Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: rebuilding Iraqi literature

Seven years ago Iraq's writers would gather in Al-Mutannabi Street, the literary district in Baghdad, sip coffee and consider the latest publications. Named after the classical 10th-century poet, the street was home to an abundant array of bookshops, market stalls, publishers, printers and cafes.

But in March 2007 a car bomb exploded on the street destroying many of the texts there that ranged from history, political theory and poetry to children's books. The blast killed 30 and injured more than 100, and took with it the memories of centuries worth of literary gatherings.Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: rebuilding Iraqi literature

On hearing about the attack, San Francisco poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil set up the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project in solidarity with the booksellers whose lives had been torn apart, connecting them with other bookshops, libraries, universities and arts organisations across the world.

Along with artist Sarah Bodman, Beausoleil called on artists and writers to replace the publications that had been for sale on the street by producing three books that "reflect both the strength and fragility of books, but also show the endurance of the ideas within them." There are now more than 500 artists taking part from over 20 countries.

Eventually, the complete set of books will be donated to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad, but for now a selection of them, along with other visual and textual responses to the bombing, are completing an international tour currently showing at the Mosaic Rooms in London until the 22 February.

Iraqi literature is no stranger to war and destruction, and the impact this can have on the creative industry. The country has lived through the Iran Iraq war from 1980 - 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the US-led invasion in 2003. This, along with 13-years worth of sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, has forced many writers into exile.

It is not just Iraq that has suffered the destruction of literature and therefore its cultural heritage. "Regimes have traditionally gone after printers to stop the dissemination of ideas,"said Beausoleil in an interview with The Arabic Hour.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: rebuilding Iraqi literatureIn the late 70s Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime burnt books as part of an effort to remove religious and imperialistic influences from the country; in May 1933 texts considered'‘un-German' were burned under the Nazi regime, including those of Jewish authors or books considered to be anarchist or communist.

Closer to home, in January this year up to a third of Lebanon's library The Pilgrim's Bookshop in Tripoli was destroyed by a fire. The following day, filmmaker Mu'taz Salloum created a Facebook event and invited people to help clean up the library and as a result publishers, universities and the Lebanese Ministry of Culture have sent books to replace them. An online crowd-funding effort for the project has been set up and so far around $25,000 has been pledged for the project.

Whist the burning or destruction of books represents censorship and an opposition to the cultural, religious or political material contained in the literature, the replacing or rebuilding of the work - like in the case of Lebanon's library or the Al-Mutanabbi Street project - shows the power of what communities working together can achieve and highlights the importance of preserving a country's cultural heritage.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: rebuilding Iraqi literature

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor