Emirates Lit Fest 2017: Poets, writers celebrate Iraq’s book street Al Mutanabbi

Ten years ago, 30 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a car bomb attack in Baghdad's literary heart. At the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, poets and writers from across the region and beyond came together to remember, with a screening of Forgive But Never Forget also part of the programme.

Mohammad Al Khashali counts off each of his sons, one by one. There was Kadhem, found under the rubble of the printing house, no more than “a piece of meat”. Mohammed, who had taken a hit to the stomach and lost his left foot. His youngest, Bilal, whose head he had to search for among the ruins after finding a decapitated body. And his eldest, Ghanim, his body curled around his own dismembered son’s corpse, right where they had been carrying out repairs on the printing press.

"The good people of Baghdad brought their pick-ups and we found and gathered body parts, limbs," says Al Khashali quietly in the short film, Forgive But Never Forget that screened in Dubai on Sunday as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

“I took the bodies home. Their mother wanted me to remove their shrouds so she could see them. I did not want her to see them like that, pieces of meat, but she insisted. She wailed and fell to the floor.”

That terrible day in March 2007, when 30 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a street full of booksellers, is etched in the memories of Iraqis.

The car bomb attack outside Al Khashali’s Shabandar Cafe in Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad was seen not just as an assault on Iraqi civilians but as an offensive against the very heart of culture, learning and civilisation itself.

For almost a century, the cafe had served as a magnet for Iraqi poets, playwrights, philosophers, dissenters and politicians who would sit on wooden benches and discuss the ebb and flow of life, love and politics for hours, over cups of sweetened tea.

That was all shattered with the eruption of sectarian violence following the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Al Mutanabbi Street – a narrow, winding alleyway leading to the Tigris River, and the cultural heartbeat of Baghdad – became a target.

Its many booksellers and street book vendors began to fear for their lives after Qais Anni, a stationer who sold Easter cards, was killed in a bomb blast in 2005, followed two years later by the attack on the Shabandar.

But Al Mutanabbi has been rebuilding itself, and help has come from unexpected quarters. The street was reopened in 2008 and the Shabandar is once again doing business, with 85-year-old Al Khashali at the helm, exactly a century after his great-great-great-grandfather first founded the cafe in 1917.

But it is largely thanks to a poet and bookseller from San Francisco that the legacy of everything the street stands for and the horrors of that day have been immortalised and are still remembered across the world.

Beau Beausoleil was moved by news reports of the blast and founded the Al Mutanabbi Street Coalition, joining forces with Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi to publish an anthology of works honouring the street’s intellectual community. He said at the time: “I knew if I was an Iraqi, that’s exactly where my store would be. As a poet, that would be my cultural community.”

Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, published in 2012, includes work from more than 130 poets, essayists and writers from around the world, including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the late Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye and author Sarah Browning.

And exactly a decade to the day of the bombing, poets and authors gathered in Dubai at the literature festival on Sunday to honour the street’s legacy, which now reverberates around the world, from Venice to Vancouver, with readings from the collection and exhibitions of artwork inspired by the pieces.

The Dubai event included Iraqi poets Ammar bin Hatim and Sadjedah Al Mousawi, Iraqi novelist Shahad al Rawi, Emirati writer Ibrahim bin Hatem, teacher Joan Scott-Minter and Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck.

Al Rawi, the author of Baghdad Clock, said: "The Greek philosopher Aristotle, Isabel Allende, Wole Soyinka – all of them are in the same street.

“The street was not formed by decision or decree or pre-planned. It was born spontaneously and from a narrow alley going to the Tigris but it transformed into a great energy.

“It is not a souq or a market for books governed by supply and demand. It is a river of knowledge created by Iraqis to search for communication, memory, identity and the meaning of their own existence.” Hashem Beck added: “It is still very relevant today sadly, but we do what we can with books and with poetry.”

Marcia Lynx Qualley, a Cairo-based blogger who coordinated the event, said up to 40 events had taken place across the globe since the bombing.

“For a while, this intellectual life of Baghdad was really scaled back,” she said. “One of the things Beau really asked me to emphasize is that this is not a project of healing.

“We will not at some point stop these readings because we have gotten over what happened on Al Mutanabbi Street.

“This is a project of witness and memory that we keep with us both as a way of pushing back against the bombing and as a way of celebrating the great things about the street over the centuries.”