Life’s the Thing

As Logan Pearsall Smith lugubriously remarked, “People say that life’s the thing, but I prefer reading.”  Few would go quite that far, but I admit that my house is fuller of books than my wife would really like it to be, and in a mysterious way they keep arriving. I find it hard to keep out of bookshops.

Bookshops are places where the rhizome of culture breaks ground, connected beneath the earth but apparently separate on the surface. I’m not of course talking about Waterstone’s or Borders, those two-dimensional warehouses that are less like rhizomes and more like nostoc,  (“excrement blown from the nostrils of some rheumatic planet”):  I mean those rare and mostly vanished shops, where there is a presiding intelligence, someone who makes whimsical and informed choices, and knows his shelves, who surprises you with odd juxtapositions and unknown authors, finds recondite titles and recommends forgotten poets.

There are cities in the Middle East where bookshops are definitely shoots from the rhizome of culture. In Cairo I used to spend many hours among the barrows on the Ezbikiyeh Gardens (and I still go sometimes to the sad little yard behind the Ezbekiyeh tube station to which they have been brutally banished). I have several treasures on my shelves found on those barrows 30 and more years ago, bound up in leather and buckram by the old mugallid behind the Abdin Palace who used to bind books for King Farouk’s library.

But the quintessential bookshop is somewhere in Baghdad, on al-Mutanabbi Street. I bought few books there, perhaps because we lived in Baghdad in one of the leaner times, in 1989-90, just before the first (or second, if you count the way we did then) Gulf War. Al-Mutanabbi Street, though an early twentieth century creation in its present form, was on much the same spot, in some previous life 1200 years ago, when London was a boggy village and Rome the sad wreck of an ancient city populated by grim clergymen and grubby sheep. Baghdad was a book-mad city, a factory of poetry and knowledge, omnivorously creating, digesting, translating, rethinking, creating anew. The city spouted verse, philosophy, science and theology, and its scribes churned out books on the newfangled paper that came from the east. That crazy bibliophily, that intoxicating excitement at the discovery of ideas and words, had its home on, or very near, the crooked street running down from Rasheed Street to the River Tigris.

Al-Mutanabbi Street has had its ups and downs since then, most recently this year a night-raid with bulldozers by Baghdad’s city authorities, to carry out ‘urban improvements’ under cover of darkness. But its worst moment in recent times was on 5th March 2007, when a car bomb exploded in the street, killing thirty people and injuring at least a hundred more, destroying bookshops and storerooms, cafés and street stalls. The whole bookish culture of the street was smashed to smithereens in an instant, and the idiocy of Logan Pearsall Smith’s comment brutally underlined:  life’s the thing, after all, and reading is contingent on living.

I’ve been thinking about it today, reading an anthology of poetry and prose written about the bombing and its significance, called Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here (Oakland, CA, 2012).  It’s a gesture of solidarity from a group of mainly Californian and Iraqi writers to the universality of the culture of literature and imagination; and the universality of the wound that is made by wilfully destroying both, in a godless explosion of blood and paper.

The preface, by Muhsin al-Musawi, tells of the bomb, and the destruction of the Shahbandar Café, but more remarkably, to me, describes the street itself like a print-historian of early modern London wandering in his mind through the bookshops of St Paul’s churchyard or London Bridge. I’ll quote it because it creates a poignant sense of the reality, of the sensuous tissue of people and books and imagination, the intricate intellectual ground-plan that was al-Mutanabbi Street.

Among individual booksellers from al-Mutanabbi Street’s more recent history were Abd al-Rahman Effendi (1890), Mulla Khidayyir (1900) and his son Abd al-Karim, who later owned Mishriq Bookshop. He was followed by Numan al-Adami (1905) with his Arabiyya Bookshop, then Mahmud Hilmi (1914) with his famous Asriyyah Bookshop. Shams al-Din al-Haidari had his Ahliyya Bookshop, which was the first to get Franklin’s books published. The famous Husayn al-Fulfili, with his many anecdotes, had his Zawra Bookshop, named after the original epithet of Baghdad (1932). Around the same time, Muhammad Qasim al-Rijab bought the historical house of Saib Shawkat on the right side of the same street. It became the Muthanna Bookshop … Mahmud Jawad Haidar had his bookshop, al-Marif, on the right side of the street, the same side where Ali al-Kalqani had his Najah Bookshop (that changed into al-Bayan Bookshop, which produced a famous journal published in Nejef). Abd al-Hamid Zahid inaugurated the auction for books and had his bookshop on the right side, as the Bookshop of Abd al-Hamid Zahid . He was among the leaders of the popular revolution of 1920. Abd al-Rahman Hayyawi established his Nahdhah Bookshop … His son Najah took over after his father’s death, and was followed by his brother Muhammad. The latter lost his life in 2007.

