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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)

That was before gunmen a few months ago killed two professors after they left the cafe, Khakshali said. And before men entered the nearby Al-Sadim bookshop last August. As they exited, they left a suitcase by the door. It exploded, killing the owner's son.

Three months ago, strangers threatened Khakshali and ordered him to shut down the cafe. He refused. He says he doesn't know why the Shahbandar is a target, but he can guess. "Maybe it is because educated people come here," he said.

At 1:40 p.m., Nakshabandi, the bookseller, entered the cafe. Pear-shaped and bald with owlish spectacles, he reminisced about the artists and actors, the writers and poets who once frequented the cafe.

"During the Iran-Iraq war, when the bombs were falling on top of our heads, the cafe was filled with people," he said. "No one was afraid."

Today, those Iraqi writers, artists and intellectuals who are still here have no time to come to Mutanabi Street when daily life means waiting for five hours in a gas line or risking death in a traffic jam.

"Now, the load on your back is heavier than ever before," Nakshabandi said. He sadly remembers how elderly intellectuals would sit here and pass down stories to a younger generation, a tradition now extinct. On Fridays, Nakshabandi sometimes still sees Iraqis walk to the cafe. They stare at the shuttered doors, then walk back. "You feel they are broken, like they have lost someone they loved," he said.

It's nearly 2:30 p.m. Khakshali has closed every door but one. He looked at his visitor and gently said: "You should leave now. It is getting dangerous for you."

From his red chair, Shatri watched Iraq's latest chapter unfold. He has clung to what little he has. His shop. His memories. His street. That helps explain why he is out here this Friday, outside the only shop open on a dying street.

Some days, his mind skips to the future. "Bring back the security, and I'll give you back the greatness of Mutanabi Street," he says to anyone who cares to ask.

But most days, his mind flips back to the past. And that's when he starts to cry.

"All the educated people have left," said Shatri, as he reached into his pocket to pull out a neatly folded, gray handkerchief.

"Iraq," he said, as he wiped his eyes, "it is the first country. It set the laws of Hammurabi." He was referring to the first ruler of Babylon, which was built in what is now modern-day Iraq. Hammurabi created the world's first legal codes.

"And now," he said, "there are no laws."

His voice faded. He wiped his eyes.

And silence fell upon Mutanabi Street again.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company