Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mutanabi Street--back and thriving

You can mar and destroy the body, but the body intellect will prevail. This is good news.

"The Bookseller's Story, Ending Much Too Soon"


Anthony Shadid

March 12th, 2007

It was a summer day in 2003, when Iraq was still filled with the half-truths of occupation and liberation, before its nihilistic descent into carnage. Mohammed Hayawi, a bald bear of a man, stood in his shop, the Renaissance Bookstore, along Baghdad's storied Mutanabi Street.

On shelves eight rows high rested books by communist poets and martyred clerics, translations of Shakespeare, predictions by Lebanese astrologers, a 44-volume tome by a revered ayatollah and a tract by the austere medieval thinker Ibn Taimiyyah. Dusty stacks spilled across the cream-color tile floor, swept but stained with age. In those cramped quarters, Hayawi tried to cool himself with a fan, as perspiration poured down his jowly face and soaked his blue shirt.

We had met before the American invasion, and nearly a year later, he almost immediately recognized me.

"Abu Laila," he said, using the Arabic nickname taken from the name of a person's child.

He then delivered a line he would repeat almost every time we saw each other over the next few years. "I challenge anyone, Abu Laila, to say what has happened, what's happening now, and what will happen in the future." And, over a thin-waisted cup of tea, scalding even on this hot day, he shook his head.

A car bomb detonated last week on Mutanabi Street, leaving a scene that has grown familiar in Baghdad, a collage of chaotic images, disturbing in their brutality, grotesque in their repetition. At least 26 people were killed. Hayawi the bookseller was one of them.

Unlike the U.S. soldiers who die in this conflict, the names of most Iraqi victims will never be published, consigned to the anonymity that death in the Iraqi capital brings these days. Hayawi was neither a politician nor a warlord. Few beyond Mutanabi Street even knew his name. Yet his quiet life deserves more than a footnote, if for no other reason than to remember a man who embraced what Baghdad was and tried to make sense of a country that doesn't make sense anymore. Gone with him are small moments of life, gentle simply by virtue of being ordinary, now lost in the rubble strewn along a street that will never be the same.

After his death, I thought back to our conversation on that summer day. As he often did, Hayawi paused after an especially vigorous point and dragged on his cigarette. He ran his hand over his sweaty cheeks. "Does this look like the face of 39 years?" he said, grinning. He then knitted his brow, turning grimmer. "We don't want to hear explosions, we don't want to hear about more attacks, we want to be at peace," he told me. He always had dark bags under his limpid eyes, whether or not he had slept. "An Iraqi wants to put his head on his pillow and feel relaxed."

Independent Thinker

Hayawi had worked at the bookstore all his life. His father, Abdel-Rahman, opened it in 1954, and after he died in 1993 his five sons inherited the business, keeping a portrait of the patriarch, in a Russian-style winter hat, hanging on the wood-paneled wall. Over the years, Hayawi and his older brothers would branch out. They owned other shops on Mutanabi -- Legal Bookstore and Nibras Bookstore down the street -- along with a business that sold Korans across town.

His family was Sunni Muslim, but Hayawi played down its importance to his sense of self, and he lived with his wife and young son, Ahmed Akram, in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood. He took pride in his independence, in being someone who celebrated the gray areas, a reflection of the best of what the intellectual entrepot of Mutanabi Street was supposed to represent.

We first met as I wandered into his shop before the invasion, when Saddam Hussein was still in power in 2002. As usual, he was unshaven, and even then, he seized the opportunity to talk. "Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was wrong," he told me quite boldly -- a blasphemous idea at the time.

But years later, he was unable to understand the American obsession with Iraq and Saddam. Why the crisis after crisis? he asked. For weapons of mass destruction? We don't have any. If we did, he declared, we would have fired them at Israel. A war simply for Saddam?

After the invasion and the government's fall, Hayawi described himself much as other Iraqis did in that first uncertain year: as neither for Saddam nor happy with the Americans. He was angry, of course -- at the chaos, the insecurity, the lack of electricity.

"The American promises to Iraq are like trying to hold water in your hand," he told me in one conversation. "It spills through your fingers."

But he was never strident; he was filled with a thoughtfulness and reflection that survival in Iraq rarely permits these days.

Hayawi resented the occupation but voted in the elections the United States backed. He was a devout Muslim, but feared the rise of religion in politics. In his bookstore, once-banned titles by Shiite clerics, imported from Iran, vied with books by radical Sunni clerics, among them Muhammad Abdel-Wahab, the 18th-century godfather of Saudi Arabia's brand of Islam. Profit may have inspired his eclectic mix, but Hayawi also seemed to be making a statement: Mutanabi Street, his Baghdad and his Iraq would respect their diversity.

He was always a proud man. Every so often, Hayawi would repeat this story: He was driving to Syria on business in his yellow Caprice and was stopped at a U.S. checkpoint, manned by two Humvees, outside the Euphrates River town of Ramadi, in western Iraq. Through a translator, one of the American officers, clad in camouflage and dusty from a desert wind, began to ask him routine questions.

" 'What are you doing here?'" the soldier asked.

