On March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded on al-Mutanabbi Street, an area of booksellers’ stalls and cafes in the literary and intellectual heart of Baghdad, wounding or killing many bystanders and destroying countless books and works of art. Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here is one arm of a larger project that also includes artists’ books and broadsides (one for each person killed or injured in the attack) housed at the Iraq National Library in Baghdad, and it is part of an exhibit traveling in the US and abroad.
The book begins with editor Beau Beausoleil’s Introduction to al-Mutanabbi Street and then presents 288 poems and essays by international authors (many of them Iraqi) writing in response to the attack. At once a lament for what was lost in the bombing and a celebration of what Beausoleil calls “the singular power of words,” the book links Iraqi writers and readers with their global counterparts in the conviction that books are the repositories of “memories, dreams and ideas” and that the freedoms—and places—that foster books must be protected and revered.
“[W]herever someone gathers their thoughts to write towards the truth, or where someone sits down and opens a book to read, it is there that al-Mutanabbi Street starts,” says Beausoleil. In fact, as these writings movingly show, it starts everywhere, and the attack on a small street in Baghdad six years ago was “an attack on us all.”
“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads,” the saying goes, and for centuries the literary soul of Baghdad readers was al-Mutanabbi Street, located in an old district of scribes’ markets, booksellers’ stalls and shops and cafes. More than 100 bookstore owners, workers, and café patrons were killed or wounded when the car bomb went off, and the ashes of burned books rained down for days, evoking the last “great destruction,” a Mongol invasion in 1250 that leveled so many libraries’ bookstalls that, it was said, the River Tigris ran black with ink. After the 2007 bombing, the world mourned the losses of human life and art and literature. But Beausoleil, a bookseller in San Francisco, saw something else: a targeted attack on artistic and individual freedom everywhere. In 2009, Beausoleil undertook, with co-editor, Deema Shehabi, creation of this anthology of poems and essays. The following year, Beausoleil and his co-coordinator Sarah Bodman issued a call for submissions for artists’ books and other work reflecting the fragility of books and the endurance of the ideas within them, in an effort to “re-assemble” some of the inventory lost in the bombing. The response to both projects was (and with respect to the artists’ books and broadsides continues to be) overwhelming.
In the Introduction, Beausoleil expresses his belief that “books are the holders of memories, dreams and ideas” and his desire to close the distance between al-Mutanabbi and similar “cultural streets” here in the United States and around the globe. His al-Mutanabbi street is a metaphor for the creative impulse, and the book is at once a lament for what was lost on the day of the bombing, an affirmation of artistic and human freedom, and a way to locate common ground among people of two nations at war. Once I understood the anthology’s three-pronged mission, I appreciated the inclusion of much–anthologized poems like Adrienne Rich’s “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve” and Jane Hirschfield’s “The Poet,” for their messages about the importance of individual freedom and the nourishment of artistic endeavor.
The book is divided into three sections: “The River Ran Black with Ink,” “Knowledge is Light,” and “Gathering the Silences.” The editors have put much thought into the sequencing, with poems alternating rhythmically with prose and with recurrent themes (war, exile, oppression, power of words, etc.) knitting the book into a coherent whole. The opening essay (A Washington Post piece by Anthony Shahid) and poem (“For al-Mutanabbi Street” by Naomi Shihab Nye) are especially strong. Of the book’s 110 contributors, about 50 are Middle Eastern, a quarter Iraqi and a third California residents. Many writers are of national or international renown. Significantly, though, some of the most powerful work in the anthology is by new or relatively unknown writers. The desire to incorporate work by people—not necessarily writers—whose lives were directly impacted by the explosion poses a particular challenge, one that is handled well here. The editors include eyewitness accounts and stories by people who frequented Al-Mutanabbi Street but were not there on the day of the explosion. One standout is a poem called “Untitled,” consisting of the words spoken by bookseller Mohammed Hayawy, conveyed through a chain of utterances, “by way of Anthony Shahid, by way of Laurie Szujewska.” Rendered in a huge font that fills most of page 122, this poem reads:
ANYONE TO SAY
IN THE FUTURE.
With both Hayawy and Shahid now gone (Hayawy was killed in the blast), reading this poem is like hearing the voices of the dead. Indeed, reading through the contributors’ bios at the end, I was haunted by those whose words in this anthology are among their last things written in this world.
The book is many things at once: elegy, tribute, educational tool, agonized expression of suffering, lyric to what remains beautiful in life after all has been leveled by war. Part cautionary tale, part missive, part cultural bridge, it bears witness, rants, protests, sings, and speaks quietly in the syllables of grief. More than one piece is an utterance not just about, but by, ghosts. Several pieces explicitly take on the subject of the bomber, some to curse him and one, quite unexpectedly, to find empathy (“Letter to my Childhood Friend, the Baghdad Car Bomber”). The inclusion of poems by several luminary Middle Eastern poets (such as Mahmoud Darwish translated by Fady Joudah) enables the anthology to bear eloquent testament to what was lost when the books were destroyed.
Think it can’t happen here? On February 28, 1989, a firebomb was thrown through the window of Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, presumably in response to the prominent display of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the subject of a fatwa by Iranian clerics one month before. An undetonated pipe bomb was subsequently discovered. In response, the staff unanimously voted to keep the book on display.
This book reminds us that al-Mutanabbi street is everywhere, and inspires us to live by the example of one ordinary citizen—a bookseller and poet—looking directly at the kind of tragic global event that makes most of us turn away in mute horror and despair. Looking, and then responding in a meaningful, powerful, and personal way.