When a car bomb obliterates Iraq’s millennium-old literary heart, a bookseller seven thousand miles away resolves that the voices of Al-Mutanabbi Street will not be forgotten.
Before the bomb, Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad appeared to be made of books: they littered the sidewalks, waved from tables and carts, sat on shelves inside bookstores, and peeped at passersby through the windows. The booksellers, like hawkers at the market, advertised the freshness and nourishment of their wares, tempting bookworms with what was in season, from a first edition to an eighteenth-century manuscript to the latest book in a foreign language. Dusty children dodged ivory-colored Ottoman pillars and piles of books as tall as themselves to pry wallets and phones from the pockets of eager book buyers, who realized their loss only after they had sought refuge in al-Shahbandar Coffee House for a drink and a smoke. Before the bomb, the nooks and crannies of Al-Mutanabbi Street were the classrooms and libraries where enlightenment sparked, master’s theses began, doctoral research continued, and publications celebrated. Dictionaries and diaries, notebooks and novels, pencils and portraits canoodled late into the night, and no journalist, writer, student, or professor ever felt ill-equipped on Al-Mutanabbi Street. Signs for each bookstore and stationery shop were crammed one below the other, a clutter of titles tempting those below. Before the bomb, politics were challenged, poetry recalled and recited, dominoes won, hookah enjoyed, and radio alternated between the news and Oum Kalthoum’s songs, which students, professors, clerics, and tourists alike stopped to absorb.
On the morning of March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded and Al-Mutanabbi Street before the bomb ceased to exist. Bookstores turned into burned-out shells, infinite reams of paper endlessly aflame, the smell getting stuck in every crevice of Al-Mutanabbi Street, the sound of flicking pages smothered by coughs and cries. Thirty were killed and one hundred wounded; the street was destroyed, al-Shabandar Coffee House a mass of rubble and smashed water pipes. the New York Times reported that firefighters turned their hoses onto the smoking ruins, “only to have flames reignite because the paper had been transformed into kindling.” It was as if the literary and cultural center of Baghdad, symbolic of the knowledge exchange that had taken place here since the eighth century, was mourning itself.
It is unclear whether or not the bomb was directed at the pages of learning, discovery, and curiosity that had brought book lovers from all over the world to Al-Mutanabbi Street, where the old Arab saying “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads” echoed off all the pillars. No one claimed responsibility. But when Beau Beausoleil read about the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street the day after it happened, sitting at his kitchen table on Lisbon Street in San Francisco, he could feel the ash on his fingers. “My bookstore would have been on that street,” he says. “That forced distance between myself and the Iraqi people dropped away. I was no different from any Iraqi in that situation.”
Beausoleil is an ex-army sergeant and cryptographic repairman in his seventies who has worked in bookstores for most of the last forty years, and run his own in San Francisco for the past ten. Literature has been part of his daily routine since he can remember, and his eleven published books of poetry are a testament to his dedication to the arts. He wears a long white beard and speaks carefully.
Beausoleil speaks in metaphor not just out of habit but because metaphor builds bridges in language—what he is trying to bridge in real life with Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, the coalition he founded. “We are among the pages of every book that was shredded and burned and covered with flesh and blood that day,” he proclaimed in the first flyer of protest he printed only a few weeks after the bombing. He also shared it over e-mail with poets, writers, and artists he knew, and they spread the word over the “arts grapevine.”
What was until now an ongoing national crisis had become immediately personal to Beausoleil. In order to do something more than print posters, he turned to the people he thought would best express his pain and channel their own: letterpress printers. Reduced today to printing wedding invitations and literary minutiae, letterpress printers regularly produced provocative broadsides until as recently as the Vietnam War, which Beausoleil protested against on the streets of California, having spent time in Korea and on a ship in the Pacific working in cryptography and missile testing before leaving the army. “Those sheets could be put up on the side of a building, or the side of a tree, to bring people together, and I wanted that again,” Beausoleil says. “I wanted something large and physical that people would encounter,” that announced and aroused the public outrage they had in decades past. With their trademark bold lettering—think posters, playbills, “wanted” notices—broadsides were suited to be the “first responders” to the destruction of Baghdad’s bookselling community.
If broadsides were people, they would be opinionated, confrontational. Dr. Simran Thadani of the University of Pennsylvania, who holds a doctorate in English with a specialty in book history, uses the word “extravagant.” Giving the example of “The Ninety-Five Theses” that Martin Luther pinned to the door of a church in 1517, she points out that broadsides not only had to attract public attention and be legible but were only printed on one side. “Half their possible printing area was wasted,” she says, forcing broadsides to be loud and eloquent in limited real estate. Thadani compares them to newspapers, which are as “large and physical” as a broadside and often called “broadsheet” print. There is a relationship. “The broadside might well be considered a kind of proto-newspaper,” she says.
