From L.A. to Baghdad: American Artists Remember Al-Mutanabbi Street

8 March, 2017

Poet Dima Hilal at Chevalier's [Photo: Junichi Semitsu]

Lauren Marcus

On Sun­day, March 5th, we filed qui­et­ly into Cheva­lier’s in Los Ange­les, the book lover’s empo­ri­um found­ed in 1940 that occu­pies a mod­est store­front on Larch­mont Boule­vard. On the same day, sim­i­lar com­mem­o­ra­tion events were being held for Bagh­dad’s famed Al-Mutan­ab­bi Street in more than 25 addi­tion­al loca­tions around the Unit­ed States and across the world.

Despite the sun­ny March weath­er, the mood in at Cheva­lier’s was that of mourning—for a street thou­sands of miles and two con­ti­nents away. Ten years before, on March 5, 2007, a car bomb explod­ed on Al-Mutan­ab­bi Street in Bagh­dad. The thor­ough­fare, lined with cafés and book­sellers, was more than an area of commerce—it was a space of shar­ing, speak­ing, dream­ing and dis­cus­sion, where ideas were trad­ed almost as freely as books and shisha pipes. Thir­ty peo­ple were killed, many more were casu­al­ties of the con­fla­gra­tion. It was indeed a book burning.

The attack on Al-Mutan­ab­bi was sig­nif­i­cant for more than the trag­ic loss of life and books; it put one in mind of the hate­ful world described in the Ray Brad­bury nov­el Fahren­heit 451, herald­ing the destruc­tion of the cor­ner­stone of a free society.

ChevaliersBooksLarchmont-400.jpg

“My friend is going to the Al-Mutan­ab­bi event in San Fran­cis­co, so she sent me the infor­ma­tion for the Los Ange­les event,” said British-accent­ed Zaid Affas, 40. He had­n’t come to see any spe­cif­ic author. “I’m not a reg­u­lar read­er of poet­ry,” he said. “But I’m Iraqi, so I was curious.”

The Iran­ian-born poet Sholeh Wolpé host­ed the com­mem­o­ra­tion. “We are here today so we don’t for­get Al-Mutan­ab­bi,” she said. “Not just the street itself, but what it rep­re­sents.” Wolpe allud­ed to the cur­rent Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tion and her fears of gov­ern­men­tal cen­sor­ship and repres­sion of free speech. “This is a remem­brance not only to look back, but to look ahead.” She implored the audi­ence to resist dark­ness and “scratch light upon the world” by con­tin­u­ing to attend pub­lic lit­er­a­ture read­ings and engage in well-rea­soned debate. On behalf of The Markaz and the Los Ange­les Review of Books, she pre­sent­ed eight oth­er poets and writ­ers who’d come to share both their own works and the works of oth­ers in the Al-Mutan­ab­bi Street Starts Here anthol­o­gy, spark­ing con­ver­sa­tion in the spir­it of Al-Mutanabbi.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here , an anthology, edited by Beau Beausoleil.

Bilal Ahaw, 39, came to the event because of his friend­ship with Ms. Wolpé. He had­n’t pre­vi­ous­ly known about the destruc­tion of Al-Mutan­ab­bi Street, but as a poet him­self, he was touched by the tragedy. He echoed Ms. Wolpe’s sen­ti­ment, stat­ing that he found the “jux­ta­po­si­tion of the event with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in Amer­i­ca” to be striking.

The artist Paul Batou recalled his boy­hood days in Bagh­dad, hand in hand with his father, wan­der­ing down the sun-drenched street where ideas unfurled and float­ed in the air among clouds of shisha smoke. “You know why Al-Mutan­ab­bi was bombed?” Mr. Batou asked the crowd. “Because books are the most dan­ger­ous weapons.” (Batou is him­self the author of a ten­der book of poems and prose enti­tled My Last Thoughts About Iraq.)

“The loss of all those manuscripts—I can’t even con­tem­plate it,” said the poet India Rad­far, her voice choked by tears. Rad­far’s remarks under­scored the spir­it of grief char­ac­ter­is­tic of the com­mem­o­ra­tion. Raised by a father who was a stu­dent of Sufi mys­ti­cism, she spoke of the impor­tance of Mid­dle East­ern lit­er­a­ture on both her per­son­al devel­op­ment and the preser­va­tion of history.

“I came because I was curi­ous,” said Adnan Majid, 32, who had­n’t pre­vi­ous­ly read the poets fea­tured in the com­mem­o­ra­tion. “I found their words mov­ing and deep, and espe­cial­ly poignant in today’s polit­i­cal climate.”

Lebanese-born poet Dima Hilal spoke about her expe­ri­ence emi­grat­ing to the Unit­ed States as a girl. For years she bat­tled the neg­a­tive per­cep­tions Amer­i­cans held of Mus­lims, which were in stark con­trast to her lov­ing, sup­port­ive Mus­lim fam­i­ly. As an out­sider, she found solace in sto­ries and the con­nec­tions she made with the char­ac­ters. Empha­siz­ing that lit­er­a­ture deep­ens under­stand­ing between peo­ple, Ms. Hilal con­clud­ed by read­ing her recent poem about the plight of a Syr­i­an refugee fam­i­ly: “Go back to where you came from, they say/As if rub­ble and shards of steel could meld into shelter…Go back/As if we don’t already dream of home/Ours no longer exists.”

With these words, the final­i­ty of the destruc­tion of Al-Mutan­ab­bi res­onat­ed through­out the lit­tle book­store. The light of the street was dimmed, but not extin­guished. The event was not sim­ply a com­mem­o­ra­tion with read­ings of poetry—it was a refusal to let the mem­o­ry of Al-Mutan­ab­bi slip away like the last frag­ments of a fleet­ing dream.

Lau­ren Mar­cus is a writer based in Los Ange­les. Her pre­vi­ous piece in the Markaz Review revealed the views of six Amer­i­can vot­ers fol­low­ing the stun­ning results of the Novem­ber 8, 2016 pres­i­den­tial election.

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.