Baghdad nights rejuvenated by Al Mutanabbi Street renovation

Iraqi capital’s historic book market and the centre of intellectual life is at the heart of a cultural renaissance after decades of war and neglect

On a cold winter January night, a crowd sat on plastic chairs arranged in rows in front of an outdoor projection screen by the Tigris River on an Al Mutanabbi Street corner in Baghdad.

Mohammed Dakhil Al Khafaji took those present on a journey back in time to the heyday of Iraq during the 1970s and early 1980s through the lenses of his old reel-to-reel projector.

Renowned sculptor and artist Mohammed Ghani Hikmat (1929-2011) featured in a short film, busy in his workshop creating a statue of King Shahryar and Queen Shahrazad, the heroes of One Thousand and One Nights.

Other documentaries showed a day in the life of the pipe-smoking artist Faeq Hassan (1914-1992) with his students, as well as performances by Iraq’s National Band for Folk Arts and bygone scenes from Al Rasheed Street.

“Despite the cold weather the people were out because they love life,” Mr Al Khafaji told The National during the first night of his outdoor cinema event, made possible by the refurbishment of Al Mutanabbi Street, which has reclaimed its status as the cultural heart of Baghdad.

Rising from the ashes of war, neglect and instability, Baghdad is going through a cultural renaissance, raising hopes among its residents that Iraq is now on the road to recovery.

Al Mutanabbi Street, home to the city’s historic book market and the centre of the intellectual life, lies at the heart of that revival.

With donations from the Central Bank of Iraq and Iraqi Private Banks Association, Al Mutanabbi Street has undergone a facelift and reopened early this month, hosting Christmas and New Year celebrations and a series of cultural events.

The one-kilometre stretch of narrow colonnade has been repaved and the shops and yellow-brick buildings that flank either side of the famous street, some dating back to the Ottoman era, have been freshly painted and decorated.

New wooden benches were installed and stalls for street vendors have been set up as well as new lighting systems to illuminate the cultural activities and recreate the area’s former buzzing nightlife.

The refurbishment has encouraged people such as Mr Al Khafaji to show up. With the strong passion for cinema, the businessman, 54, co-founded the Cinema Fans Association in 2010 to bring the forgotten films back to life and preserve the country’s archive.

Like many other aspects of life in Iraq, cinema was badly hit after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The country lost much of its archive in the vandalism that followed the dictator’s fall and cinemas closed their doors due to the fragile security situation.

Since its establishment, members of the association gather in each other's houses and host shows only on Friday morning at Al Mutanabbi Street when lovers of the arts usually converge.

“There is a huge gap between the two generations,” said Mr Al Khafaji, as songs from 1970s played in the background.

“The new generation has not seen cinema as we did and we are trying to make a connection between us and them.

He said Al Mutanabbi Street had given him the ideal platform to reach this goal.

The street lies in the heart of old Baghdad near Al Rasheed Street, which was built by the Ottomans in 1916 as a modern and prestigious avenue for government offices, military barracks and later nightclubs, coffee shops and commercial areas.

Then, Al Mutanabbi was known as Ekmek Khana, which means public bakery in Turkish, as its many bakeries served the Ottoman military.

In 1932, King Faisal I named the thoroughfare after the celebrated 10th century poet Abul Tayeb al-Mutanabbi, who was born under the Abbasid era.

The street began to attract business such as printing houses and bookshops, which were nestled alongside the government offices and courts.

The avenue bore the scars of war that hit Iraq from 2003. In 2007, a car bomb ripped through the market, killing at least 30 people and wounding 60. A year later, it was rebuilt but subsequent neglect left it almost in ruins.

The latest renovation came as delightful news for both traders and marketgoers.

“We’re thrilled with the new face of the market,” Duraid Abdul-Qadir, 50, owner of Al Qayrawan bookshop, told The National.

“The new renovation has boosted the identity of the place as a cultural and historic icon. We hope that maintenance and services will continue like this.”

He is hesitant to keep his shop open at night given security concerns, and says over time he will decide if it is feasible.

However, recent night activities such as art exhibitions and events have encouraged other bookshops, street vendors and coffee shops to service customers until the later hours.

Visiting Al Mutabbani Street brings back memories of student life in the 1960s for Jawad Al Shiraifi. Then, he would come to buy books and meet friends with whom he shared a passion for art.

“It is unusual to feel such atmosphere in Baghdad that brings beauty and entertainment together,” said Mr Al Shiraifi, a 75-year-old retired history teacher.

“The destination has become a breather and a place where people can escape from the problems that surround them in their life,” he said, sitting on a bench on the banks of Tigris.

On a sunny day, Tabark Abbas poses for a picture next to the bronze statue of Al Mutabbani.

“The renovation brings out the beauty of Baghdad,” said Ms Abbas, 20, a law student. “Such places must be renovated like this.

“Being here removes the negative energy and brings about the positive vibes to keep me going on.”

Updated: January 28, 2022, 4:36 AM