An iconic event happened on March 5, 2007.
A car bomb exploded on al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing 30 and wounding 100, which made it no different from hundreds of other explosions across the country which continue to this day—bombings that kill and maim the innocent.
But this was al Mutanabbi Street, the ancient booksellers’ street, the street of the Shabandar Café where Iraqi writers, intellectuals and ordinary people would congregate to work, to write and to converse, to discuss and to argue about ideas.
This was an attack on books and on ideas.
As such, it joined a long history of the ritual burning of books, like the one that took place in Nazi Germany on May 10, 1933, in an organized and orchestrated effort to discourage the pursuit of truth and the free expression of ideas. It was an attack that realized, in one fell swoop, the warning issued by the beloved nineteenth century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote, "Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people."
This was an attack that pierced the heart of San Francisco poet and bookseller, Beau Beausoliel. Beau, feeling the need to respond in some way to this atrocity, knowing that he, too, was being attacked, that he was al Mutanabbi Street, put out a call to letterpress printers and poets, to create a broadside, to express their own responses to the bombing.
And so al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! Coalition was born. Beau's call, facilitated by Oakland printer, Kathleen Walkup, resulted in 43 broadsides in just a few months. Ultimately, within two years of the original call, 130 printers, poets and artists had responded and Beau had added a co-cordinator, Sarah Bodman in the UK. They began to organize showings and readings and conversations that grew out of the responses to these 130 broadsides, one for each person killed or wounded on that tragic day. Over the next five years he and Sarah organized 23 exhibits, starting in October of 2007 at the San Francisco Center for the Book, including five in Great Britain, two in Ireland, one in Canada and one in the Netherlands, and culminating at The Powell Library Rotunda at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, from March 5 to April 30, 2012. The 2008 exhibit at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, resulted in a permanent digital collection of all 130 broadsides.
In 2010 Beau and Sarah issued a second call, for book artists to create a response to the bombing, asking “for work that reflected both the targeted attack on this 'street of the booksellers’ as well as the ultimate futility of those who try to erase thought.” Over the next two years, 260 book artists from across the country and around the world responded. By 2012 the exhibits began to contain a mix of broadsides and artist’s books and over the next three years the 24 exhibits expanded their reach into the Middle East at the American University in Cairo, Egypt and revisited four sites in England, one in Canada and one in the Netherlands. Sarah Bodman of the University of West England became the coordinator for the International exhibits and the book arts digital collection.
In 2012 Beau and Deema Shehabi edited a widely reviewed and highly praised anthology of 288 poems, stories and essays written by 110 international poets, journalists and writers (many of whom are Iraqi) who were responding to the bombing. More recently in late 2013 Beau issued another call for print makers to respond and is now in the process of receiving the prints from 260 artists who have pledged to contribute and has had the first exhibit of the prints at the San Francisco Center for the Book earlier this year. Art Hazelwood, Cathy DeForest, Denise Brady, Amy Haney, Stephanie Stigliano, and Ronni Komarow, all artists in the coalition, have all volunteered to coordinate and manage the reception of these prints. Catherine Cartwright is the UK coordinator for the print project.
From Beau Beausoliel’s first call, over the past eight years, through the production of over 600 works of art and through the more than 50 exhibitions and the more than 150 programs that have accompanied these exhibits, our purpose has been to express solidarity with the Iraqi people and to take the lesson from the bombing of Al Mutanabbi Street to heart—to understand that the attack, born of cynicism and hatred and ignorance, was not only on life and property but, more fundamentally, on ideas and on culture itself. For where books are present and the circulation and reading of books and the conversations surrounding the stories and ideas contained in the books are present, we find, there, the heart of our modern civilization, our politics, our culture. We find the heart of our very own identity as people. So our choice is to join hands with our Iraqi brothers and sisters, to join hands with all those with whom we have contact and to work always to forge new bonds between people, within and across cultures. We must listen to each other. We must talk with one another.
This has been the driving motivation behind the presence of al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here!, from New York City to San Francisco, from Dearborn, Michigan to Boston, Massachusetts5, from Dublin, to Bristol, to Brighton, to Manchester, to the Hague, Netherlands, to Cairo, Egypt and to all the other places that have shown the international exhibit or have held commemorative events on March 5th each year since the bombing.
Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! in Portland Oregon
Portland joined the coalition in 2014 and put together a commemorative event on March 5th at the Multnomah Friends Meeting House. The event on a very rainy Wednesday evening drew over 70 people, 35 of whom were Iraqi refugees. The evening was filled with English and Arabic readings, Iraqi music and art and homemade Iraqi food but the highlight of the evening was when each refugee stood and spoke their name and told, sometimes through a translator, a bit about themselves—where they came from and how long they had been in the United States. Their testimonies were moving.
