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Al-Mutanabbi Street: Not Turning the Page

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Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad has been described as the cultural and intellectual center of Iraq. Bookstores, cafes and outdoor book stalls line the street. On March 5, 2007 a bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street killing 30 and wounding 100. To mark the anniversary of the bombing and the essential role that art plays in our lives, poet Beau Beausoleil and others have organized readings in 10 cities. These readings are part of a much larger project that Beausoleil and a dedicated group of artists and volunteers have worked on since 2007. I interviewed Beausoleil recently to learn more about Al-Mutanabbi Street and his project.

"My wife and I would read the New York Times and we'd have this heated discussion in the morning and all these feelings. And then the next day, the next New York Times would come with more carnage and blood. We were always just turning the page. I couldn't find a place, a stillness in this. Then when the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street happened, I knew that as a poet and a bookseller, that's where my bookstore would be. I have a used bookstore in San Francisco. As a poet, that would be my cultural community. I felt it just on a very visceral level and I knew in my heart of hearts that somebody would organize something. A reading, something here in SF. And I waited. I waited for about maybe a week and everyday I kept thinking that I'm going to hear that somebody's putting something together. I never did. I could feel that we were already turning the page on more atrocities that were happening. I decided to stop that page right on Al-Mutanabbi Street and focus on that one thing.

I talked to a lot of Iraqis [both in and out of the country] who had kind of numbed themselves to reading about and hearing about people being killed, including close friends and relatives. In some strange sense you get used to it in a way. But when the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street happened, I've heard from more than one Iraqi writer, that they burst into tears right where they were. The feeling at the time was -- what else can you take away from me?

That's really where the project started. And you're right, most people don't know about Al-Mutanabbi Street or what it's come to represent for this project which is more than that attack because my feeling is that wherever someone sits down to write towards the truth or someone sits down with a book, that that's where Al-Mutanabbi Street starts. My feeling is that now Al-Mutanabbi Street starts on a small street in Damascus somewhere. Or a small street in Tehran or a small street in Bejing. The seeds for that are just all over the globe and this project recognizes that, but most especially in Iraq. Even today there is a writer's union, whenever there's any kind of demonstration of writers, it always starts on Al-Mutanabbi Street. It just remains the heart of that cultural community."

The project has evolved to include four parts: Beausoleil put out a call to book and letter press artists to create broadsides sharing their personal response to the bombing of this cultural center. The collection of 133 broadsides by artists from around the world can be seen on the Florida Atlantic University website. In Los Angeles, the broadsides will be on display at UCLA from March 5 through April 30th, with a reading on March 5th.

Along with the broadsides, Beausoleil also reached out to artists to create books that would hold both "memory and future" of the bombing. There are 261 books that have been created as part of the project. Plans include sending the books to Iraq to be housed at the National Library in Baghdad. Beausoleil talked a little about how Anthony Shadid championed the project. Beausoleil had experienced some difficulty in reaching the right people in Iraq. He eventually reached out to Shadid, who wrote back expressing his support for the project and putting Beausoleil in touch with the Director of the Iraq National Library.

"I've exchanged emails with him over the years and he's always been supportive to a fault of what we were trying to do. This whole project was devastated when we heard of him passing away. The Director of the National Library responded immediately to me saying how important he thought it was for, not just people in the West to see these projects, but for Iraqis to see them. For them to know that they weren't so alone in what they were suffering, that other people saw it and were responding. One set of the broadsides are in Washington DC right now at the State Dept to get them crated up and sent onto Baghdad. Anthony Shadid had said that when the broadsides came to Baghdad, he would go back there and sit with me by the Tigris and we would have a cup of coffee together."

The third part of the project seeks to remind people and raise awareness to the crucial role cultural centers play in our lives through readings, exhibitions and panel discussions. Finally, there is an anthology of essays due out in the summer of this year called, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.

"One thing I've said to people who are organizing shows of this work is that the last thing I want is a passive art show. At each of these shows we ask for a reading or a panel. We ask the person who's curating to reach out to the Arab-American community in terms of writers and artists, the North African community, where they live to try to bring people in, including student organizations. As well as local writers who are not Arab-American. I think that many institutions are uncomfortable with the kind of ideas that this project brings up, which have to do with truth and memory and personal responsibility--All the issues around Iraq and about our invasion of Iraq and our occupation of Iraq. This project and the work that it has produced--my biggest hope is that it makes people feel uneasy in the best sense of the word. That they begin to entertain other ideas. Not just about Iraq and Al-Mutanabbi Street, but also where Al-Mutanabbi Street starts in their own lives as well."

For more information on the readings, click here.