Eight Years Later, Mutanabbi Street

The battle over memories and representations of Iraq in US discourse rages, not just writ large, as in the discussions over American Sniper, but also in individual spaces, like Baghdad’s central bookselling corridor: 

mutanabbi1_274x228In the American news, the usual way of remembering/forgetting the bombing that rocked Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street in 2007 seems to be ever-present feature stories about the street’s “resurrection”: January 2009 in USA Today, April 2011 by Reuters, March 2012 from AFP, November 2014 from McClatchy, January 2015 from The Week, as well as others. The up-from-the-ashes metaphor usually hides more than it reveals: What has happened here? What connects (and disconnects) the US and Iraq?

A dedicated group of academics and artists, for the eighth year running, insist on holding on up a light and visiting Mutanabbi Street in a more intimate and complicated way.

Across the US, the UK, and beyond, “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” founder Beau Beausoleil — who also co-edited a book and curated an art installation of the same title — joins other Mutanabbi project stalwarts in continuing to forge connections through art and poetry. This year’s readings are set for on or about March 5, eight years after the bombing that devastated the bookselling street, a loss eloquently described by Anthony Shadid.

Why al-Mutanabbi Street? Why not imagine our way to Abu Ghraib, the invasion, the Gulf War, the blockade, earlier imperial maneuverings?

Beausoleil earlier said via email:

The emotional enormity of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is enough to completely freeze one up. Where does one start? How do you organize a list of horrible events so that they are addressed but not compared and contrasted as to their importance?

I feel one must simply pick something. You must find a moment that you can step into, one that resonates with who you are in your everyday life. That moment for me was the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street because, as a bookseller and poet, I knew that al-Mutanabbi Street would be where my used bookshop would be, and that as a poet this would be my cultural community that was attacked.

Looking closely at any such small but devastating moment — in the context of a brutal occupation that lasted more than eight years — reveals the layers of the war as it was laid down year after year. The entire war is in this one day, in both its complexity and clarity. Positioning the project as ‘anti-war’ would, I feel, make it too easy to dismiss and brush aside.

Imperialism is wide and sweeping but responses need to be focused and direct.

Eight years on, the lives of Iraqis and North Americans remain deeply intertwined, and eight years on, we have just as much trouble placing our ear to the wall and hearing Iraqi voices, particularly over the clamor of our own soldier literature.

The Mutanabbi Street readings, as Beausoleil emphasizes, are not moments of “healing,” nor a time to hear US veterans’ voices, but a time to listen through to Iraqi voices and real grappling with Iraqi lives. The readings this year are dedicated to the women of Iraq.

This year, Beausoleil says that he likes “the addition of the small intimate readings and the fact that some people are pausing in their routine/travels to mark the day by reading something for al-Mutanabbi Street to whomever they are with.”

Thus far, there are events scheduled for the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. , San Francisco, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the Book Arts Association of Newfoundland and Labrador & Eastern Gallery in St. John’s, The Great Overland Book Company, The Institute Library inNew Haven, Connecticut, the University of Queensland, Australia, Portland State University, Smith Memorial Student Union, Antwerp, the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, Exeter, and elsewhere.

For anyone else who would like to do a reading, Beausoleil asks that they follow some general guidelines that he would send them.

For those in Dearborn: An exhibit of the Mutanabbi Street broadsides and books opens at the Arab American National Museum March 6 – July 12.

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