Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere."

Mutanabbi Street - From bbc.com

I sold books for over 17 years at a variety of chain and independent bookstores. Bookstores and Cafe Culture define, for me, the inner vitality of a city. These articles - which have a sort of Borgesian pathos - sink right to the bone. ( I do not mean to seek sanctuary in a literary abstraction here. This just worked into my brain. )

Originally posted by LanguageHat on Metafilter:

The Bookseller's Story, Ending Much Too Soon. Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post writes about Mohammed Hayawi, "a bald bear of a man," who ran the Renaissance Bookstore on "Baghdad's storied Mutanabi Street." Back in 2005, Phillip Robertson wrote a Salon article about Al Mutanabbi Street, "Baghdad's legendary literary cafe, the Shabandar, " and Hajji Qais Anni's stationery store: "Hajji Qais had been on Al Mutanabbi street for 10 years and the vendors all knew him... He wore a beard and was also known as a devout Sunni who had no problem hiring Shia workers or spending time with Christian colleagues." Both Hayawi and Hajji Qais were killed by bombs, the cafe has been gutted, and the street that "embodied a generation-old saying: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads" is no longer its old self. "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." Two views of a part of Baghdad that doesn't make the news much.
From bbc.com

From Many dead in Baghdad market bomb:

"There was so much smoke that I was vomiting," said the witness, who was in a bookshop when its windows were blown out by the blast.

"Papers from the book market were floating through the air like leaflets dropped from a plane," said Naim Daraji, a civil servant quoted by Associated Press.

"Pieces of flesh and the remains of books were scattered everywhere," he said.

From The Bookseller's Story, Ending Much Too Soon:

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."
From The death of Al Mutanabbi Street

Near the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, at Al Rasheed Street, there is a meandering alley named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi. The poet's street branches away from Al Rasheed and heads down through a tissue of dilapidated buildings with thin columns that hold up warped balconies. Bookstores of every description occupy the street-level spaces, selling technical manuals, ornate copies of the Quran and a nice selection of pirated software. Al Mutanabbi then runs downhill toward the mud-brown bend of the Tigris until veering west at a covered market and the high walls of an old mosque school. Right at the bend in the road is Baghdad's legendary literary cafe, the Shabandar, where for decades writers and intellectuals have come to drink tea and smoke tobacco from water pipes. The place is smoke-scarred and dirty. When there is electricity, which is almost never, the fans do not cool the air at all. Literary men in their shirt-sleeves sit and smoke.
The Shabandar Cafe - From salon.com

From Violence Changes Fortunes Of Storied Baghdad Street:

Across the street on a recent Wednesday, the century-old Shahbandar cafe, its walls covered with black-and-white photos of Baghdad, is empty, save for two men. They silently smoke their water pipes. It is 1:30 p.m.

"At this time, you could not find a place to sit down," said Fahim al-Khakshali, whose father owns this legendary cafe.

That was before gunmen a few months ago killed two professors after they left the cafe, Khakshali said. And before men entered the nearby Al-Sadim bookshop last August. As they exited, they left a suitcase by the door. It exploded, killing the owner's son.

Three months ago, strangers threatened Khakshali and ordered him to shut down the cafe. He refused. He says he doesn't know why the Shahbandar is a target, but he can guess. "Maybe it is because educated people come here," he said.

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