10 Years Later: Artists and Writers in Search of a Common Street

As explosions rock Baghdad, and dozens of individual souls die, it is becomes yet more difficult to think through the role of art. Nonetheless, art. A piece from this week’s special Egypt Independent* print edition:

From "Gloomy Monday," by Allison Bianco.
From “Gloomy Monday,” by Allison Bianco.

Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street is perhaps the longest-lived book-selling neighborhood in the world. According to scholar Muhsin al-Musawi, the current bookshops on Al-Mutanabbi Street exist where, hundreds of years before, there was an Abbasid-era district of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls.

This area was thriving at least by the time of the historian Ibn Tayfur (819–893). In this spot, books and book lovers were available in abundance until the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258.

The neighborhood eventually reclaimed its place at Baghdad’s cultural heart, and a number of important booksellers established shops once more on Mutanabbi Street. Stores began to blossom in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the saying “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads” came into vogue.

But things sharply changed for the street in March 2003, when US forces entered Iraq. The street’s first major explosion occurred in October 2003, killing a tea seller named Bassem and setting numerous stores on fire.

The life of the street grew narrower and narrower. In his essay “Escape from Al-Mutanabbi Street,” bookseller Muhammad al-Hamrani writes about the death squads that “spread into the narrow alleys around Al-Mutanabbi” and how “no one was buying books anymore.”

The city’s literary culture was further ravaged on 5 March 2007, nearly four years into the US-led occupation, when a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street. It killed at least 30 souls, wounded more than a hundred, and destroyed countless books, hopes and livelihoods. The street was officially opened once again in 2008.

The bombing at Al-Mutanabbi Street particularly shook US-based poet Beau Beausoleil, who began a project called “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.” The project called on artists around the world to respond with handmade letterpress broadsides, art books, and later essays and works of poetry.

The broadsides and books have been collected into a traveling exhibition that will come to the American University in Cairo in March 2014, and will eventually be on permanent display at the Iraqi National Library in Baghdad. The poetry and essays have been collected into the book “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.”

The project began with the letterpress broadsides, Beausoleil said. This led him to the book artists, as he was “struck by how deeply a book artist could move into the interior of an idea and make it visual.” Keep reading.

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