Saleh Elias
Last updated: 23 January, 2014

Baghdad’s book street

In the run up to elections, increasing numbers of Iraqi politicians are visiting the city’s legendary Mutanabi Street, where booksellers ply their trade and local intellectuals discuss current affairs and philosophy. The politicians see the street as a photo opportunity. Local artists see it as an invasion.

Mutanabi Street in Baghdad doesn’t look like any of the city’s other streets. There are no cars on it; instead there are books everywhere. Wherever one goes, one sees books – on shelves, on tables, on sidewalks. One also sees very important members of the Arab intelligentsia roaming the streets. It is the most famous street in Baghdad, probably Iraq.

Mutanabi Street is known as a gathering place for the country’s intellectual elite, for the poets and dissidents and artists, who all gather around to discuss current affairs or philosophy or whatever else takes their fancy.

Recently though Mutanabi Street has been invaded by a new kind of patron. As if they were undertaking some sort of police raid, politicians and high ranking officials have started to congregate here in groups.

These new visitors to Mutanabi Street have disturbed those who consider the street their own. “These visits show the desire to control the most important cultural centres of our city,” says one of these, journalist and writer Ali al-Hussaini. “And these visits have everything to do with the upcoming elections. The politicians are trying to polish spruce up their images by showing they are close to the country’s intellectuals.”

“Thamer’s optimistic outlook on culture and the power of Mutanabi Street even had him coming up with a nickname for the place: the Hyde Park of Iraqi culture”

The street, which is about 300 meters long and eight meters wide, attracts thousands of visitors from Baghdad and around Iraq. They go to the libraries and the bookshops, searching for books on the sidewalks and in the gardens of the historic Qishleh building and in the Baghdad Cultural Centre. Many take the opportunity to drink coffee at the famous Shahbandar café too.

But today, in the middle of this crowded street, you can see heavily armed security men surrounding their charges – politicians, or ministers, or perhaps a whole political bloc – as they stand next to a bookstand, looking at a book, pretending not to notice when cameras are pointed at them.

Reactions to the scene vary.  One visitor stops and extends his hands in protest. Every time a politician passes by, he shouts: “This is our street. We don’t want you here. We see you often enough on our TV screens!”

“I don’t like seeing them here,” agrees poet and photographer, Safa Thiyab. “They come here with their guards not for the books, but for the sake of elections. This is early election propaganda.”

Thiyab remarks that many of his friends from the street have stopped coming here in protest. They particularly despise the phenomenon of politicians pretending that they didn’t know they were being photographed, looking at books.

Of course, there are also those who don’t have a problem with it.

“When they come they will learn new things and discover how ignorant they are, and feel how inferior they are, when compared to the intellectuals here,” suggests Fadil Thamer, head of the Iraqi Writers’ Union. “And they will get closer to the people.”

“And if they are present here for electoral reasons, then that just means that our street has the power to make people famous,” said Thamer gleefully, as he queued outside the Qishleh building.

Thamer’s optimistic outlook on culture and the power of Mutanabi Street even had him coming up with a nickname for the place: the Hyde Park of Iraqi culture, he calls it. 

Mention this to the more pessimistic al-Hussaini though and he’s not too sure. If that is true then the street might become a place occupied by half wits as evil as the politicians now frequenting it.

He and Thiyab think that anyone who thinks they are talented now feels the urge to come to Mutanabi Street to display themselves. “That is why this place has become somewhere for people who have delusions of grandeur,” al-Hussaini says. “This has led to a decline in people’s appreciation of real talent and culture.”

Then again Mutanabi Street has always had a political side. The street is surrounded by ancient palaces that were used by the various rulers of Iraq and Baghdad, including the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottomans and the Iraqi monarchy. 

And in 2007, the street was targeted by a suicide bomber who exploded a truck here – over 20 people were killed and shops and libraries were destroyed. On March 5 every year – the date of the bombing – artists hold commemorative events here on the street, including art exhibitions, shows and other cultural initiatives to commemorate the tragedy.  

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This has led to many other initiatives on the street too. One of the most recent is the “Smile and Win an Apple” campaign. Organised by young activists the aim is to make Iraqis smile despite the violence, corruption and political crisis in their countries.

Today on Mutanabi Street, close to the statue of the famous Arab poet Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabi, for whom the street is named, was one of the activists: A young man carrying a banner which said: “Smile and win an apple”.

A man approached him and started to thank him for the wonderful initiative and the young man had to apologize: “I am sorry,” he said. “I have run out of apples.”

The other man smiled and replied: “Never mind. The important thing is that you made me smile”.

Originally published by NIQASH.