Al-Mutanabbi Street starts here
By DAVID COLLARD
At the annual Small Publishers Fair recently (blogged about by Michael Caines here), I fell into conversation with a friendly stallholder who gave me a bookmark carrying the cryptic message “Al-Mutannabi Street starts here”. That was all. She politely but firmly refused to answer any questions about it but the street name rang a very faint bell. Intrigued, I went online to find out more. There was plenty to discover and I’ve since been catching up on an extraordinarily moving and impressive literary project.
On Monday March 5, 2007, at the height of the sectarian war in Iraq, a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing more than thirty people, wounding more than 100 and destroying many small businesses, including a host of small bookshops and bookstalls. No group has claimed responsibility for this devastating attack. The street, named after the tenth-century classical Iraqi poet, was the equivalent of London’s Charing Cross Road in its heyday, and the heart of Baghdad’s intellectual and literary community.
Reading about this event, Beau Beausoleil, a poet and bookseller based in San Francisco, felt that a gesture of solidarity was called for and set up “The Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition”, which has since been working to establish and maintain a link with the people of Al-Mutanabbi Street. In 2007, Beausoleil’s “Call to Action for Letterpress Printers – Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadsides” brought writers, poets and artists together to produce a series of broadsides printed on traditional letterpresses. The project has since expanded into other media, including 260 one-off books designed by artists supporting the cause, and an anthology of writing published as Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, co-edited by Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi (PM Press, 2012).
In 2013, printmakers around the world were invited to make prints for the project and to become part of a global coalition committed to the belief that “wherever people talk freely and creativity breathes, Al-Mutanabbi Street starts”. Each printmaker has donated five prints from their edition to the project. One complete set of prints will be donated to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad and the other copies will be on show in touring exhibitions around the United States, Britain, the Middle East and North Africa. The inaugural show will open at the San Francisco Center for the Book this Friday.
Earlier this year a selection of the prints was displayed in London’s Mosaic Gallery. More than fifty British artists are among the hundreds involved in the endeavour. If you’re reading this, you might wish to spread the word. Al-Mutanabbi Street starts here.