This was what was blown up, a delicate membrane of trade and publishing, politics and tobacco smoke, readers, gossips and couplets. Verse, literature and conversation were ripped apart, deep seriousness and thistledown frivolity. The anthology contains some poignant descriptions not just of the books themselves and the garrulously bookish culture of the stalls and shops; but of the Shahbandar Café whose owner lost four sons and grandsons in the bombing, “where antique water-pipes were stacked in rows three deep. On the walls inside were pictures of Iraq’s history: portraits of the bare-chested 1936 wrestling team, King Faisal’s court after World War One and the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939;” … “where you order a nargila and smoke it and leaf through the books you’ve bought, its bubbling laughter mixing with your stifled giggles.”

Anthony Shadid writes of the bizarre “intellectual free-for-all” that the street became after the US invasion, where “Shiite iconography – of living ayatollahs and 7th century saints marching to their deaths – was everywhere. Nearby were new issues of FHM and Maxim, their covers adorned with scantily clad women. On rickety stands were compact discs of Osama bin Laden’s messages … Down the street were pamphlets of the venerable Communist Party.”

But that wasn’t all. Ayub Nuri writes of his delight at finding a job lot of 27 novels by Agatha Christie; another writer tells of coming across a volume of Persian verse once given her by a lover; yet another celebrates the discovery of an old book, still carrying his own signature, looping back through time to its first owner. Muhammad al-Hamrani tells how he was spared death by a gunman who recognized him, far from Baghdad, as a bookseller from the Street.

On her way to al-Mutanabbi Street, Irada al-Jabbouri follows an itinerary that speaks from the page to me: On the way to the British Council in the Waziriya Area, we stop at the print shop … we pretend to drink tea on the pavement of the next door, while we wait for our photocopies of forbidden books … in the British Council garden we swap books and talk – Iraqis from Baghdad and the provinces, Arabs, foreigners. We borrow books, films, music tapes from the Council’s library.

These visits were perhaps a year or two before I arrived in Baghdad on my first British Council posting, but that garden I remember very clearly, with its tattered wicker chairs and its chipped green tin tables, its babel of accents and its occasional furtive and solitary tea-drinking listener who the young avoided. It was one of the very few places in Baghdad where it was respectable for a boy and girl to go together, and where conversation was safe enough. Some of the forbidden books came from the Council’s library. I remember the long-suffering librarian, Naomi Kazwini, sadly putting an end to the ploy of a group of different library members ordering Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, one chapter at a time, from the British Library at Boston Spa. I remember the appetite for books, the amazing rate of theft, which we thought of as ullage, and didn’t worry too much about. I remember two army officers found getting a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships out of the library through the gap under an air-conditioner, one pulling from outside, one pushing from in. (I’ve often wondered how Jane’s got into the library in the first place: all books were censored, and I still have a children’s book about Noah’s Ark with mamnu3 – forbidden – scrawled across the flyleaf.)

Books are no substitute for living, but they are a necessity; and through them and the complicated life and bloody injury of this short street we catch a glimpse of Iraq and its heart. Anthony Shadid writes of one bookseller, Mohammed Hayawi that “his quiet life deserves more than a footnote, if for no other reason than to remember a man who embraced what Baghdad was and tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense any more. Gone with him are small moments of life, gentle simply by virtue of being ordinary, now lost in the rubble strewn along a street that will never be the same.”

One last and, for me, very poignant footnote: March 5th 2007, the day of the bomb, was my daughter’s seventeenth birthday. Born while we were living in Baghdad, her second name – given her by her Baghdadi godfather – is Sheherezad.

2 thoughts on “Life’s the Thing

  1. Within a paragraph or two of starting to read this entry, I was planning to mount a stalwart defence of Waterstones in Piccadilly, SW1, where I have just spent the most pleasant of evenings; a warehouse belching nostoc was the last thing that came to mind.

    But I thought better of it. The rest of your piece took me back to an entirely different world, elements of which have been rendered so fragile by modern brutalities, that they righty deserve to be captured in image and memory as you have here. A new generation, dazzled by the false gold of all that is digital, will doubtless fail even to begin to understand what the fuss is all about, when the last vestiges of their equivalent of papyrus has been mown and pummelled into oblivion underfoot. But I remember the smells, sights and atmosphere of this kind of living bibliphilia, and the excitement of unearthing hidden treasures, rendered all the more precious when only the bookseller knew anything of their provenance, and few others recognised their value at all, through the dust and shabby covers, yellowing stains and badly-cut page edges.

    My equivalent of al-Mutannabi were the isolated treasure troves of Madrid, Tangier and Las Palmas of the 1980s – doubtless now all long gone, and only marginally linked to the cafes that were their neighbours in narrow streets or busy thoroughfares.

    A further poignant end-note struck as I read on: Anthony Shadid, of course, has himself now been a victim of a more recent conflict, albeit not in a bombing raid. He died whilst reporting events in Syria in February 2012.

  2. I heard Beau Beausoleil talk at The Marin Poetry Center gathering this past Thursday night. I bought his extraordinary anthology … and, of course, proceeded to find him on Facebook. This led me to your excellent and thought-provoking review. Isn’t this the reason that Al-Mutanabbi Street starts here? It’s a beautiful thing that “social media” can be that delicate connection, like a red thread running through …

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