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Violence Changes Fortunes Of Storied Baghdad Street

Naim al-Shatri, a bookseller on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street since 1963, said the violence plaguing the city
Naim al-Shatri, a bookseller on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street since 1963, said the violence plaguing the city "means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad." (By Naseer Nouri For The Washington Post)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 18, 2006

BAGHDAD -- A silence has fallen upon Mutanabi Street.

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In the buttery sunlight, faded billboards hang from old buildings. Iron gates seal entrances to bookstores and stationery shops. On this Friday, like the past 13 Fridays, the violence has taken its toll. There is not a customer around, only ghosts.

Perched on a red chair outside a closet-sized bookshop, the only one open, Naim al-Shatri is nearly in tears. Short, with thin gray hair and dark, brooding eyes, his voice is grim. This is normally his busiest day, but he hasn't had a single sale. A curfew is approaching.

Soon, his sobs break the stillness. "Is this Iraq?" he asked no one in particular, pointing at the gritty, trash-covered street as the scent of rotting paper and sewage mingled in the air.

It is a question many of the booksellers on Mutanabi Street are asking. Here, in the intellectual ground zero of Baghdad, they are the guardians of a literary tradition that has survived empire and colonialism, monarchy and dictatorship. In the heady days after the U.S.-led invasion, Mutanabi Street pulsed with the promise of freedom.

Now, in the fourth year of war, it is a shadow of its revered past. Many of the original booksellers have been forced to shut down. Others have been arrested, kidnapped or killed, or have fled Iraq. "We are walking with our coffins in our hands," said Mohammad al-Hayawi, the owner of the Renaissance book store, one of the street's oldest shops. "Nothing in Iraq is guaranteed anymore."

In a city known across the Arab world for its love affair with books, such emotions reflect the decline of a vibrant community. For the residents of Baghdad, Mutanabi Street is a link to their city's past glory, less a place than an extension of their souls.

"It is the lungs that I breathe with," said Zaien Ahmad al-Nakshabandi, another bookseller. "I'm choked now."

Three months ago, the government imposed the midday curfew on Islam's holiest day to stop attacks on mosques. That was a major setback for Mutanabi Street, named after a 10th-century poet. For most Iraqis, Friday is their only day off from work and a time to head to the book market.

In earlier days, a multiethnic stew of secondhand booksellers would lay their wares out and carefully swipe the dust off. Inside the famed Shahbandar cafe, intellectuals would gather to wax about politics and culture over cups of tar-black coffee and glasses of lemon tea, even during the most repressed of times.

Under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Mutanabi Street was the nexus for resistance and freewheeling debates, where underground writers published illegal books that denounced Hussein.

"I wish you could see how it used to be on Fridays," Shatri spoke before he broke down in tears. "You could not even walk. The whole street was filled with books and people. Mutanabi Street is a part of how great Baghdad is."


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