Anguish in the Ruins of Mutanabi Street

In Baghdad's Literary District, Mourning Loved Ones and a Once-Unifying Place

Iraqis examine the destruction on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, four days after a car bomb killed at least 26 people and gutted the area's famed bookstores.
Iraqis examine the destruction on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, four days after a car bomb killed at least 26 people and gutted the area's famed bookstores. (Photos By Sudarsan Raghavan -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 10, 2007; Page A14

BAGHDAD, March 9 -- On a pile of bricks, someone had left a pink plastic flower, a pair of glasses and a book with crisp, white pages. They glowed in the black debris of Mutanabi Street, which by Friday had become a graveyard of memories. At 9:03 a.m., a man in a rumpled brown suit walked past dark banners mourning the dead. He stopped near the flower and the book, which was opened to a chapter on the virtues of Baghdad.

"There is no God but God," he said, his voice disappearing in the cracking sound of a shovel against debris. He stared at the gutted bookshops, hollowed like skulls by the blast and the flames. He lowered his head, fighting back tears.

Then he turned and walked away.

On Friday morning, Iraqis continued to drift to Mutanabi Street, four days after a car bomb took the lives of at least 26 people and injured dozens more. Some came to hunt for the remains of loved ones. Others came to mourn a street that represented the intellectual soul of a nation known for its love affair with books. For many, the narrow warren of shops had seemed to defy Iraq's woes.

Mutanabi Street had long been considered "the unifier of Iraq," said Khalid Hussein, a bookseller with cropped hair and thick forearms. Before the bombing, he said, this was "the only place that hadn't been touched by sectarianism."

The evidence was lodged in the dense heaps of twisted metal and the mangled cars. Here, a page from a Bible. There, a page from a Koran. Tattered posters of Imam Ali, Shiite Islam's revered saint, littered the ground near the 8-foot-wide crater left by the bomb. The shop that sold Wahhabi Sunni literature was in ruins.

The day after the attack, blackened body parts covered with cardboard and pink stationery sat near a storefront. A note read: "The remains of Hadi Hassan. Hummus seller." He was a Shiite from Najaf, said those who knew him.

A few inches away, a dusty, charred cellphone lay next to an empty yellow plastic bag and a shard of burned flesh stuck to cloth. A note read: "This is the only remains from this person. Everyone is going back to God."

By Friday, the body parts had vanished. Around Khalid Hussein were fathers and sons, strangers and friends. The smells of smoke and burned paper lingered. Scavengers looked for loot, but nobody paid attention.

"This is his shoe," a man cried out. "I bought it for him."

It was 9:06 a.m. The man was slim, with peppery hair and square, gray-tinted glasses. He clutched a black chunk of flat leather melted by the heat. "I bought it for him."

He kissed the piece of leather, then placed it gently on a warped metal box next to the flower, the eyeglasses and the book.

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