BEIRUT: An old Arabic adage has it that “Cairo writes, Beirut prints, Baghdad reads.” The historic heart of literacy in the Middle East, by that logic, has for centuries been Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street, named after the 10th century poet, one of the Arab world’s most famous and respected literary figures.For over 800 years, Al-Mutanabbi Street has been lined with bookstores and outdoor stalls, a place where writers, students and intellectuals would gather, irrespective of race or religion, to talk, drink coffee and browse the phenomenal range of books. Even works banned by the government of the day were available, hastily copied and surreptitiously disseminated among the trustworthy.
In March 2007 a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street, killing more than 30 people and wounding over 100. Beau Beausoleil, an American bookseller and poet living in San Francisco, decided that this particular attack was one that could not be swept beneath the rug of history.
“I’ve been a poet and a bookseller for about 40 years,” Beausoleil says. “Like millions of others I marched against the invasion of Iraq, but felt completely powerless on a personal level to change anything.
“The bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street in 2007 did two things,” he continues. “It shocked and horrified me that this cultural center had been attacked, and it gave me an immediate realization that if I were an Iraqi bookseller then my bookshop would have been on Al-Mutanabbi Street ... I knew at that moment that I was no different than any Iraqi.”
Beausoleil decided to organize a memorial reading, and at the same time came up with the idea of asking letterpress printers to create an artistic broadside of their personal response to the bombing.
“It was clear to me that this bombing was an attack on us all,” he says, “and that it was important for artists in the West to realize that we shared all the hopes and dreams that a street like Al-Mutanabbi Street represented. This street and its booksellers and readers represented the free exchange of ideas long before my own country ever existed.”
Out of this “The Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition” was born – a project which has been ongoing for the last five years.
In 2010 Beausoleil, along with British book artist and printer Sarah Bodman – who agreed to help coordinate the project in Europe – reached their target of 130 original broadsides. They immediately put out a call for artists willing to create a set of three handmade books.
“The guidelines were to produce books that would encourage discussion, to make people think, to produce an inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street,” explains Bodman. “I asked ... for a personal response to the car bombing. I wanted them to try and find where Al-Mutanabbi Street, and all that it represents, started in their own lives.”
The pair originally hoped to get 130 artists on board – they ended up with 262. All 786 books will be finished by the end of this year. Along with the broadsides they will then be sent on tour, and one complete set will be donated to the National Library of Iraq, in Baghdad.
“Anybody who loves books – who makes books, reads books, sells books – would be devastated to know what happened on that street,” says Bodman. “To attack people because they were there, to attack their right to read, to discuss, to receive information, to dream, was so utterly wrong in so many ways. It is more than an attack on innocent people; it was an attack on the freedom of the printed page.”
Beausoleil and Bodman are planning several exhibitions of the art books over the coming year in Britain and the United States. They also have an exhibition scheduled at the University of Cairo in 2014, and are hoping to exhibit the work in Lebanon.
“I would love to be in contact with an arts organization in Beirut,” Beausoleil says. “One that would be interested in showing part of this work and hosting readings and panels of local writers and scholars who might speak [about] what the bombing of any cultural street means to any cultural community. Where does Al-Mutanabbi Street start for Lebanese poets, artists and writers? Is it possible to erase culture and thought?”
Some of these questions are addressed in “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” an anthology containing essays in response to the bombing by over 100 authors, including Lebanese-American poet and visual artist Etel Adnan and American journalist Anthony Shadid, who passed away in Syria earlier this year. The book, edited by Beausoleil and Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi, was released in late August.
Though they have been working on the project for years, both Beausoleil and Bodman say it is far from over.
“The project is only now starting to spread its wings and fly!” Beausoleil says, while Bodman adds “This is really only the beginning ... It would be wonderful to have the prints and books visit libraries, bookstores, centers and communities all over the world.”
Beausoleil feels the success of the project is due to the fact that it had no concrete aim, beyond making people think. “I feel that wherever someone sits down and gathers their thoughts to write towards the truth,” he says, “wherever someone picks up a book to read, it is there that Al-Mutanabbi Street starts.”
The “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” project is curated by Beau Beausoleil and Sarah Bodman. To find about more about the project or to see the whole collection of artists’ books go to http://www.al-mutanabbistreetstartshere-boston.com/.