Violence Changes Fortunes Of Storied Baghdad Street

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

BAGHDAD -- A silence has fallen upon Mutanabi Street.

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."

Then, in a reverent tone, he uttered a proverb known across the Arab world: "Cairo writes. Beirut publishes. And Baghdad reads."

A Futile Protest

Since 1963, Shatri has peddled books on Mutanabi Street, like a faithful friend, through military rule and political oppression, wars and embargo. Of all the eras he has watched ebb and flow, it is today's Iraq, with its violent nature, that most mocks the proud legacy of Mutanabi Street, he said.

"It means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad," Shatri said.

Two Fridays ago, Shatri took action. He and other members of his writers union gathered in front of his shop. They sipped breakfast tea. Then, at around 9:30 a.m., they poured kerosene over a pile of books and set them aflame.

"I cried when I was burning the books," Shatri said.

"It's a message to the government," said Nakshabandi, who also took part. "It's an S.O.S. Help us. An important part of Baghdad is dying. And it is on its last breath."

"But no one got the message. There was no action."

'Better Under Saddam'

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, once-banned Western magazines were displayed openly. Religious books, especially those catering to Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite Muslims, flourished. Hayawi, a burly man with intense, honey-colored eyes, said what the booksellers earned on Fridays was double all the other days combined. Back then, he was optimistic about his future.

Now, the street is still a hive of activity on every other day. But poor security has altered its character, said many of its old booksellers. Before the invasion, they used to stay open till evening. No longer.

"By 2 p.m., we close our shops and run away fast," said Abdullah Gumar al-Ogaeli, 85, who opened a stationery shop in 1947. Thin and frail with a gray mustache, Ogaeli said he knew about 200 merchants in the months after the invasion. Now, he knows three. Some died of natural causes, others lost their lives to the violence.

Several booksellers, he said, were kidnapped by gunmen, but were later released. In Baghdad, the elite and the educated are often targets of criminals, who seek ransom, and of extremists, who seek to shred the city's cultural and intellectual fabric. "Many of our merchants have left Iraq and opened shops in Egypt, Syria and Jordan," said Ogaeli. "The business is weak now."

Today, a new generation of merchants sells paper and other supplies. Several original booksellers said the newcomers were looters who thrived during the chaos of the invasion. Now, they have tarnished the legacy of Mutanabi Street, they said. "At work, I am always honest," said Ogaeli, who calls Mutanabi Street "a holy name."

The sectarian violence is also blemishing a place where Shiite and Sunni Muslims have always worked side by side. "I am Shiite," Ogaeli said. "All my daughters are married to Sunnis. And my son is married to a Sunni woman. No one used to mention Sunni and Shiite. This is all new to us."

When he thinks of the few lasting friendships he has left on Mutanabi Street, "I feel sad. I feel uncomfortable," said Ogaeli, his voice disappearing in the noise of the street outside.

On a recent Saturday, Hayawi and his older brother Nabil, both Sunni Muslims, sat at a neatly kept desk inside their store. On an iron staircase, next to a sign that read "40 to 50% off on all books," hung a portrait of their late father.

They were once five brothers. Four, including Nabil, left Iraq after the February bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra, which triggered an avalanche of reprisal killings. Nabil, who now lives in Cairo, travels back and forth to Baghdad. They said the family business was suffering. It took the first half of this year, Mohammad lamented, to earn what they did in one month after the invasion.

"We asked the new government to improve the street, like providing services and cleaning it," said Mohammad, puffing a cigarette. "What happened was the opposite. The street was neglected."

"It was better under Saddam," said Nabil, who is balding and has a sharp nose and a white beard. "On Fridays, even when we had electricity problems, they didn't switch the electricity off. There was a system and order."

He has always resented the U.S. occupation. But now he outright blames the Americans for the violence that is tearing apart their lives. "The Americans are the reasons for it. This is the truth. You must hear it. Sectarian strife is like a fire. When the fire starts, it eats everything."

A year ago, the store imported 1,000 boxes of books from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, said Nabil. Then he pointed at some boxes in a corner of the store. "Now, in August, we imported 20 boxes."

After the invasion, the family paid 6,000 Iraqi dinars for 20 liters of gasoline to use for their generator. Now, it costs 30,000 dinars. The government gives them electricity for one hour a day, Mohammad said. Now, it's not certain if they can get to work or return home safely, Mohammad said. He knew 25 merchants on the street who were either arrested for unknown reasons, kidnapped or killed.

"Yesterday, we were expecting today will be better. But today is worse than yesterday," Mohammad said. "Now, if you ask me, 'Are you optimistic?' I would say, 'No'. I don't have a single ounce of optimism."

A Dying Street

Across the street on a recent Wednesday, the century-old Shahbandar cafe, its walls covered with black-and-white photos of Baghdad, is empty, save for two men. They silently smoke their water pipes. It is 1:30 p.m.

"At this time, you could not find a place to sit down," said Fahim al-Khakshali, whose father owns this legendary cafe.

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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