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Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! Event: Central Library Opening Reception

  • Multnomah Central Library 801 SW 10th Avenue Portland, OR (map)

Join us for an opening reception of the Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! international traveling exhibition.

The program will include opening remarks from Baher Butti, founder of Iraqi Society of Oregon; keynote presentation from Yasmeen Hanoosh, Ph.D Assistant Professor of Arabic from Portland State University; artist’s perspective from Bettina Pauly, a San Francisco printer and book artist; and live entertainment from Ronny Hermiz. Light refreshments provided.

The reception took place in the Collins Gallery located on the 3rd floor of the Central Library. Here is Dr. Hanoosh's keynote address. 

Al-Mutanabbi Street is Here Again: The Phoenix Rises

On a day like this in 2007, a car bomb detonated in Baghdad’s historic al-Mutanabbi Street, leaving a scene that had grown familiar in Baghdad since the last, but not least, U.S. occupation in 2003—It was a collage of chaotic images, grotesque in their brutality, harrowing in their repetition. Approximately thirty people died and one hundred were wounded. Old and new buildings lay in ruins, books turned to dust, and many landmarks such as the al-Maktaba al-cAsriyya (bookstore founded in 1908), and the famous intellectual hub, al-Shahbandar Café (founded in 1917), were destroyed. The sons and grandchildren of the café’s owner were murdered, as were many booksellers, readers, and passersby. The Street reopened the following year, to resume its bustling life, its booksellers’ relentless book commerce, and its consumers’ insatiable thirst for words.

In an anthology on al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, Antony Shadid reminds us that, unlike the U.S. soldiers who died during this unjustified occupation, the names of most Iraqi civilians, who died on this street or the tens of other streets that witnessed similar scenes of carnage, will never be published.[1] These names will remain shrouded by the anonymity of the thick cloud of death this war-torn country has seen since the occupation.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, this international traveling exhibition and project for which we gather each year on March 5, was conceived to commemorate the heinous attack on al-Mutanabbi Street. It is a unique initiative of solidarity, a reaffirmation of the power of culture, of books, of art as antidote to barbaric violence and the mainstream acceptance of this violence.  The idea of the coalition started in San Francisco but soon attracted hundreds of artists and poets from all over the world, attempting to keep our political memory awake and our actions, no matter how symbolic, aligned with our deepest sense of humanity. The venue is unique, as Iraqi novelist, poet, and NYU professor Sinan Antoon mentioned in his AUC address a few years ago,[2] because it goes against the tendency toward political amnesia in the United States. This amnesia is particularly strong when it comes to war crimes perpetrated in Iraq since the early 1990s.

More than anything, al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here is an urgent call for solidarity beyond national borders, imperialist triumphs, and corrupt political systems—today, it continues as testimony to the inevitable perseverance of what is most human in us, what is most gentle and fragile yet what comes to rescue us from our own barbarism time and again: the word; the word that bears the key to our lament about Iraq, that unhealable rift of justice that will not cease to pain when invoked; the word, which is at the same time that boundless celebration of the pact between humanity and culture, between the reader and the book, between history and the moment, and between love and the will to life.

  We commemorate the destruction of al-Mutanabbi street and celebrate its revival today not because books and culture are more important than the anonymous Iraqi civilians who died there and elsewhere, but because of the Street’s iconic status as Baghdad’s human pulse and its custodian of knowledge and memory.

Al-Mutanabbi Street lies at the heart of old Baghdad, between al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad’s other major artery, and the Eastern bank of the Tigris River. It was founded in the tenth century when Baghdad evolved during the Abbasid period as the largest city in the known world. At the time it carried an Aramaic name, Darb Zakha (Zakha alley), and housed shops, outdoor stalls of scribes, booksellers, and stationary vendors as it does today. The street’s name change to Jāddat Ali Basha (Ali Basha’s Avenue) when the Ottomans occupied the area and housed the military headquarters there. By the time the country came under the rule of the British authorities in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the street bore the name of Souq al-Saray (al-Saray Market), which is still the name of a famous adjacent stationary market today. This expanding administrative district has continually been a dynamic multicultural, mutli-denominational oasis where political, religious, and class differences are situationally disabled or openly debated.

The current name was acquired in the 1930s when Faysal, the first king of Iraq, designated a committee of urban planners (Amānat Baghdad) to choose more culturally and historically laden names for the major streets in Iraqi. And so it were that in 1936 the old street acquired the famous Abbasid poet’s name, which it still bears today: al-Mutanabbi.

Not only does the founding of al-Mutanabbi street go back to the tenth century, but also the poet whose name it carries today. Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi is known to many in the Arab world as the greatest of the classical poets. No one knows exactly how the choice fell on al-Mutanabbi’s name but it is also not a farfetched choice when many Iraqi poets and intellectuals throughout the twentieth century have engaged intertextually with al-Mutanabbi’s oeuvre as they recognized themselves in his personal and political conflicts with the authorities. Also aptly, Al-Mutanabbi is the poet who had famously stated that the greatest companion in life is the book (wa khayru jalīs-in fi-l-zamāni kitabu). Al-Mutanabbi’s idealism and chauvinism have also made him the iconic focus of the modernist project and its literary output that dealt passionately with nationalism and political resistance.

