Al Mutanabbi Street

by Weam Namou

Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Sara recites a po

My friend Emily Porter is an artist, author and human rights activist who during the Baath regime worked for over a decade at the Iraq Museum. She recently returned to her home in England from a two week trip to Iraq. She told me that what most impressed her about Iraq was Al Mutanabi Street.

“I loved it there,” she said. “I would call it the free republic of Iraq. It’s a republic of its own.”

She was incredibly touched by the lovely and warm hearted people who kissed and hugged her when she arrived there, although they had never met her before. She described the beautiful coffee shops along with the loads of cultural respect, free expressions, and poetry recitals that filled the street.

“It was like Hyde Park of London,” she said. “I wish all of Baghdad would be like Al Mutanabbi Street. Maybe that virus will soon spread throughout Iraq.”

Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street is the historic center of the city’s intellectual and literary community where books have been sold for centuries. When a car bomb exploded there in 2007, printers and artists around the world responded. For years, letterpress printers created broadsides to share their grief of this event.

In honor of Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn is having an exhibition from March 6-July 12, 2015 to showcase a selection of broadsides and artist-made books that make up the Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here collection, founded by San Francisco poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil.

Last night at the museum, there was a special event which included several short films produced during poetry translation workshops in Iraq by the U.K. arts organization Highlight Arts. As I watched the powerful poets highlighted in the short films, I remembered more of Emily’s words.

“There’s an old building in Al Mutannabi Street that was built in the early 1920s,” she told me. “Now it stands with no roof, no doors, walls or windows and the presence of smoke and fire still lingers. People placed cloth on the floor and used it for plays or to recite poetry.  They turned a skeleton of a building into a positive thing.”