"I said, 'What are you doing here? You're my guest. What are you doing in Iraq?' "

"He laughed and he patted my shoulder," Hayawi recalled.

Bookstore Retreat

The doorway of the Renaissance Bookstore was a border in a way. Outside were the sirens of ambulances and police cars. Gunfire was common. Horns blared in two lanes of traffic, one more than Mutanabi had been built for. Inside Hayawi went about business as he had every day since he inherited the shop from his father.

The last time I saw him, in 2005, he was sitting behind his desk, sipping a cup of tea that cost 10 cents, a pack of Gauloise cigarettes next to it.

As he did every morning, hour after hour, Hajji Sadiq, the money changer, ambled into the bookstore.

"What's the rate?" Hayawi bellowed.

"I won't tell you unless you're going to buy," Hajji Sadiq answered.

Hayawi waved to friends passing along the street outside. An elderly woman stood at the door, asking for alms. Vendors entered offering everything from books to beach towels.

The day went on, in the rhythm of a life that now no longer exists. Two Kurdish booksellers came in, bringing a gift of honey from Sulaimaniya in the north. They greeted Hayawi in Kurdish, then the conversation continued in Arabic. Hajji Sadiq returned, quoting an exchange rate that had barely changed. The electricity cut off, with no one seeming to notice. Customers from Balad in the north told of the situation there, as did visitors from Basra in the south.

By afternoon, the electricity came on and a water pipe was brought out. Sweet-smelling apple-flavored tobacco smoldered.

"Life goes on," Hayawi told me that day. "We are in the middle of a war, and we still smoke the water pipe."

Literary Loss

Mutanabi Street always seemed to tell a story of Iraq.

Its maze of bookshops and stationery stores, housed in elegant Ottoman architecture, was named for one of the Arab world's greatest poets, a 10th-century sage whose haughtiness was matched only by his skill. The street was anchored by the Shahbandar Cafe, where antique water pipes were stacked in rows three deep. On the walls inside were pictures of Iraq's history: portraits of the bare-chested 1936 wrestling team, King Faisal's court after World War I and the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939.

In its heyday, this street embodied a generation-old saying: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads. But under the U.N. sanctions that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, isolating it from the world, its stores were lined with magazines 20 years old, obsolete textbooks and dust-covered religious tomes that seemed more for show than for sale. It became a dreary flea market for used books, as vendors sold off their private collections in an attempt to get by, and Hayawi and his brothers eked out a living by selling religious texts, works of history for university curricula, and course work in English, what he called a passport.

In the months after the invasion, Mutanabi Street revived into an intellectual free-for-all. There were titles by Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a brilliant theologian killed, as the story goes, when Saddam's executioners drove nails into his forehead. Shiite iconography -- of living ayatollahs and 7th-century saints marching to their deaths -- was everywhere. Nearby were new issues of FHM and Maxim, their covers adorned with scantily clad women. On rickety stands were compact discs of Osama bin Laden's messages selling for the equivalent of 50 cents. Down the street were pamphlets of the venerable Communist Party. As one of the booksellers once said, quoting a line of poetry by Mutanabi, "With so much noise, you need 10 fingers to plug your ears."

Mutanabi Street today tells another story.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

A colleague told me that near Hayawi's shop, a little ways from the now-gutted Shahbandar Cafe, a black banner hangs today. In the graceful slope of yellow Arabic script, it mourns the loss of Hayawi and his nephew, "who were assassinated by the cowardly bombing."

And the good news...

"Then and Now: A New Chapter for Baghdad Book Market"


Eric Owles

December 18th, 2008

The New York Times

Mutanabi Street has long been the intellectual center of the Iraqi capital. But when a car bomb exploded here in March 2007 killing at 26 people the neighborhood was emptied. Blast walls blocked off the area to traffic and members of Awakening Councils, groups made up largely of former insurgents, opened checkpoints to monitor people entering the neighborhood. Resurrecting this area and breathing life back into the cafes and book stores here has long been a pet project for the Iraqi leadership.

Each step of that resurrection comes with added risks. In September 2007, a curfew was lifted allowing foot traffic to enter the book market. Would a suicide bomber walk back into the cafes? In September 2008, blast walls blocking off the street were taken down. Would a car bomb detonate outside the newly repaved walkway? With each step, more and more shoppers returned to the market. And finally, on Thursday, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki officially reopened the street.

Many writers and their books were banned from Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In the violence that followed the U.S. military invasion in 2003, insurgents again targeted Iraq’s intellectuals. Protecting this community is seen as a test of Iraq’s ability to shore up tenuous security gains made since the 2007 bombing.

I first visited the Mutanabi book market in October with the Fourth Brigade, Tenth Mountain Division. Blast walls had just been removed at one end of the street and the shops were still largely empty. A few men sat in front of stores smoking pipes. At night they would gather in the streets to play dominoes and backgammon. Solar lights had been installed on the street lamps and tiles were lined up to lay over the concrete road.

Now storefronts have been repaired, new water and sewage lines have been installed and the tiles have been put in place. However, the government has made some concessions to the continuing danger inside Iraq — the site of the 2007 car bomb attack in Mutanabi book market is now only open to pedestrian traffic.

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