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Baghdad’s Historic Book Street Reopens, Raising City’s Hopes

/ 28 Dec 2021

Baghdad’s Historic Book Street Reopens, Raising City’s Hopes

Fireworks lit up the sky as Baghdad recently celebrated the renovation of Al-Mutanabbi Street, the historic heart of the city’s book trade.

The freshly painted ornate brick facades and wrought-iron balconies were garlanded with fairy lights to welcome visitors to the inaugural festivities. A huge Christmas tree by the Tigris River added to the festive mood along the newly car-free cobblestone road.

“I have always wondered why our historic neighborhoods and streets, like Al-Rasheed and Al-Mutanabbi, are abandoned and ignored,” said Khaldoon Abbas, founder of the Emergency Relief Group, who attended the reopening. “This is an important gesture to encourage a much-needed change, to convey to the world that there is life in Baghdad despite everything.”

“I have always wondered why our historic neighborhoods and streets, like Al-Rasheed and Al-Mutanabbi, are abandoned and ignored.”

Khaldoon Abbas   Founder of the Emergency Relief Group

Less than a one kilometer long, the narrow street is lined with book shops, book stalls and cafes. They attract students, intellectuals and book lovers with a large scope of titles, textbooks, and translations of best-sellers.

The inaugural festivities included clown performances, folkloric ballads and music, a play presented by fine art students dressed in Baghdadi costumes, an art gallery, and a book fair.

Where Diverse Identities Meet

Saad Salloum, a political scientist at Mustansiriyah University, says the street is of great symbolic importance to Baghdad.

“In the past decade, I can divide Baghdad into three zones: the Green Zone, which is the brain of the government and the hub for foreign missions and embassies; the grey zone, outside the first one, and the cultural zone represented by this street,” said Salloum, who is also the general coordinator of Masarat, a nonprofit organization that focuses on minorities, collective memory studies, and interfaith dialogue.

He added: “Despite the efforts to divide Baghdad into Shiite and Sunni districts, this place has preserved Iraq’s diverse identity and remained a representative of a holistic Iraq throughout history.”

The 1,000-year-old street lies in Baghdad’s old quarter, surrounded by the Baghdadi Museum of Folklore and the Qushla, a 19th-century Ottoman barracks now turned into a cultural hub.

In 1932, King Faisal I named the street after the celebrated 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi. Now, a statue of the poet marks the beginning of the street, which ends with an arch adorned with excerpts from his poems.

“It might be one of the oldest book-trade places in the world,” said Salloum. “It represents the continuity of Baghdad’s multiculturalism, enlightenment, and unity in diversity.”

A Cultural Hub 

“It is now like Hyde Park in London. You can attend street theatre performances, see young people playing the guitar, and hear readings from novels.”

Saad Salloum   A political scientist at Mustansiriyah University

The street has long been a meeting place for Iraq’s cultural elites, even in times of dictatorship and war. In March 2007, a suicide car bomb killed 30 people and wounded more than 60 others on the street, destroying businesses and bookstores.

“That attack was an assault on an important element of Iraq’s identity,” said Salloum.

But the street survived. A year later, it reopened. Some of the buildings started to host weekly cultural salons.

“It is now like Hyde Park in London,” Salloum said. “You can attend street theatre performances, see young people playing the guitar, and hear readings from novels. It also provides writers with an opportunity to directly meet their readers, instead of on social media and WhatsApp. It is a unique place in the Arab world.”

On a recent visit to Iraq, Zaid Issam, an Amman-based architect, welcomed the long-awaited rehabilitation project.

“After the explosion, no real maintenance took place. Misuse and lorries of heavy books left the street shattered, and electric wires were everywhere,” he told Al-Fanar Media.

While Issam has some reservations regarding the materials used, he was happy with the overall result.

Some bookstore owners, however, were disappointed that the project took longer than planned, which negatively affected business.

Students in costume pose for a selfie with Khaldoon Abbas, from the Emergency Relief Group, during the historic street's reopening ceremony. (Photo: Khaldoon Abbas)
Students in costume pose for a selfie with Khaldoon Abbas, from the Emergency Relief Group, during the historic street's reopening ceremony. (Photo: Khaldoon Abbas)

Moreover, “the restoration is not complete yet,” one shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al-Fanar Media. “It was limited to cobble-stoning the ground, replacing sidewalks, and painting buildings,” he said. “It will be neglected soon due to the lack of follow-up for any project in Iraq. I am afraid we will see the same mess in less than a year.”

An Artistic Renaissance 

The renovation comes in line with other signs of an artistic and cultural renaissance in Baghdad. The Babylon International Festival resumed in October after an 18-year halt, new private art galleries have opened, and concerts by Egyptian and Lebanese pop stars have drawn thousands of people.

Issam noted that nightlife was returning to Al-Mutanabbi Street.

“I was pleased with how this lighting and the presence of the security forces help Al-Mutanabbi Street to receive families in the late evening hours,” he said. “A vendor of simit and borek pastries had taken a corner on the street to serve his new customers.”

He added: “This may contribute to restoring the nightlife of Al-Mutanabbi Street, and perhaps to Al-Rasheed Street, and will better link the people to Old Baghdad.”

For his part, Salloum sees this as a step to highlight the importance of Baghdad’s historic districts and attract foreign tourists. “This restoration is the last line of defense to protect Iraq’s unity,” he said.

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He added: “The 900 meters separating the statues of al-Mutanabbi and Maruf Al-Rusafi, an Iraqi poet and educationist (1875-1945), can be the greatest cultural tour in the Arab world. It summarizes the time between Iraq’s medieval and modern history. You will feel that you are in historic Baghdad, a city that cannot be buried in ash.”

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام