Yesterday, I read “Baghdad marketplace oasis holds ‘Iraq of dreams’” in the International Herald Tribune and was struck by a dizzy feeling of déjà vu.

Hadn’t I read this story about Baghdad’s al-Mutanabi Street once, twice…or maybe six or seven times before? ArabLit contributor Assmaa Naguib pointed me to Anthony Shadid’s story set on al-Mutanabi in 2007.

Shadid’s story is filled with specific human details, real moments, and a tribute to a bookseller (Mohammed Hayawi) who had died in the the 2007 explosion on al-Mutanabi that killed 26 and destroyed many livelihoods.

But Shadid wasn’t the only Anglophone journalist who stopped by this booksellers’ street. It seems to have been a magnet for journalists writing about Iraq. I’m not sure when this BBC popup slideshow is from, but it must’ve been early in the occupation.

The slideshow notes that, “Things have changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein –” and “In Iraq, tea is drunk at all times of day.”

Usually, the stories about al-Mutanabi are hopeful, of the “everything’s about to get better now” variety. Although not always:

2003

Patrick Cockburn (The Independent) November 2003: Book Market Fire Piles on the Misery for Broken Baghdad

“The explosion in al-Mutanabi Street came on Thursday evening, killing a tea-seller called Bassim and setting alight buildings on both sides of the street, which burnt fiercely for hours.”

Jacki Lyden (NPR) December 2003: The Booksellers of Mutanabi Street: Once Tortured, Iraqi Merchants Now Back in Business

“In October 2003, NPR’s Jacki Lyden reported on the effect of the U.S. occupation of Iraq on Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street book district. Known for a lively exchange of ideas — even under the regime of Saddam Hussein — the street was nearly deserted after an explosion had damaged its main entrance.

“Lyden revisited the street recently to find it nearly back to normal.”

2004

James Rupert (Newsday) Jan 2004: The Word’s Out / In Iraqi book mart, ideas again thrive

“As Iraq considers its future after Saddam Hussein, Mutanabi Street is resuming its role as one of the capital’s main marketplaces of ideas.”

2007

Anthony Shadid, March 2007 (Washington Post):The Bookseller’s Story Ending Much Too Soon

“A car bomb detonated last week on Mutanabi Street, leaving a scene that has grown familiar in Baghdad, a collage of chaotic images, disturbing in their brutality, grotesque in their repetition. At least 26 people were killed. Hayawi the bookseller was one of them.”

2008

Hamza Hendawi (AP) January 2008: Book revival signals a calmer Baghdad

“The revival of the Mutanabi Street book market is a microcosm of today’s Baghdad.”

2009

Aamer Madhani (USA Today) January 2009: Sequel for iconic book market after Baghdad blast

” The gossiping gadflies and intellectuals who savor a good book with their caffeine are returning to the Shabandar Cafe, nearly two years after a car bomb ravaged the tea shop and most of the historic book market on Mutanabi Street.”

Nick McDonell, March 2009 (Time) –The Vanishing Booksellers of Baghdad

“In the 23 months since that [2007] blast, the rebirth of Mutannabi Street has also been well documented by both journalists and politicians.

“In the meantime, he is simply pleased that security has improved, though as he puts it, looking down the street, ‘it has not reached safety.’ He shakes his head. ‘The measurement is when there are a lot of women here.'”

Peter Graff, April 2011 (Reuters): Cultural Heart Beats Again on Baghdad Bookseller Street

“Four years ago, in a blow felt deeply by Iraq`s intelligentsia, a car bomb killed 26 people here. Now, the street is again open, guarded and seemingly safe, and jammed every Friday with students, professors and professionals.”

(AFP), March 2012 – “Baghdad Marketplace Oasis Holds ‘Iraq of Dreams’

“It comes alive on Fridays, when its book market vies for the attention of passersby with men who recite verses from poetry by the Arab writer after whom it is named as others sip hot lemon tea at the renowned Shabander Cafe.

“And it was no different on this particular Friday, just a day after bomb attacks and shootings left dozens dead in the capital.”

Art in Response to 2007 bombing

Photo from the UCLA exhibition, by Rawad Wehbe.

I also discovered that, coming this summer, there’s an anthology in reaction to the 2007 bombing on al-Mutanabbi St. The anthology is twinned with an art exhibition called Mutanabbi Street Starts Here and was a call to book artists to “honor al-Mutanabbi.”

You can see the exhibition yourself in 2013 in Manchester (UK), San Francisco, Newark, and New York (USA), and there are a number of affiliated readings and events in the US and UK.

The exhibition is currently at UCLA until April 30.

I see that a number of Arab Americans are participating in the project, but it does strike me as odd that while there are participating artists from Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark (alphabetical list here), the only artists from this “region” are from Iran and Israel.

Stepping aside from that, more artistic and critical engagement on the Anglo-Iraq relationship is certainly needed. Yes. But I am still a little shy of this. “A response to the violence” (the exhibit’s subhead) seems to place “the violence” in a sphere of otherness, somewhere beyond one’s TV screen. But I have not engaged with the specifics of the exhibition and surely the individual works also deserve their own engagement.

ArabLit reader and UCLA student Rawad Wehbe, who took the photo above, has been to the exhibition and will write about it when time permits.

See more about the project here:

Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadsides

Al-Mutanabbi Street: Not Turning the Page

One thought on “Looking at Looking at al-Mutanabi Street

  1. Thank you for mentioning our project, I understand your wariness, but I hope that as you read our forthcoming anthology and see the letterpress broadsides and artists books that were all done as a personal response to the car bombing of al Mutanabbi Street you will have a better understanding of our effort. This project began just a week after the bombing of al-Mutanabbi street in March of 2007.

    A significant part of our anthology is work from Iraqis (two still in Baghdad) as well as Iraqi Americans and Arab Americans.

    Our foremost goal is to let the Iraqi cultural community know that we will not be silent to all that they have suffered, that we have a collective voice and we will continue to use it. The project will help those who attend its exhibits and readings to see themselves on al-Mutanabbi Street and to realize that we share a commonality with the Iraqi cultural community.

    Right now al-Mutanabbi street starts somewhere on a small street in Damascus, on a small street in Beijing, a small street in Tehran. It starts here in San Francisco, in Santa Fe or Boston or Omaha or Detroit. It starts wherever someone gathers their thoughts to write towards the truth, or where someone sits down and opens a book to read.
    Wherever the free exchange of ideas is suppressed or attacked, wherever writers and artists are silenced, or risk their lives to speak the truth through their work, there will be a place for them on al-Mutanabbi Street

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