BAGHDAD -- When Maysoon Kadhim began working on her master's thesis at Baghdad University two years ago, she braced for the challenge. After all, her paper's subject is Shakespeare, whose prose can perplex even native English speakers.
Kadhim, of course, grew up with Arabic.
But as she proofreads her final draft days before it’s due, she says her biggest frustrations have had nothing to do with language.
Instead, they've come from trying to get her hands on the right books.
"You would expect that my studies and the analysis would be the hardest things," Kadhim lamented. "Getting the books should be simple."
But in Iraq, a country where so much has been leveled by decades of dictatorship, international embargoes and war, few things are easy. Here, students often can’t find the books they need. Libraries and schools are sorely understocked, and many book stores are closed. At those that are open, academic selections are usually limited.
College-level texts, books on specialized subjects and recent editions are the hardest to come by. Most elementary and high school students use decades-old materials.
"You could say we are starving for text books,” said May Youssef Saour, a microbiology professor at Baghdad University’s al Kindy College of Medicine. "It is a little better lately, but still it’s hard to find books on many subjects. The shops and the libraries just don’t have them.”
Kadhim, who is 34 with a bright smile, spent more than a year gathering the dozen or so books she used for her thesis. The lengths to which she went are impressive.
She identified what she needed by searching for books online. But credit cards and mail delivery hardly exist in Iraq, so Kadhim asked a friend in Britain to buy the books for her, then electronically scan their pages and e-mail them to her.
To get her hands on an especially important Shakespeare analysis, Kadhim asked her British friend to mail the book to another friend in Syria who was planning a visit to Iraq. The Syrian friend then hand-delivered Kadhim's precious text.
"It is terrible that this is what we must do to learn and earn our degrees, but this is the situation in Iraq,” Kadhim said. "Everything is a struggle.”
Other college students said borrowing texts from teachers and photocopying relevant chapters is common.
"If I could find my own, I would just buy the books,” said Raghad Jameel, a first-year Arabic student. "But most of the time I have to make copies. It is expensive and takes so much time.”
Iraq once was widely regarded as country of fervent readers, as reflected by an adage on books well known in the Arab world: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Iraq reads.
But that began to change after Saddam Hussein took power. Education was free to all Iraqis under Saddam, and early on, his regime kept schools well stocked with current materials. But he also banned certain titles. The sanctions that followed his invasion of Kuwait kept new books from entering Iraq.
As the country slipped deeper and deeper into poverty in the 1990s, families and book collectors alike sold off their libraries to pay for basic necessities. Government funding for education dropped, leaving schools and universities with fewer and fewer books.
The censorship and the sanctions disappeared after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but new impediments replaced them.
The widespread looting that followed the invasion destroyed collections at libraries across Iraq. Booksellers and publishing housing closed as violence spread, and the priorities of many Iraqis shifted from reading and learning to staying alive and finding ways out of the country.