Memory Lane

An ode to the literary soul of Baghdad

Homage to al-Mutanabbi Street by Ghassan Ghaib, a sculptural work in response to the 2007 bombing of Mutanabbi Street—the literary soul of Baghdad. FATIMA RIZWAN
30 April, 2023

In the newly renovated Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, visitors entered the dimly lit, black-walled exhibition room to find themselves surrounded by contemporary Arab art, paying homage to Iraq’s intellectual, artistic and cultural heritage. The exhibition, Baghdad: Eye’s Delight, was one of several programmes scheduled as part of Qatar-MENASA 2022 Year of Culture, celebrating the capital of Iraq as one of the most important and influential cities in the Islamic world. However, remembering Baghdad’s past does not come without opening old wounds for Iraqis.

Twenty years have passed since the United States-led violent invasion of Iraq, which also led to the pillaging and destruction of its national museum and archaeological sites. Yet Iraq’s resilience echoes in the Middle East, through the testimonials of poets, artists and writers. The exhibition highlighted Baghdad’s role, across centuries, as a city of power, scholarship and riches, culminating with a look at the city’s social fabric, its cosmopolitan population and traditions, which have, as the exhibition put it, “despite war and destruction–enabled the city to thrive, time and time again.” To that extent, the visual artist Ghassan Ghaib paid a fitting tribute to the booksellers, poets and the lives lost in the 2007 bombing of Mutanabbi Street—the literary soul of Baghdad.

Named after a famous tenth-century Abbasid-era Arab poet, Mutanabbi Street’s essence can be found in Shabandar cafe, where every writer seemed to be drawn like ink to paper. The street, which has supported Iraq’s robust reading culture for hundreds of years, drew many dissident writers and intellectuals resisting Saddam Hussein’s regime. It soon became a symbol of intellectual freedom. Lined with several bookstores and cafes, the street witnessed men and women drinking tea and immersing themselves in a life outside of the imposed war. The street was like a second home to many locals. “Every house would have a big library and people would brag about the books they collected,” Sawsan Al-Sayyab, once a local herself, before being settled as a refugee in the US, told me. She would often go stationery shopping there with her mother in the 1970s and 1980s. Many book owners were forced to sell their collections for very little money.

In the early years of the invasion, the street had somehow remained sheltered from the catastrophes of war. Between 2003 and 2005, Mutanabbi Street even saw a short period of optimism. “After 2003, this [male-dominated] place started becoming more open,” Al-Sayyab said. “A lot of journalists would be there and one of the biggest things was that women could sit in a cafe, enjoy a conversation while sipping their tea.” This was, however, only a momentary respite in a long period of violence and political turmoil that was to follow. Internal repression was on the rise while Americans continued violent clampdowns.

Fatima Rizwan is a Pakistani journalist based in Qatar. Her storytelling focuses on issues concerning the Global South. She has worked for newsrooms such as Al Jazeera, Gulf Times, and The Centrum Media.