Poets, writers mark anniversary of bombing of Baghdad's cultural center

Poets, writers mark anniversary of bombing of Baghdad

Photo by Oliver Chien

Center for Near Eastern Studies collaborates to keep memory of al-Mutanabbi Street alive

UCLA Today

For more than 1,000 years, al-Mutanabbi Street was a bustling center of culture and intellectual activity in Baghdad, Iraq. Lined with bookstores, outdoor book stalls, small presses and a host of cafés, the street, named for a famous classical Iraqi poet, was long part of the historical fabric of the city; a steadfast destination for writers, poets and intellectuals, and the people who fed on their words.

Ten centuries of tradition was shattered on March 5, 2007, when a car bomb exploded, killing more than 30 and injuring more than 100.

To mark the fifth anniversary of this unspeakable act, the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, in partnership with the UCLA Library and the Dean of Humanities Fund, hosted a poetry reading on the opening night of “Al-Mutanabbi Street: Poetry and Art from Tragedy,” an exhibit created by the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, a collective of poets, artists, writers, printers, booksellers and readers. (Videos of the poetry readings are available online). The collection of works, which has been mounted in Canada, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and in various locations throughout the United States, is on display in the Powell Library 2nd Floor Rotunda until April 30. Collaborative broadsides and artists' books by global letterpress artists and writers are on view.

“I felt, as a poet and bookseller here in San Francisco, an urgent need to keep this singular, tragic event in our consciousness because it has such deep historical and cultural implications, for us, here in this country, and for the people of Iraq,” says Beau Beausoleil, who founded the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition just weeks after the bombing and who shared the poem "TV Terror" by Huda Al-Marashi at the UCLA reading. “I had two basic goals. The first was to have those involved in the arts respond to this targeted attack. A response that would consider the various underpinnings that made up the fabric of al-Mutanabbi Street: a street that held bookstores, a street that held both Shia and Sunni, a street that indeed welcomed all Iraqis, a street where people felt relatively ‘safe’ as they walked, browsed books, bought stationary, arranged for printing or sat in the Shabandar Café.”

His second goal was to draw a link in the public consciousness between al-Mutanabbi Street and any street that holds a bookstore or a cultural institution. "I want people to understand that a carefully chosen attack like this should be seen as an attack on us all."

In addition to the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to watch the 25-minute documentary “A Candle for the Shabander Café,” which is on constant rotation in the space. The film depicts the popular meeting place, which was destroyed in the bombing. The short film also highlights the shooting and attempted kidnapping of the film’s director, Emad Ali, which transpired during the production of the documentary.

In conjunction with the exhibit, noted Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan will read from his book “Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me,” at the Powell Library 2nd Floor Rotunda on April 4 at 4:30 p.m. (**Update April 2: Zaqtan's reading has unexpectedly been postponed. The organizers of this event apologize for any inconvenience and hope to secure a new date shortly.)

“I think every Arab poet writing today must have been touched by what happened in Iraq  — and particularly by the destruction of al-Mutanabbi Street — and Zaqtan is no exception,” says Nouri Gana, an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature who is hosting the reading in partnership with the Center for Near Eastern Studies. “His poetry, while defined by the daily tragedies that keep multiplying in what is left of historical Palestine, is also about Iraq, and about al-Mutanabbi, the ardent Arab poet known for his Arab pride and surgical pen.”

Regarded as one of the most important and original Palestinian poets of our time, Zaqtan is also a novelist, editor and filmmaker. The author of 10 collections of poetry, he will perform his poems in Arabic alongside his translator, Fady Joudah, who will read them in English. Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet and physician, is well-known for his poetry and translations of poems by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In 2007, Joudah earned the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition for his collection “The Earth in the Attic.”

Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012