POETS! every 1st & 3rd Monday
Monday, March 5th – 7-9 pm
A Reading for Al-Mutanabbi Street
An open mic follows
Jessica Loos, organizer and m.c.

Al-Mutannabi Street in the wake of the March 5, 2007 bombing

March 5th, 2018, at 7 pm, Bird & Beckett Books in San Francisco will join with others around the world to host a poetry reading in observance of the 11th anniversary of the bombing of Baghdad’s Al Mutanabbi Street. Featured readers will be followed by an open mic, in which all who wish to participate will be welcome.

The following is extracted from a March 6, 2017 article in The National, a daily newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates:

March 5th, 2007, when 30 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a street full of booksellers, is etched in the memories of Iraqis.

The car bomb attack outside Al Khashali’s Shabandar Cafe in Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad was seen not just as an assault on Iraqi civilians but as an offensive against the very heart of culture, learning and civilisation itself.

The Shabandar Cafe, before its destruction in the March 5, 2007 car bomb attack, Owner Al Khashali lost three sons and a grandson, who were among the 30 killed that day.

For almost a century, the cafe had served as a magnet for Iraqi poets, playwrights, philosophers, dissenters and politicians who would sit on wooden benches and discuss the ebb and flow of life, love and politics for hours, over cups of sweetened tea.

That was all shattered with the eruption of sectarian violence following the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Al Mutanabbi Street – a narrow, winding alleyway leading to the Tigris River, and the cultural heartbeat of Baghdad – became a target.

Its many booksellers and street book vendors began to fear for their lives after Qais Anni, a stationer who sold Easter cards, was killed in a bomb blast in 2005, followed two years later by the attack on the Shabandar.

Shabandar Cafe, 2017

But Al Mutanabbi has been rebuilding itself, and help has come from unexpected quarters. The street was reopened in 2008 and the Shabandar is once again doing business, with 85-year-old Al Khashali at the helm, exactly a century after his great-great-great-grandfather first founded the cafe in 1917.

But it is largely thanks to a poet and bookseller from San Francisco that the legacy of everything the street stands for and the horrors of that day have been immortalised and are still remembered across the world.

Beau Beausoleil was moved by news reports of the blast and founded the Al Mutanabbi Street Coalition, joining forces with Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi to publish an anthology of works honouring the street’s intellectual community. He said at the time: “I knew if I was an Iraqi, that’s exactly where my store would be. As a poet, that would be my cultural community.”

Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, published in 2012, includes work from more than 130 poets, essayists and writers from around the world, including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the late Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye and author Sarah Browning.

Al-Mutanabbi Street today.

Al Rawi, the author of Baghdad Clock, said: “The Greek philosopher Aristotle, Isabel Allende, Wole Soyinka – all of them are in the same street.

“The street was not formed by decision or decree or pre-planned. It was born spontaneously and from a narrow alley going to the Tigris but it transformed into a great energy.

“It is not a souq or a market for books governed by supply and demand. It is a river of knowledge created by Iraqis to search for communication, memory, identity and the meaning of their own existence.” Hashem Beck added: “It is still very relevant today sadly, but we do what we can with books and with poetry.”

Marcia Lynx Qualley, a Cairo-based blogger, said up to 40 events had taken place across the globe since the bombing.

“For a while, this intellectual life of Baghdad was really scaled back,” she said. “One of the things Beau really asked me to emphasize is that this is not a project of healing.

“We will not at some point stop these readings because we have gotten over what happened on Al Mutanabbi Street.

“This is a project of witness and memory that we keep with us both as a way of pushing back against the bombing and as a way of celebrating the great things about the street over the centuries.”