Mutanabbi Street gives hope in Baghdad
BAGHDAD - The Iraq we know is here. Name the book you’re looking for and you will find it in one of the tens of bookstores lining this famous cultural avenue in the heart of Baghdad.
Like the old days, poets, writers, intellectuals, painters and musicians converge on Mutanabbi Street’s smoke-filled traditional coffee shops to display their assets.
For many Iraqis, this street — named after Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, a poet from the Abbasid Caliphate time who was regarded a master of the Arabic language — offers a glimpse of hope that Iraq is still home to the Arab intellect.
“It’s clear that the stable life we have lived will never be back,” groaned Iraqi novelist Saad Said during an interview with The Arab Weekly. “Yet, Mutanabbi gives us hope that, despite the tough times, we endured. We managed to preserve our culture.”
Iraq’s cultural sector was hurt during international sanctions that followed the country’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The intellect, having blossomed under a strong sense of nationalism stemming from self-proclaimed victory over Iran in an eight-year war that began in 1980, became preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues in the 1990s.
Economic hardships dawned following the war with Iran and in the wake of the embargo that virtually dried up Iraq’s oil revenues because of its banned oil exports and saw the country’s economy almost crumple. Oil-rich Iraq sits atop one of the world’s largest oil reserves.
Many Iraqi professors, journalists, novelists, poets, painters, musicians and other artists, doctors, engineers and other professionals fled to safety in Europe, the United States, Canada and neighbouring Arab countries.
However, those who remained behind are reviving cultural activities in Mutanabbi street where street cafés and bookshops are providing business and pleasure.
And, the momentum is picking up.
Like the old days, poets and book readers throng Mutanabbi, a narrow pedestrian street in central Baghdad lined with bookstores, publishing and printing houses and even street vendors selling books on everything from the Marxist Soviet Union to cooking. Traditional coffee shops are also there and on side streets.
During the weekends, especially on Fridays, Mutanabbi street throbs with pedestrians, including women and children. Some crowd bookstands on the street; others watch poets reciting to their friends as they sip spiced-cooked tea in a corner coffee shop.
Elsewhere on the same street, elderly men converge on another shop to play backgammon and listen to storytellers reading from their newest publications.
“We even discuss politics, which is new to us in Iraq,” Shafika Mattar, an Iraqi journalist, told The Arab Weekly, pointing to how Iraqis were deprived of discussing politics in public fearing police retribution during Saddam Hussein’s autocratic rule.
Hot spots in Mutanabbi are Shahbandar teahouse, Hanash corner, Qishla gardens and building and the Baghdad Cultural Centre.
In the last few years, an added activity surfaced in Mutanabbi: protesters against the state’s corruption, bureaucracy and nepotism venting their concerns. They usually disperse peacefully after shouting anti-government slogans and delivering angry speeches.
“The protesters should find another spot to articulate their demands, unless they are demanding something affecting the cultural scene,” Saad complained, referring to politicised protests, including those against Islamic militants.
Many believe the virulent criticism of militants led to a truck explosion in Mutanabbi that killed at least 39 people and wounded several others in March 2007. The area, which was devastated at the time, was still frequented by its clientele just a day after the blast.
“Mutanabbi street is a bright spot in our gloomy present,” said Ban Jawahiri, the granddaughter of renowned Iraqi poet Mohammed Jawahiri, who dared to speak out against the policies of the ruling Ba’ath Socialist Party in the height of Saddam’s rule.
Mayham Hilo, a consultant dermatologist turned-poet and novelist, began her activities in a Mutanabbi outdoor garden nearly two years ago. She arranges lectures and public debates between the intellect and Iraq’s youth, who make up 50% of the population, on issues affecting their lives.
“My project aims at encouraging the culture of asking questions and getting answers for the sake of people’s right to know what is going on around them,” Hilo said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“It was not easy to carry out such an activity in today’s Iraq,” she said, explaining that at the outset, she received numerous threats by politicians clearly intimidated by the issues discussed.
But as time went on, her crowds grew and her activities became too popular to be silenced, she maintained.
Mutanabbi is also an attraction to foreigners, mainly journalists based in Iraq.
Canadian journalist Jane Arraf said she makes any excuse on Fridays to visit Mutanabbi. “Shabander Teahouse is a reminder of how much has been lost,” Arraf told The Arab Weekly.
“The fact that the owner is still there behind his desk, next to pictures of his sons killed in the explosion, is a testament to an Iraqi spirit and culture that can’t be extinguished.”
Several months after the bombing, owner Mohammed Hayali banned Americans from his teahouse because he was frustrated by US policies. He blamed Washington for “ruining” his country with its invasion in 2003, which ultimately saw violence gripping a country, once the symbol of Arab pride.
Under Saddam, Iraq fought a draining war with Iran to stem its growing influence in a region traditionally ruled by rival Sunni Arab governments who accuse Shia Tehran of seeking to control them.
“I’m not sure if he still keeps that policy but, as a foreigner, I feel lucky to be able to sit here surrounded by so much history and humbled by so much tragedy,” Arraf added.
Indeed, Hayali, during interviews with visiting journalists, still condemns the United States for destroying Iraq but he is easing his rejection of American customers, allowing some in — as long as they are journalists. In the 2007 blast, Hayali lost three sons and three grandsons.
At one point, Zahra, an 11-year-old street beggar who is a familiar face to many in Mutanabbi, walked into the Hayali’s shop, wearing what appeared to be medical eyeglasses. The brunette is special to many, always carrying drawing papers and coloured pens ready to learn painting, after finishing her “job” of collecting enough money from passers-by.
“How do you like my new look?” she threw the comment at a crowd in the shop, playfully.
Replying to whether she started wearing medical eyeglasses, Zahra said, “These are just fashionable glasses to fit in with the crowd in Mutanabbi!”