An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word

Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a poem in ruins of Al-Mutanabbi Street

 

Poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a poem as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street

Built to enshrine free thinking and public access to knowledge, the John Rylands Library in Manchester is an appropriate place to see An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street, a project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.  Outside, Deansgate thrums with city traffic and office workers urgently seeking a brief lunch; inside, there’s a cathedral calm in a place that feels like a temple to the book and the word.

Rylands 1

When a suicide bomber exploded his truck on 5 March 2007, Baghdad’s historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area was devastated. Mutanabbi Street is named after a leading 10th-century poet Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, who was born in what is now Iraq.  With its book stores and outdoor bookstalls, cafes, stationery shops, and tea and tobacco shops, Mutanabbi Street was regarded by Iraqis as an intellectual hub of the Arab world, and became over the decades a meeting place for writers, artists and intellectuals from across the capital.

I was there. I was on Mutanabbi Street the day it was bombed. The stationery store on Al-Mutanabbi where I worked exploded in flames, and my boss was immediately killed. How I survived, I do not know. I lay in the stockroom and could smell the books and newspapers burning. I could taste the smell of burning hair and flesh on my tongue. Lying on the ground, I watched the entire street turn hot and black with smoke and then, after a few minutes, stared up at the hole in the roof and saw thousands of small grey ashes—pieces of paper, books, newspapers—floating down from the sky. I will never forget that day. It changed us, changed my country forever.
– Mousa al-Naseri

A man stands amid rubble just after a suicide car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street.

The inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street was as diverse as the Iraqi population, including literature of both Iraq and the Middle East, history, political theory, popular novels, scholarly works, religious tracts, technical books, poetry, mysteries; even stationery and blank school notebooks could be purchased on the street, as well as children’s books, comics, and magazines. Arabic was the predominant language but there were books in Farsi, French, German, and English on sale, too.

For Beau Beausoleil, a San Francisco bookseller, poet, and community activist, the assault on Al-Mutanabbi Street touched a deep nerve. As a bookseller himself and a purveyor of ideas and culture, the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi made an immediate impact and in July 2010, he and artist Sarah Bodman put out a call for book artists to join An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street, a project designed to be ‘both a lament and a commemoration of the singular power of words’. Book artists from around the world were asked to produce works which reflected both the strength and fragility of books, but also showed the endurance of the ideas within them, in response to the attack on the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community:

We are among the pages of every book that was shredded and burned and covered with flesh and blood that day.
And to those who would manufacture hate with the tools of language . . .
Those who would take away the rights and dignity of a people with the very same words that guarantee them . . .
And to anyone who would view the bodies on Mutanabbi Street as a way to narrow the future into one book . . .
We say, as poets, writers, artists, booksellers, printers and readers,
That Mutanabbi Street starts here.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

What has now become the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition has evolved to include an anthology of writing and a growing number of artists’ books (several hundred so far) from contributors all over the world, constantly being added to the travelling exhibition that is An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street.  Each artist, poet or book designer has created a work designed to show the commonality of al-Mutanabbi Street with any street, anywhere that has a book shop or cultural meeting place, emphasising that this attack – the latest in a long history of attacks on the printed word – was an attack on us all.  When all the books are finished the Coalition will donate a complete set to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad.

Rylands 4

In the quiet of the Ryland’s reading room where people study beneath the vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows of what has been acclaimed as the best example of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe, exhibition cases display over 150 of the books created for the project, with more arriving by the day.

Obviously, in an exhibition which has contributions from over 150 artists, there is bound to be a wide variation in their approach, quality and noteworthiness. The tone ranges from anger to a gentle poetry.  Collectively, the pieces make a powerful statement.
Until it is in Flame, Beau Beausoleiland Andrea Hassiba, USA
Until it is in Flame, Beau Beausoleiland Andrea Hassiba, USA
Until it is in Flame, Beau Beausoleiland Andrea Hassiba, USA
The project instigator, Beau Beausoleil, along with Andrea Hassiba took three already existing, individual books burned, deconstructed and then reconstructed them. Inside each ravaged book is a space, a receptacle and a box which contains words, a poem.  It conveys the message that poems and words are potent, essential, and must be protected. The box is decorated with symbols: a hand, a fish, ritual objects that evoke reliquaries and shrines.  Beausoleil and Hassiba speak of ‘making visual the essence of what is being protected: the idea that language, words, and poetry are powerful and remarkable and cannot be destroyed’.
Wounded book series I, II, III 2012 Christina Mitrentse, UK
Christina Mitrentse (UK) has used three vintage Pelican books and shot each with one bullet, creating a physical wound in each one. ‘This is a visual statement on the universal importance of literacy’, Mitrentse says. ‘By going back to the importance of learning in the early ages of a child, something that connects all human beings, the act of attacking the book becomes a metaphor  for attacking the body of knowledge as happened in the Al Mutanabbi street bombing’.
Burned Book Sculpture, TS Eliot Ash Wednesday, Sarah Rhys, UK
Burned Book Sculpture by Sarah Rhys (UK) consists of three altered books of Penguin poetry, a homage to the books burnt and damaged by the bombings in al-Mutanabbi street. Rhys adds: ‘I imagine myself there finding half burned books, and after the horror, reading extraordinary fragments of texts. My acts of book burning are inverted demonstrations against censorship and cultural cleansing’.
A nation will fall into ruin if its people do not read books, Karen Apps, UK
‘A nation will fall into ruin if its people do not read books’ by Karen Apps (UK) looks like a child’s sentence-building game.  At the top are what appear at first to be randomly-selected words.  Below, they have been arranged to spell out the words of the title. Apps comments:

A book can carry ideas that are accessed by learning to read. First words then sentences that can be rearranged to make new meanings. We experience the freedom of turning thought into text. We can share ideas with others. We learn. So how do we arrive at a place where words are so threatening as to provoke such atrocities?

Gallery of some of the books in the Inventory

(Click an image to enlarge it)

Al-Mutanabbi Street book designed by Suzanne Vilmain

This is not the first time that the Mutanabbi Street has inspired an artwork.  Before it closed for renovation, the Imperial War Museum in London had put on display a piece by Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller entitled ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007′. It features the wreckage of a car salvaged after the bombing of Mutanabbi Street.  A witness, Naeem al-Daraji, describes the scene on the museum’s website:

Papers from the book market were floating through the air like leaflets dropped from a plane… Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere.

There is no evidence of human remains in the car and it was unlikely it was occupied. The car was exported from Iraq in May 2007 with the permission of the Iraqi government, and was donated to the New Museum in New York which commissioned the artist Jeremy Deller to turn it into an art installation.

Deller insists that the bombed-out car is not a work of art. It is what it is – a bombed-out car. It represents the charred remains of people that cannot be shown.  For Deller, the remains highlights that it is civilians and not soldiers who are increasing the victims of conflict. At the beginning of the 20th century, 10% of all casualties in conflict were civilians, now that figure is 90%.

Jeremy-Dellers-Iraq-car

One day there will be a museum dedicated to the conflict in Iraq. Until then we have to imagine what it might contain.  A car destroyed in a suicide bomb attack is a familiar image in the Western media, often a convenient replacement for the human form (or a corpse to be more precise). This particular car was destroyed in an attack on the crowded book market at Al-Mutanabbi street in central Baghdad on March 5, 2007. Thirty eight people were killed and hundreds injured. And only recently has the market reopened.  Al-Mutanabbi street is a cultural and social hub of Baghdad, and the attack was inevitably interpreted as an attack on contemporary Iraqi culture itself as opposed to the ancient culture of museums and historic sites.

—Jeremy Deller

The vitality and destruction of  Al-Mutanabbi Street were also captured in a prize-winning documentary shot before and after the bombing called A Candle for the Shahbandar Café:

The rubble in Al-Mutanabbi street was quickly cleared, and today the street is recovering. But many Iraqi writers, scattered into exile by continuing sectarian violence, have not returned.  A local resident quoted in a recent news report stated:

Mutanabbi Street has nothing to do with the reality of Iraq – it is an isolated island, the Iraq of our dreams. While outside we are confronted with violence and silly politicians, the Iraq of our reality, here we have the Iraq of our dreams.  Now, Mutanabbi Street is bustling with activity on Fridays, its narrow expanse crammed with street-side vendors and musty stores packed to the brim with literature. What makes us happy in this place is the lack of intolerance and hatred. Mutanabbi is the best of this country’s culture.

Mutanabbi Street 2012

 

Mutanabbi Street in 2012

 

Mutanabbi Street 2012

Mutanabbi Street in 2012

One of the book artists represented here, Stephanie Sauer, has made this video of her exhibit – ‘I Dare You’ – being constructed  whilst she recites the place and year of every act of recorded book-burning and destruction she could find, from 4100 BCE to the 21st century.  She writes:

I Dare You is my hymn to each and every page, person, symbol, codex, mural, tapestry, scroll, carving and oral account throughout history that has been banned, shamed, destroyed or subverted. Each collaged image is a surviving piece of a work or a culture or a tradition whose destruction was attempted or achieved. Somehow, always, these pieces survive or are remade.

The cities and dates spoken in the film are sites at which books were burned or otherwise destroyed throughout known history. I wanted to not only link them, but to point out that these attempts are not ends. That such targeted works and ideas do in fact continue on, even if they take different forms.  So, destroy this book. Drown it. Question its legitimacy, relevancy, need. Strike a match and light this book aflame.

I Dare You from Copilot Press on Vimeo.

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2 thoughts on “An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I went to the John Rylands Library on 6th March and heard a reading of a couple of poems from the anthology. I wasn’t the only one reduced to tears!
    Ama

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