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 as well as the people who fed on their words.
Ten centuries of tradition were shattered on March 5, 2007, when a car bomb exploded, killing more than 30 and injuring more than 100. No one has been held responsible for the bombing.
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.
The exhibition, which has been mounted in Canada, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and in various locations throughout the United States, is on display in Powell Library, second-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 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," said Beau Beausoleil, who founded the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition just weeks after the bombing.
He 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." Before the bombing, Beausoleil reminisced, the street welcomed all Iraqis, including Shia and Sunni, and was a place "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 can also see a 25-minute documentary, "A Candle for the Shabander Café," which plays continuously. The film depicts the popular meeting place that 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.
Another related reading will be held at the exhibit on April 4. Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan will read from his book, "Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me" at 4:30 p.m.
"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," said 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.
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 read his poems in Arabic alongside his translater, Fady Jourdah, who will read them in English.
Videos of the poetry readings are available online.