Yesterday, I received a copy of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in the mail:
The first essay in the collection is Anthony Shadid’s “The Bookseller’s Story, Ending Much Too Soon”; I have already read it, more than once, so I moved on to the second essay, by a man unknown to me, Mousa al-Naseri.
Al-Naseri’s short memoir, “A Man in Love with Knowledge,” (trans. Afaf Nash) touches on the years, 2001-2007, when al-Naseri worked on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi St., selling stationery and office supplies. He straightforwardly describes the street, as he walked it as a child, as a young man, and as a businessman.
What is so clear from al-Naseri’s essay is the value of Baghdad’s readers. There is the old saw, which he repeats: “Egypt writes, Lebanon prints, and Baghdad reads.” Egyptian scribblers and Lebanese publishers (and Lebanese scribblers and Egyptian publishers) are an important part of the literary project. Sure. They’re the ones who win awards and fame and sometimes a prison sentence, to boot.
But the literary conversation cannot take place without the third and most important leg of this table: the reader.
Baghdad’s historically avid readers have been hobbled by war, blockade, occupation, crumbling educational system, fear. They suffered a serious blow on March 5, 2007, when a car bomb exploded on al-Mutanabbi Street; the city lost more than 30 book-lovers and hundreds more were wounded.
Al-Naseri describes how his brother, who was also working al-Mutanabbi as a door-to-door stationery salesman, “left everything and ran in search of me, wondering if I was dead or alive. He was running from place to place, bewildered and overwhelmed, asking everybody if they had seen me. And I was, simply, in the same condition, doing the exact same thing.”
But al-Naseri asserts that the criminals who attacked al-Mutanabbi Street, who “took lives or injured some of the best educated and intellectual youth”…”failed, for they don’t understand who the Iraqis are, nor Iraqi history and culture. A history that goes back 7,000 years. They don’t know or understand Iraqis’ fondness for literature, knowledge, and books.”
Al-Naseri, who chose after this to emigrate, writes that, the “great efforts to restore this street mends my soul and gives me patience; it assures me that this deeply rooted street will come back one day, to continue its intellectual and cultural role, to be a river that serves thinkers, scientists, and intellectuals.”
And to serve that most critical part of the book world: great, avid, interested, engaged readers.