The inescapable proverbial wisdom in al-Mutanabbi’s verse, and his unconventional insistence to fuse the standard public hyperbolic genre of panegyric with personal poetic voice put the poet’s unique verse on the lips of people from diverse social and educational backgrounds throughout the centuries. Indeed, al-Mutanabbi’s aphorisms are so ingrained in the Arab social fabric, most notably the Iraqi collective psyche, that you may encounter them as idioms in the daily language of people who do not realize their source.

            In her reading of his oeuvre, al-Mutanabbi scholar Margaret Larkin suggests that the poet’s ego, or one might say the personal persona of his poems, often came to replace the patron as the focal point of the panegyric, thus undermining the authority of the genre itself.[3] In a way, al-Mutanabbi Street has behaved like the poet across time. First it was created by the elite of the Abbsid dynasty and then maintained by Ottoman and British administrators. It was later decorated and restored by the Bacthis regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s to serve as part of the cultural façade of the Iraqi Capital. Yet it quickly fell into disrepair in the 1990s. Al-Mutanabbi Street has often undermined the reductive narratives of its rulers to serve instead as a microcosm of Baghdad’s plural society. During the sanctions years of the 1990s, when astronomical inflation rates made printed books virtually unaffordable, and while resisting censorship and frequent raids by Saddam Hussein’s secret agents, the “photocopy book” phenomenon flourished in al-Mutanabbi Street. Banned, critical books carrying false book covers of cookbooks and fashion magazines circulated fervently in the relentless black market of al-Mutanabbi Street.

Perhaps al-Mutanabbi Street witnessed its most surreal scene during that decade. While many middle-class families sold their books on the Friday market’s makeshift stalls in order to feed their children, new and old intellectuals owed the appearance of their dissident voices to the new phenomenon of the photocopy book.  As the economic embargo fastened its grip around the country, the prices of printed books soared and they gradually disappeared from the market. By 1994, when inflation rates reached 448.5% according to World Bank data, the number of state-sponsored publications declined by approximately half and two-thirds, and 315 publishing venues were closed.[4] A new class of “photocopy intellectuals” actively engaged in pirating canonical works of Arabic and international literature and cultural theory and circulating copies of these books in al-Mutanabbi Street for affordable prices.[5] Meanwhile the local writers began self-publishing small, low-quality copies of their own books and photocopying them for local circulation. Owing their appearance to this informal and uncensored market at al-Mutanabbi Street, for the first time in almost a decade, novels and poems written inside Iraq attempted to portray the disrepair of Iraqi culture. After 2003, like Baghdad itself, the street attracted international attention but was largely left vulnerable and in disrepair by the occupation. An impetuous haven of diversity and free thinking, the street stood proud in the face of the imperialist encroachment of the US army in the heart of the historic commercial and administrative district.

Like the poet, life in the street went on despite the sectarian blood feuds that drenched Baghdad’s other streets, defiant with the trove treasures of timeless knowledge it harbored. Even as its people—booksellers, patrons, and passersby—were haplessly massacred in 2007, the street survived. Not only did it literally reemerged from its own ashes, but also it lives on today to retell the many tales of its glory and to serve a new youthful, more hopeful generation of Iraqi literati. It travels to us at this hopeful time of spring—as it does each year on March 5 through the exhibits of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here—bringing new words and art creations to remind us that word is memory and that memory is witness.  An exile yet proud, self-possessed prodigy, like al-Mutanabbi the poet, banished and disowned by the many regimes that once claimed his talent, the Street rambles to us, asking that we simply witness.


[1] Antony Shadid, “The Bookseller’s Story, Ending Much Too Soon,” Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad's "Street of the Booksellers”, Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi (eds.)PM Press, 2012, 3.

[2] Sinan Antoon, “Al-Mutanabbi Street: Topophilia and Violence” Speech at the American University in Cairo, March 6, 2014.

[3] Margaret Larkin, Al-Mutanabbi: The Poet of Sultans and Sufis, Oneworld Publications, 2008, 128-129.

[4] Erick Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. UC Press, 2005, 240, 241.

[5] Muḥammad Ghāzi al-Akhras, Kharīf al-muthaqqaf fi-l-ʿIrāq (The Autumn of the Intellectual

in Iraq; Beirut: al-Tanwīr, 2011), 54-5.  See also“Li-Nashr Acmālihim Muthaqqafū al-cIrāq Ibtakarū Thaqāfat al-Istinsākh,”(In Order to Publish their Works, Iraq’s Intellectuals Invented Photocopy Culture), Aljazeera, June 6, 2001