Demise of Bookish Baghdadis' Favourite Haunt

Once the centre of intellectual life in the city, Al-Mutanabbi Street is now practically deserted.

Demise of Bookish Baghdadis' Favourite Haunt

Once the centre of intellectual life in the city, Al-Mutanabbi Street is now practically deserted.

For many years, Friday was the day Iraq’s intellectuals and lovers of literature would descend on Al-Mutanabbi Street, in the historic heart of Baghdad. From morning ‘till early afternoon, the small alley, home to the oldest bookstores in town, turned into a crowded open-air book fair.

The pavement on both sides was covered with well-thumbed titles from around the globe - in Arabic, English, German, Farsi and other languages - along with dictionaries, science texts, light and heavy novels alike. For more precious or - in Saddam’s times - forbidden books, customers would follow dealers into their labyrinthine stores in one of the adjacent courtyards, usually stacked to the ceiling with antiquarian tomes.

The oldest store on the street, the Al-Arabia Bookshop, was opened in 1904, at a time when Baghdad’s appetite for literature was particularly keen. “What is written in Cairo and published in Beirut, is read in Baghdad,” an old saying goes.

But Fridays in Baghdad are not what they were. A curfew, introduced following the sectarian violence that broke out after the bomb attack on the Golden Shrine of Samarra in February, confines people to their homes from late morning to mid-afternoon - a measure aimed at preventing the political and religious agitation often associated with Friday prayers.

With the curfew, Al-Mutanabbi Street’s devotees no longer visit - the booksellers having little option but to put their properties up for sale. Some have already changed hands. In shops where old manuscripts sat next to cheap pocket books, you can now find tools and electrical appliances.

Another victim of the sectarian violence is the Al-Shahbander teahouse at the end of the street, where people would end up after perusing the bookstores. Every Friday, poets, painters and novelists would sit on white wooden benches, sip sweet tea and smoke hubble-bubble pipes, while playing dominos or debating the latest political and cultural trends in the country.

When his regular customers stropped coming, the teahouse owner, Hajji Muhammad al-Khashali, shut up shop - and is now left with only memories.

While times are bad now, he recalls how Iraqis also suffered during the period of economic sanctions in the 1990s, when his clientele were forced to sell their possessions on the pavement just to get by.

"Everyone has their own bitter memories which they exchange on this street. Sometimes they whisper, sometimes they shout with anger,” he said.

Al-Khashali likes to talk about the rich history of his teahouse, particularly the time a century ago when its customers numbered parliamentarians, tribal chiefs and prominent musicians who performed on the premises.

Those who once regularly frequented Al-Mutanabbi also reminisce and rue its demise.

Majid Muhammad Saleem, 50, a teacher, used to make the Friday pilgrimage and wile away the hours in the teashop. He now stays at home, feeling deprived of the “old Baghdadi conversations that reminded us of the past”.

Another Friday visitor, Ridha al-Shummari, 35, a journalist, wants the authorities to recognise the street’s contribution to education. "The bookshops of Al-Mutanabbi were the only way we acquired knowledge,” he said.

But it’s those who made a living from the street who are most upset by its sad fate.

Na'eem al-Shatri, 67, the best known of the many local book auctioneers, is not sure what his future holds. “[Auctioneering] was my sole job - but now the street [where I worked] is deserted, a place where children now play football,” he said.

Yassin al-Rubai’i is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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