Building on the success of our first event, the next year we moved to the Smith Memorial Student Union on the campus of Portland State University. We had an over-flow crowd of more than 120 people, an estimated 60% of whom were Iraqi refugees who are now living in the Portland area. We heard, spoken in Arabic, with English translations on the PowerPoint screen, the stories of three Iraqi women--Madiha, Suuad and Dhoha--and the poetry of Omar Al Ghareeb. The audience was rapt by the stories and broke into spontaneous applause several times as Omar was reciting his poem, Paintings, in Arabic.
In addition to this we heard the poetry of local poet, Gail Barker, who spoke her poem, Love Letter from Baghdad, in English with Arabic translation on the screen behind her and we heard personal stories from two Iraqi refugee high school students, Reem Alkattan and Adam Dezay, who also spoke in English with Arabic translations on the screen. We served an exquisite Iraqi meal with a variety of biriani and tabsi recipes, accented with yogurt and cucumber salad and wonderful desserts of ground nut meats with cheese.
Throughout the evening we were entertained by the music of Ronny Hermiz and his Kurdish keyboard accompanist as well as by some classic Iraqi love songs sung eloquently by Dhoha. The evening closed out with an energetic dabke dance, snaking in and around and through the tables. All of this was the result of a cooperative effort by the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! Coalition, the Iraqi Student Club of Portland State University, the Iraqi Society of Oregon and the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement. The Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University and the World Affairs Council of Oregon generously provided publicity for our event.
In 2016 our March 5th commemorative celebration will coincide with the opening of Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! International Exhibit being hosted by The Collins Gallery in the Multnomah Library’s beautiful 1906 Carnegie building on SW 10th Avenue in downtown Portland and simultaneously in the Community Room in the Museum of Contemporary Crafts on NW Davis Street in the Pearl District of downtown Portland. A third site is in the AB Gallery in the lobby of the Art + Design building on the Portland State University campus. This exhibit will move to the Portland Community College, Sylvania campus library in the months of April and May. The idea is to expose the exhibit to as broad a segment of Portland’s population as possible. Beyond this exposure we will schedule multiple events in a wide range of venues with a wide range of audiences to encourage cross cultural conversations and to explore all the issues raised, not only by the bombing itself and its targeting of ideas and culture but also the issues raised by the 224 artistic responses to the bombing.
In fact we have already begun doing so. We reached out to the Milwaukie Poetry Series— Milwaukie is a small village on the Willamette River that adjoins to SE Portland—which sponsors monthly poetry readings by local poets, an occasional open mic evening and a series of open mic evenings throughout the summer. They invited Ormar Al Ghareeb to present his poem, Paintings, in Arabic, followed by an English translation. From this initial experience, they invited the Iraqi community to the June open mic, where three Iraqi refugees read poems and told their own stories in Arabic, with English translations. An exploration of their stories—questions from the audience and conversation—followed. The Series committee has embraced incorporating this Arabic language experience—the presenting of poems and stories in Arabic, followed by English translations and exploratory conversations and we have scheduled two of these bi-lingual events during our exhibits.
A second area of interest that we have already begun to develop is the involvement of middle and high school students. Dea Cox, the retired Superintendent of West Linn School District, South East of Portland, has written a curriculum that can be used by high school and middle school teachers of writing and literature, of social science and art. The curriculum focuses on an essay from the anthology, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5, 2007 Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers”, written by Lutfia al-Duleimi, a widely published Iraqi writer. The essay, entitled simply, Al-Mutanabbi Street, opens like this:
Each broadside, artists book, poem, essay or print that we witness in the exhibit defies the darkness of cynicism, ignorance and hatred that resulted in the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street and gives us a platform to build upon for the future of our community, which has become more diverse with the influx of 1,500 Iraqi refugees. The more ways we can experience each other, the more ways we can hear each others' stories, the more we will come to see our common humanity—an essential ingredient in our shrinking world. So we will build on the work of Beau Beausoliel and the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here! Coalition and create replicable projects and events—lectures, slide shows, panel discussions, group conversations in the format of a World Cafe, curricula introduced into high school and college classes and more—that will continue the work of inclusion and community building for years to come.
Artists included in this section (from top to bottom):
Ronnie Goodman - Our Spirit Still Lives On; David Johnson - Reading; Kathy Aoki - Read; Pedro Francisco Ormaza - Untitled; Karen Rush - Scribe; Molly Bullick - Scattered Pages; C. Corcelle - I Discovered the World in Al-Mutanabbi Street; Cathy King - Coffee at Shabandar Cafe; Anne Moreno - Sombras Pasean Por La Casa de los Recuerdoes/Shadows Walking Around the House of Memories; Anita Klein - Reading Under the Covers; Andrea Hassiba - Identity Cards; Jesse Nickerson - Untitled; Carrioe Ann Plank - Absence and Presence; Cathy DeForest - Our Immortal Soul; Valeria Brancaforte - The Trace of the Butterfly; Gini Wade - Peace in the Name of Allah; Afsoon - One Thousand and One Books.