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.


“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.