Najaf In the covered alleyways of old Najaf in Iraq, poetry and philosophy books compete on laden shelves with economic treatises, the Quran and other theological tomes for students attention.
Since leaving his native Bangladesh for the Shia holy city three years ago, religious student Mohammed Ali Reda has regularly frequented secondhand bookstores.
There are many like him in Najaf.
Some wear turbansblack for Syeds, the descendants of the Prophet Muhammed (Pbuh), and white for non-Syed religious scholars.
I am still at the start of my apprenticeship, said Reda, in one of the dozens of bookshops in the citys Howeish market.
Wearing a simple white robe and scarf, he speaks in hesitant Arabic, like his Iranian, Pakistani and Turkish student peers.
For the moment, we have lessons in Arabic, law and Islamic morals, he added. The 19-year-old avidly seeks advice on books on Islamic law, religious principles and other lessons of Shiism.
While Iraq is majority Shia, only a minority follow this strand of Islam in Redas homeland, like most of the rest of the Muslim world.
Several decades Redas senior, Mohannad Mustapha Jamal al Dina religious student turned teacheralso feels at home among the bookstalls.
Najafs 750-year-old market helps make it a city apart, he enthused.
Located 150 kilometres south of Baghdad, the city welcomes millions of Shia pilgrims every year.
They come to visit the shrine of Imam Ali (AS).
Najaf-al-Ashraf is like no other city in Iraq[its] steeped in religion and literature, said Jamal al Din, sporting the black turban.
Among the crowds of religious students, there are also poetry lovers.
Some, like Jamal al Din, have a foot in both camps.
One can be versed in both fields[knowledge of] one does not preclude the other.
Iraqi poet Mohammed Mahdi al Jawahiri could be found in Najafs alleyways and bookstores in the 1920s, as he progressed from strict religious instruction to militant journalism in Baghdad.
Twenty-one years after his death, his collections sit on shelves that heave with a splendid array of titles, stretching to the arcane such as Islamic economyMarxist or Capitalist?
Other one-time students have found their calling in the maze of Najafs old city, and become famous in their own right.
Examples include the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqs Shia majority, and Mohammed Baqir al- Sadr, a great Shia thinker.
Sadr was executed by former dictator Saddam Husseins regime, and was an uncle of political heavyweight Moqtada Sadr, whose electoral list won the largest number of seats in Iraqs legislative elections in May.
Until the 1950s, secondhand bookstores held weekly meetings for students in Najaf, according to Hassan al Hakim, an expert in history and Islamic civilisation.
They gathered near Imam Alis shrine and every Friday they sold works at auction, including many original editions, said the professor of Kufa University, who has set up a heritage association for Najaf.
Famed British archaeologist Gertrude Bell visited the Najaf book market in the early 20th century, Hakim added.
The academic contends that the citys special status should not be threatened by the shift of much academic literature online.
We want our students to view books as their primary source, ahead of the internet for verified information, Hakim said.
And by looking for a book, we can find others that interest us, he noted.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.