some were leather-bound, some tattered; first editions of rare books rubbed spines with paperbacks from forgotten best-seller lists; technical textbooks sat alongside primly covered Arabic girlie magazines from a more modest era. The volumes were mainly in Arabic, but the makeshift stalls also featured a multiplicity of foreign publications, especially in English (though German, French and -- according to a Scandinavian colleague -- even Swedish popped up too). Here I spotted a lovingly thumbed reference book, there a set of brittle 1950's Time magazines; 1970's Lebanese reprints of 19th-century British classics sat side by side with out-of-date almanacs and even, bizarrely, an old telephone directory. Many of the English titles seemed incongruous on an Arab street -- a paperback of Leon Uris's ''Exodus,'' for instance, or even more startling, Grace Metalious's ''Peyton Place.'' Though Iraq had long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most secular and cosmopolitan of Arab societies, adversity has begun to breed piety (among those who were buying, if not those who were selling): many of the newer volumes were Korans, some handsomely bound, and they were selling more briskly than the pulp fiction -- or the men's magazines.
I had heard from foreigners of the bargains to be had at the book souk: stories, perhaps apocryphal, were told at the United Nations cafeteria of op-
portunist colleagues like the one who had picked up a first edition of T. E. Lawrence's ''Seven Pillars of Wisdom'' for the equivalent of 7 cents in Iraq's dramatically depreciated currency (at a penny a pillar, the buyer clearly had little need of additional wisdom). What I had not heard about, however, was the avid interest of the local population in the offerings of the book souk. Even at an early hour on a weekend (I went by on a Friday, the Islamic Sabbath), there was a crowd of Iraqis on the pavement, browsing, chatting, laying out more books in remarkably orderly fashion, eager to share their wares with a visitor. Iraqis are a famously literate people; an old saw about the Middle East has it that ''the Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read.'' Here was proof of this, in these apparently often perused, carefully preserved books bought decades ago, many with ownership proudly inscribed on the flyleaf, some lovingly annotated in the margins. It was easy to imagine them on the shelves of middle-class living rooms in educated homes, now brought out by their owners to help fill stomachs where in the past they had only salved souls.