So it is not surprising that Beausoleil, similarly steeped in literature, went straight to the broadside to disseminate headlines of solidarity to the public. “There is a tactile experience of reading,” he says, “a physical manifestation of words and language and emotion.” Thus galvanizing his world of writers, poets, booksellers, and artists, he led them into a liminal space that merged Lisbon Street and Al-Mutanabbi Street, where broadsides expressed and gathered community and where lines of poetry could turn into tangible art. After a successful inaugural exhibit of broadsides in San Francisco in September 2007, he began organizing broadside exhibits and readings in allied cities around the country. The first reading was at the San Francisco Public Library, where Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet and novelist with a doctorate from Harvard University and currently teaching at New York University, was the first to get up and read, and shared his poem “Wars.”
when I was torn by war
I took a brush
immersed in death
and drew a window
on war’s wall
I opened it
I saw another war
and a mother
weaving a shroud
for the dead man
still in her womb
Thadani understands Beausoleil’s impulse—intuition, even, for the broadside. “Because of the nature of the crime—the obliteration of Baghdad’s book district—the reaction to create book art and new printed artifact seems absolutely perfect, not only as a means of responding to the crisis but also to jump-start new cultural creation out of that moment of destruction,” she says.
“Shared cultural spaces have always been under attack; there had to be a response from my own cultural community to a tragedy like this,” Beausoleil says. But community does not equal commiseration. “It’s not sympathy that we’re looking for. It’s a recognition of what is already there, that we share this space, this cultural space, all cultural spaces. An attack on one is an attack on us all.”
Al-Mutanabbi Street was like so many streets all over the world where books are sold, bought, browsed, thumbed through, read. “Anywhere where someone sits down and begins to write towards the truth. Anywhere where someone picks up a book to read. That’s where Al-Mutanabbi Street starts,” Beausoleil says, explaining how the project got its name. Starting in San Francisco, he names the street where the Arab Cultural Center is located. Then the street where the Cambridge Arts Council is located. A street in Cambridge, Boston, San Francisco, Omaha, Detroit, New York—all sites of exhibits and memorial readings since the bombing. And in Damascus, Aleppo, Beijing, Tehran, the metaphorical extension of Al-Mutanabbi Street.“All of those places hold artists and writers that want to write towards the truth. We honor all of those people—this project does—and feels that there’s room on Al-Mutanabbi Street for all of us to stand together.”
Which is how 130 broadsides—symbolic for the 130 dead and wounded on March 5, 2007—were printed by 2010, by letterpress printers in Europe, the US, and the UK. Beausoleil and his British co-coordinator, Sarah Bodman, then launched an artist book project. These are books created by artists, “who take the texts that they’re working with into a place that is so deep within themselves that their own life can’t help but be integrated into their work. And they take that, and then bring it from that deep place, into a visual space, that we can all share,” Beausoleil says. Artists collaborated with contemporary poets, or drew from a database of North African and Middle Eastern poetry that Beausoleil compiled, to create eye-catching, evocative pieces of art inspired by the physicality of a book: a toy truck with paper bursting out of the back; burned pages of poetry stitched together with fabric. Beausoleil requested artists to create three versions of each book, so that they could be exhibited as internationally as possible, accompany readings and supplement shows of the original 130 broadsides.
As a scholar, Thadani is fascinated by book art. “There is so much more to books beyond that standard shape and format. Book artists experiment with the interplay of form and content: what a book object ‘says’ is connected to how it looks or what it does or how you operate it.”
While none of the work is judged or compensated, artists and writers from the U.S., Iraq, Canada, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and France (to list a few) have collaborated on unique creations. Steve Motika, Program Director at Poets House in New York City, curated one of the exhibits and praised the book art as objects of “power and beauty” that bring audiences together. The project, as a coalition, form of expression, and artistic exhibit, “had a nice chemistry, interweaving demographics and interests.”
Beausoleil echoes Thadani’s and Motika’s opinion that book art is not a curatorial whimsy. “The worst thing this project can revert to is a traveling art show. I do not want that.” He kept the artists’ books away from the third floor of universities and libraries—“that’s usually where the rare books are kept”—because he did not want them treated like artifacts. “These artist books represent living, present moments from the bombing, as well as the before and the after. They’re displayed together for that reason.”
After several years of trying, Beausoleil finally got through to the director of Baghdad’s national library—which he described as a “gigantic moat around a public figure”—and was delighted when Dr. Saad Eskander immediately understood his hope to take the Iraqi people’s suffering “into ourselves and acknowledge it, and respond to it.” Beausoleil’s voice lightens as he recalls Eskander’s positive reaction. “He said, ‘I want these broadsides for the national library, for the archive. I think it’s important that the Iraqi people see this work.’”
