Baghdad intellectual enclave shut down by war

As suicide bombings and other random carnage become a daily affair in Iraq, a Baghdad book-sellers’ enclave which had been something of an intellectual autonomous zone even under the Saddam dictatorship is effectively shut down. Freedom’s on the march. From MSNBC, Sept. 18:

Violence takes toll on storied Baghdad street
City’s intellectual ground zero is shadow of what it once was

BAGHDAD – A silence has fallen upon Mutanabi Street.

In the buttery sunlight, faded billboards hang from old buildings. Iron gates seal entrances to bookstores and stationery shops. On this Friday, like the past 13 Fridays, the violence has taken its toll. There is not a customer around, only ghosts.

Perched on a red chair outside a closet-sized bookshop, the only one open, Naim al-Shatri is nearly in tears. Short, with thin gray hair and dark, brooding eyes, his voice is grim. This is normally his busiest day, but he hasn’t had a single sale. A curfew is approaching.

Soon, his sobs break the stillness. “Is this Iraq?” he asked no one in particular, pointing at the gritty, trash-covered street as the scent of rotting paper and sewage mingled in the air…

In a city known across the Arab world for its love affair with books, such emotions reflect the decline of a vibrant community. For the residents of Baghdad, Mutanabi Street is a link to their city’s past glory, less a place than an extension of their souls.

“It is the lungs that I breathe with,” said Zaien Ahmad al-Nakshabandi, another bookseller. “I’m choked now.”

Three months ago, the government imposed the midday curfew on Islam’s holiest day to stop attacks on mosques. That was a major setback for Mutanabi Street, named after a 10th century poet. For most Iraqis, Friday is their only day off from work, and a time to head to the book market.

In earlier days, a multiethnic stew of secondhand booksellers would lay their wares out and carefully swipe the dust off. Inside the famed Shahbandar cafe, intellectuals would gather to wax about politics and culture over cups of tar-black coffee and glasses of lemon tea, even during the most repressed of times.

Under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Mutanabi Street was the nexus for resistance and freewheeling debates, where underground writers published illegal books that denounced Hussein.

“I wish you could see how it used to be on Fridays,” Shatri spoke before he broke down in tears. “You could not even walk. The whole street was filled with books and people. Mutanabi Street is a part of how great Baghdad is.”

Then, in a reverent tone, he uttered a proverb known across the Arab world: “Cairo writes. Beirut publishes. And Baghdad reads.”

Since 1963, Shatri has peddled books on Mutanabi Street, like a faithful friend, through military rule and political oppression, wars and embargo. Of all the eras he has watched ebb and flow, it is today’s Iraq, with its violent nature, that most mocks the proud legacy of Mutanabi Street, he said.

“It means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad,” said Shatri.

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