Baghdad marketplace oasis holds ‘Iraq of dreams’
IRAQ: After a recent wave of attacks in Baghdad, urbane intellectuals
sought refuge, as they have for years, in a storied market-place that
has been their oasis in the capital’s chaos: Mutanabi Street. It comes
alive on Fridays, when its book market vies for the attention of
passersby with men who recite verses from poetry by the Arab writer
after whom it is named as others sip hot lemon tea at the renowned
And it was no different on this particular Friday, just a day after
bomb attacks and shootings left dozens dead in the capital.
“I have been coming here for 30 years,” said Kamil Abdulrahim
al-Saadawi, his hands clinging to recently purchased books.
“Every Friday, I wake up and I tell myself, I will not come. But
Mutanabi is like a sweetheart -- she seduces you.” Mutanabi Street was
inaugurated in 1932 by King Faisal I and named after a leading
10th-century poet Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabi, who was born in what is now
Regarded by Iraqis as an intellectual hub of the Arab world, it
became over the decades a meeting place for writers, artists and
intellectuals from across the capital. With a statue of the poet at one
end, the less than one-kilometre-long (0.6 mile) street is bracketed on
the opposite end by an arch that bears an inscription from Mutanabi’s
works. “The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men, the
battle and the sword, the paper and the pen,” it reads.
Saadawi, a 59-year-old businessman, continued: “Mutanabi Street has
nothing to do with the reality of Iraq -- it is an isolated island, the
Iraq of our dreams.” “While outside we are confronted with violence and
silly politicians, the Iraq of our reality, here we have the Iraq of our
dreams.” The day before, 42 people were killed in nationwide violence
and the country’s lawmakers finally ended their wrangling and came to
agreement on a federal budget, months after it was first mooted.
Despite the talk on the street of Mutanabi being the ideal Iraq, it
has not been immune from the brutal blood-letting that wracked the
capital in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.
On March 5, 2007, a suicide bomber exploded his truck in Mutanabi
Street, on the east bank of the Tigris River, killing more than 30
people and wounding at least 60, devastating the street’s historic book
stores and coffee shops. The attack badly damaged Shabander Cafe, and
left its owner’s five sons dead. Their mother went blind from the shock
of the attack and died just months later. Dearest place in the
world.“That was our most difficult memory of the street, when the
explosion happened,” said Abu Rabea, who has owned a book store on
Mutanabi Street for nearly 40 years.
“I was on my way to Najaf (in central Iraq), and when I arrived,
people told me, an enormous explosion happened in Baghdad.” Placing his
hand on his forehead, he began to cry, adding: “My friends were gone; I
lost so many of them. Life was not the same anymore.” The street itself
returned to a semblance of normality in 2008, but 80-year-old owner
Mohammad al-Khashali only reopened the cafe -- originally founded in
1917 as a publishing house -- in February 2009.
Now, Mutanabi Street is bustling with activity on Fridays, its narrow
expanse crammed with street-side vendors and musty stores packed to the
brim with literature. “What makes us happy in this place is the lack of
intolerance and hatred,” said Jamal Saya, who has run his legal book
store for 25 years.