Supporting the Iraqi businesses bringing light and life back to HawijaPublished: Apr 27, 2022 Reading time: 5 minutes
Portraits of the iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish adorn the walls above a desk where two young salesmen sit perusing their phones. It is hard not to imagine that the poet’s trademark teacher’s scowl is aimed in judgement of these two gentlemen for whom arms-length access to shelves of Arab and international literature is currently failing to win their attention away from YouTube.
Hawija’s only bookshop opened two years ago. It is not just an outpost of culture, but also an open archive, giving space to the works of local writers who immortalise the history of both Hawija and Iraq.
Through business trainings and grants, People in Need is helping Iraqi women establish and run their own businesses, like Maktab al-Salam.
Maktab al-Salam (the Office of Peace)
“One of the most popular books we sell is an Iraqi novel called ,Shwatea al-Melh wa al-Dam' because it speaks about the reality and wars that happened in Al-Hawija and around,” said Said, whose mother, Zeinab, owns the bookshop. “We are working on a book and a magazine to archive the events that happened in our area and the historical monuments in Al-Hawija.”
The importance of the bookshop cannot be understated. This area of Hawija, like so many others still bares the marks and the destruction of ISIL rule. The upper floors of many buildings are nothing more than crumbling clouds of grey concrete, out of which spew twisted steel rods. Business continues as usual on the ground floor, even as the wreckage above threatens to come crashing down at any moment.
Amidst all this, Maktab al-Salam represents a small refuge for the diversity and richness of the region’s past, with Arabic translation of ‘1984’ or ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ nestled alongside local texts on religion, politics and the years of Saddam Hussein’s regime. They also take their mission on the road: “I do trips to the schools to encourage the student to read more,” said Said.
“We choose this project because we didn’t have any book shop in the area so it will be useful and we will benefit from it,” said Zeinab, the store owner. “From the grant, we were able to buy new laptops and printer which help us to print more books and increase our productivity.”
Beyond Iraq’s rich literary past, areas of the country in proximity to the Tigris river are also known for their culinary offerings, especially Masgouf (المسكوف), a spiced dish of grilled carp. According to one of our beneficiaries, Raghad, fish remains a favourite in the Ramadan season.
Putting Carp back on the Menu
Raghad pulls the door locks out the ground and heaves open the metal door to her indoor aquarium. “With the money I bought more fish, a generator and oxygen provider for the water where we keep the fish,” said Raghad.
With the profit from selling the fish, Raghad is not just able to support her family but also invest in expansion: “The work is good, people are buying from us. I didn’t have any income before but with what I get from the shop I am able to support my children,” she said. “I am thinking of expanding the shop and decorating it in a nicer way so it attracts more people.”
PIN’s market analysis made doubly sure, prior to training, that a fish selling business would do well in Hawija’s current economy. After this stage, the ingredients to success business were simple and low-cost: a two month online training on: book-keeping, sales, marketing, accounting and customer service followed by a $1,000 USD business grant.
“The fish dish is a favorite dish for Iraqis, they really love it and feel happy to have it on their table. Sometimes people come in the night asking for fishes even when we are closed.”
The impact of a small business on a single family’s life can be monumental, as our next interview shows.
Trading Up from the Living Room
A large stained window gives Rada’s home workspace a warm ambience making the vibrant colours of her newly -finished dresses leap out from the fabric. “Before the training we didn’t have any idea about trading, but after it we have a clearer idea about how to buy fabrics, the prices, improve our skills and how to deal with costumers in the best way,” said Rada.
With a small amount of assistance from PIN, Rada was able to grow her textiles business. Her profits don’t just help pay the rent but also ensure her children can afford to pay their university fees.
Now Rada wants to expand the business beyond dress making to include larger items: “My shop is small and far from the main market which limits my costumers and my ability to work on bigger pieces such as curtains. So, I wish to expand and have a bigger shop in the market.”
Why target women in these projects?
Progress towards gender equality in Iraq remains slow.
While women’s symbolic participation in Iraq’s parliament has increased over recent history, with almost a quarter of parliamentary seats now held by women, stubborn conservative social norms continue to dictate the limits of female participation in education and employment.
According to data from UN Women, Iraqi women of working age are three times more likely to be unemployed than men, with over 30% currently out-of-work. This is despite the fact that women continue to display higher comparative literacy rates. Factors like higher out-of-school rates, early marriage and the expectation that women should carry the burden of unpaid domestic labour and care work continue to stifle female integration into the workforce.
For these reasons, PIN’s intervention targets women to improve their financial independence.