BEIRUT: “If you see the lion’s teeth,” the 10th-century Abbasid poet Mutanabbi advised, “do not think that the lion is smiling at you.” This tip for recognizing danger did not save him from an untimely death, however.
The poet was murdered in 965, aged just 50, after a man he had insulted in one of his poems tracked him down and killed him.Mutanabbi’s legacy lived on in Baghdad, where for centuries Iraq’s literary crowd have gathered to sell, buy and discuss books on a long, winding alleyway, lined with book shops and rickety stalls, known as Al-Mutanabbi Street.
On March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded on the street, killing 30 people and wounding over 100 more. Many read this as a second attack on Mutanabbi and all that he had come to symbolize.
In the wake of this second tragedy, U.S. poet Beau Beausoleil founded “The Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition,” a far-reaching project that aims to encourage artists and writers from all over the world to reflect on the importance of Al-Mutanabbi Street and what its destruction means in the context of other places, cultures and times.
As part of the project, Beausoleil and Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi assembled an anthology, titled “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers respond to the March 5, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s ‘Street of Books.’”
A mixture of poetry, prose, essays and newspaper articles by over 100 different authors, the anthology is a wide-ranging collection of works, some written especially for this collection, others taken from elsewhere.
It is an unusual and at times surprising anthology. Though a short biography of each contributor is provided at the back, it is sometimes hard to keep track of when and why each piece was written. That said, certain themes recur frequently in the various entries, tying the whole collection neatly together, irrespective of its unusually broad scope and disparate styles.
The collection is loosely divided into three sections. Flipping through, readers may come across a short story written from the point of view of a book, poems by students remembering Al-Mutanabbi Street, poems by some of Iraq’s most beloved poets – including free verse champions Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Malaika – and a newspaper article by the late Lebanese-American journalist Anthony Shadid, first published in the Washington Post a week after the bombing.
The opening piece, Shadid’s article is a moving testament to his friendship with a bookseller named Mohammed Hayawi – “a bald bear of a man” who was among those killed in the bombing. Shadid transforms Hayawi from an anonymous statistic to an intelligent, likeable individual whose death benefited no one.
Shadid makes mention of two things which, coincidentally or not, becoming motifs running throughout the anthology. The first is the iconic Shahbandar Cafe, where intellectuals used to gather to drink coffee, smoke nargileh and discuss their latest finds. The cafe owner lost five sons in the explosion.
The second event which has captured many writers’ imaginations is the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, when invading troops destroyed the House of Wisdom, Baghdad’s library and translation center, throwing the books into the Tigris. It was said the river ran black with ink for six months after.
Given the sheer variety of pieces, it’s no surprise perhaps that all works are not of equal quality. Readers are unlikely to find everything to their taste – but everyone seems guaranteed to find something which resonates.
Highlights include a short prose pieces by U.S.-based Iraqi television producer Rijin Sahakian, who recalls her confusion when her high school English teacher told her class that “nothing had been published in the Middle East since the advent of Islam.” A search of the local library lead Sahakian to Sayyab’s “Rain Song,” one of Iraq’s most iconic poems, which, she recalls, made her weep.
This anecdote is followed by a translation of Sayyab’s poem, at once a haunting celebration of Iraq’s natural beauty and an elegy for a country that seems endlessly steeped in violence.
A more modern reflection upon the Iraqi condition is provided by doctoral student Nahrain al-Mousawi’s tongue-in-cheek poem “Ethics of Care: The Retreat of al-Mutanabbi.”
“The ethics of care consist of nothing but this,” the poem reads, “/‘Cook, read, write, translate, weep, and eat./ Rinse and repeat ... I turn to the trio and I mouth,/ As senseless, grotesque, and careless/ As the scene:/ ‘Shi’i Rebel Leaders are sexy – / Even with their third-world teeth.’”
Another beautifully written prose piece by Kenneth Wong explores where Al-Mutanabbi Street starts in Rangoon, recalling Pansodan Street, Burma’s equivalent of the book market, where a thriving black market ensured that books beyond the pale of state censorship could be found, bought or even rented.
“Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” is a motley collection, with writing by authors spanning a century and the breadth of the globe. Eclectic, disorganized, a little like the bookstalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street itself.
With a poem by Nazik al-Malaika and an essay by Raya Asee nestled alongside one another – just as the poems of Sayyab, Shakespeare’s plays and once-banned works by Shiite clerics did in the stacks of Al-Mutanabbi Street – the anthology invites readers to dip in and out of its treasures and enjoy the perspective provided by proximity.
“Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s ‘Street of Books’” is edited by Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi, and published by PM Press, is available from amazon.com.