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A bookstore is thriving – in Tripoli?

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Francois Mori/AP

(Read caption) Today some Libyans are feeling freer to read – and write – what they like.

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It's only been a week since rebels fighting the government of Muammar Qaddafi took the nation's capital city of Tripoli. But the AFP is already reporting that a "spritely septuagenarian" bookseller named Mohammed Ali al-Bahbahy has joyously reopened his store – one of the first businesses to do so.

"I opened this used bookstore to fight ignorance" under Qaddafi, Bahbahy told the AFP. The shop which was founded in 1995, was described by Bahbahy as "a safe haven for those with an appetite for culture and a desire to discuss politics freely but 'behind closed doors.' "

Bahbahy described the way that Qaddafi "killed the local culture of reading."

Under Qaddafi, say Bahbahy: "You couldn't say a single word. We would discuss politics in our trusted circle of friends behind closed doors. But never in public and we would never never publish."

Bahbahy says that the books in his store number about 12,000, including volulmes on geography, philosophy, politics, science, and religion. Bahbahy even stocks a number of American thrillers and an officially banned biography of former US First Lady Nancy Reagan (banned because her husband Ronald Reagan ordered the 1986 bombing of targets in Tripoli.)

Bahbahy says he never had trouble with the Qaddafi regime but had to exercise caution and self-censorship to survive as a bookseller.

But now, he hopes, such caution will become a thing of the past. If last week in Tripoli you couldn't discuss politics in public or dream of publishing your own words, this week it all looks different.

"Now you can," Bahbahy told the AFP.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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