Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Burning of Mutanabbi Street

An excellent post by IraqPundit about the Burning of Mutanabbi Street:

'On Monday, a car bomb exploded on Baghdad's Mutanabbi Street, killing 26 people and injuring scores more. Wanton murders like this remain frequent in the capital, with "insurgent" ghouls intentionally blowing up young schoolgirls and women in outdoor markets. Still, there was an extra ache in the terrible news from Mutanabbi Street, an old byway dear to the memory of all Baghdadis for its booksellers, its bookbinders, its stationers, and its cafes. The poignant image of the wrecked street, with countless bits of burning paper floating down on the stunned residents, reflected an attack not only on Baghdad's people, but on the city's heart and memory as well.

Yet all sense of poignancy vanished for me when I saw The Washington Post's account of the bombing, which included the following breathtaking assertion: "When Saddam Hussein was in power, Mutanabi [sic] Street exuded a defiant spirit that reverberated through its bookstores and the famed Shabandar Cafe. Here, intellectuals, over cups of sweet tea, engaged in lively debates."

What an astonishing thing to claim. Suggesting that Saddam's regime tolerated a "defiant" café culture is, in its own way, another blow at Baghdad's heart and memory. It isn't merely that the statement is untrue, it's deeply unjust to the Baghdadis of intellect who had to live through Saddam's years of unrestrained brutality. Far from enjoying openly defiant cafe debates, such figures risked prison, exile, and even death because of their views. Furthermore, even if the Post's reporter is writing out of simple ignorance, the result is another sign of a revisionist "softening" of the memory of Saddam's rule, one that suggests that even he had his saving graces.

It's certainly true that Mutanabbi Street was once a gathering place for Baghdad's intellectuals. If Cairo is the great city of Arab writers, Baghdad was once the great city of Arab readers, and Mutanabbi Street was where they went to browse the new arrivals, Arab and foreign. The street goes back to Ottoman times; the bakeries that made the bread for the Turkish garrisons were nearby. Under the British-imposed monarchy that ruled the newly created Iraq, the city's journalists, poets, and thinkers would gather there to debate the changes that were sweeping across a modernizing and then-optimistic Middle East. By mid-century, the monarchy was gone, and Iraqi poets were advancing a "Free Verse" movement that was revolutionizing Arabic poetry. They too gathered in the street's cafes. But that was before Saddam tried to paralyze the Iraqi mind.

Saddam banned many books, and filled Mutanabbi Street with informers. Suggesting that a defiant café culture flourished there under his rule is not only absurd, it's cruel. Baghdad featured brave and defiant men and women, but they certainly weren't expressing their subversive ideas in public cafes, or requesting dangerous books along Mutanabbi Street. This was a world where Sartre was banned, Kafka was banned, Orwell was certainly banned, even Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was banned. The most interesting books one might find along the street appeared when Baghdadis who had been impoverished by the sanctions regime were forced to sell their beloved old volumes.

Iraqi intellectual life was a tragicomedy under Saddam. Don't forget that he fancied himself a great novelist, and that Baghdad's literati had to shower him with praise for his embarrassing junk, proclaiming him the flower of Iraqi letters. Do you suppose they made even carefully veiled jokes at his expense at the Shabandar Café?

After Saddam was overthrown, and before the "insurgency" began its almost daily massacres, there was a spate of stories about the revival of Iraqi intellectual life: a suddenly multiplying Iraqi press, revived university activity, newly free writers and playwrights, etc. Among the most frequent such stories, because it was easy to do, was the revival of Mutanabbi Street, where the booksellers quickly were enriching their stocks. A touching detail of those reports was that among the newly available books most in demand were up-to-date technical volumes. Saddam had made even those unavailable. Now it has become possible to assert that such a regime tolerated a defiant café world.

By revisionist increments, sometimes (as in this case) by apparent ignorance, the memory of Saddam's brutality may be giving way to a softer image of his rule. A major example of this process is the common claim that , after all, women could pursue relatively liberated professional lives under his regime. But women owe no more to Saddam than do intellectuals. Baghdad women began removing the veil and entering professions in the early 20th century, when women throughout the region were challenging traditional barriers. When Saddam came along, successful careers remained open primarily to those women who embraced Baathism. It was not liberation, it was a setback, just as the supposed tolerance of a defiant Mutanabbi Street is an illusion.

By the way, Mutanabbi Street is named for one of the greatest of Arab poets, a 10th century native of Kufa whose most famous line is, "I am known to night and horses and the desert, to sword and lance, to parchment and pen." His is an apt name for a street of poets and booksellers, his line an apt evocation of the poet as warrior, and the power and resilience of the word. The Iraqi word has had much to survive in its modern history. Those Baghdadis now clearing away the wreckage of Mutanabbi Street, and sweeping up its precious, charred pages, know that it will survive this too.'

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I liked the look in again