The national library is about a mile away from Al-Mutanabbi Street, where all of this began, although the street’s beginning was much earlier. When the Abbaasid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the eighth century, the district surrounding Al-Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops, writes Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University. He continues: “Perhaps it is difficult for contemporary readers to imagine the extent to which the book industry thrived during that period. Books were produced in almost unlimited numbers. Especially after the emergence of the paper industry in Baghdad (the art of papermaking having been reputedly transferred through some Chinese travelers or captives), books were available in abundance. Scholars with many students could get hundreds of copies of their books. The demand was unabating.”
Abu ’l-Taiyib Ahmad ibn al-Husain was a poet who rose to popularity at this time. As a precocious youth, he disguised himself as a Prophet with a new Koran. Although he was found out and punished, his temerity and talent for poetry gave him the moniker Al-Mutanabbi, or “the man who set himself up as a prophet.” The poet who took on the identity of a prophet in turn gave Al-Mutanabbi Street a much larger identity. Since then, Al-Mutanabbi Street has established itself as the repository of the earliest written expressions of creativity and audacity, as the “power and beauty” that Motika describes that brings audiences together, that in this case brought all genres of the curious man—writers, travelers, students, leaders, booksellers—together.
Oded Halahmy, a Jewish Iraqi sculptor and poet resettled in New York City, recalls the Al-Mutanabbi Street of the 1940s. His father would spend evenings there, at a teahouse, listening to the news on the single radio that held everyone under its spell. The news was delivered in classic Arabic, which not everyone understood. “So if a peasant is having sweet, black tea with five teaspoons of sugar,” Halahmy says with a smile, “and he doesn’t understand the news, he will ask my father, ‘What did the radio say?’” And on a street that embodies the free exchange of ideas, “of course, [my father] tells him.”
Experts insist that Al-Mutanabbi’s panegyric poetry, praised for its “bold imagination and hypnotizing metaphors and hyperboles” is near impossible to translate into English without losing the original cadence, context, and flair. In contrast, the multilingual coalition by the same name is steadily growing.
In the introduction to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers,” Beausoleil quotes his friend and Iraqi film director Maysoon Pachachi, who says, “We will see how long it will take for Al-Mutanabbi Street to get its soul back” in response to the street slowly reopening in 2008. When asked, how long will it take, Beausoleil responds with a question: “Can I tell you a story?”
Beausoleil cites early-twentieth-century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca for a term he coined, duende, which, Beausoleil explains, captures the “inexpressible thing of truth and art.” In an essay on the subject, Lorca himself quoted Goethe, who attempted to define duende as “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” Connecting it to the resurgence of Al-Mutanabbi Street’s “soul,” Beausoleil says, “you can’t pin it down, but you know it when you see it, and I will say that about the soul of Al-Mutanabbi Street.”
The New York Times and other media outlets have reported that the street is coming back to life, albeit slowly. The Friday curfew—imposed deliberately on the busiest day of the week—has been lifted and booksellers are back, creating their crossword-puzzle-like arrangements of books on the ground for people to browse. The walls of bookshelves that lean like canvases along the pillared walls are more than half-empty, but the few books on them flutter in the wake of a customer breezing past. Most of the street is cleaned up and painted over, shuttered storefronts have reopened, and al-Shahbandar Coffee House is serving coffee and smokes again. The atmosphere is that of something waking up after a deep sleep, the nightmares long past.
Looking ahead, Beausoleil is excited for the 130 broadsides that will start to be exhibited at the national library in Baghdad in late 2016 and the anniversary readings that take place every year all over the U.S. and U.K. He acknowledges that Baghdad is still too unstable to visit, but he hopes to visit Iraq someday, he says, and “meet some of the Iraqis that I only know through this keyboard.” For now, the goal is to deliver 260 artist books as well—symbolically, double the death toll, but he uses the word “goal” carefully. “There is no ‘end’ or ‘goal’ for this project,” he says. Recalling a preinterview with the BBC in London a few years ago, he says, “They really wanted a goal.” He laughs. “I want the project to stay like a constant irritant.” There is no turning the page; there can be no moving away from the suffering that Al-Mutanabbi Street endured. “That’s why I like broadsides,” he says. “There’s no page to turn.”
* * *
Aditi Sriram is a writer and editor. She is working on a novel set in India and adapting her chapters for “harikatha,” an ancient Indian oral storytelling tradition that she premiered at the Bowery Poetry Club in October 2013. She holds an MFA from The New School and studied mathematics at Columbia University before that. She has lived in New York City for ten years.
Molly DeCoudreaux is a freelance photographer in San Francisco with a focus on food, environmental portraiture, and local designers. She has a pit bull, collects animal tchotchkes, & lives above a music studio.