the street of the poet Al-Mutanabbi

IssueJune 2014
Comment by Jeff Cloves

ImageOn 5 March 2007, a car bomb was detonated on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad. It killed more than 30 people, wounded more than 100 and destroyed many businesses in the heart of a quarter famous for its bookshops, outdoor bookstalls, literary cafés, publishing houses and free-thinking society. The street was extensively damaged but re-opened in December 2008. May it thrive and ferment again. It wasn’t an accidental target and represents yet another attack on freedom of speech and freedom to publish.

Religious and political leaders routinely fear the freedoms they profess to defend and support and the history of such attacks is wearisomely familiar to many PN readers. However, the attempt to throttle Al-Mutanabbi Street has led to an enormous international upsurge of support for, and solidarity with, Baghdad’s community of writers, activists and dreamers which should gladden our hearts

One response – from the US poet Beau Beausoleil and the Kuwaiti-born writer and poet Deema Shehabi – was to publish a thumping anthology (320 pages) of poets and writers under the title Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here (PM Press 2012).

On 5 March this year, Dennis Gould and I, and our friend Lucy Guenot, took part in a commemorative event in the print-making department of The University of the West of England.

Dennis and Lucy are letterpress printers and Lucy largely set the poem printed here. Meanwhile three women – with occasional help from us – read aloud the entire anthology; an act of extraordinary dedication and solidarity which took seven hours to complete.

There were similar readings and events to mark this day in Egypt (Cairo), Canada (Calgary, St. John’s Newfoundland), the US (Warren, Michigan; Washington DC; Indiana, Indianapolis; Jersey City, New Jersey; Portland and Bend in Oregon; San Francisco, California; Northport, Alabama; Cambridge, Massachusetts; New York; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and New Haven, Connecticut) and the UK (Taunton, London, Exeter, Edinburgh, and Gateshead).

I found the book powerful and very moving and last year an open-air event held in Stroud – to mark the publication of the book – was a foretaste. Fourteen men and women, girls and boys, read poetry in their own languages and made a terrific impact. We didn’t need to understand the words – their beautiful presence was enough in itself.

There’s more to say but no more space. Just google ‘Al-Muntanabbi Street Starts Here’ and marvel at how an outrage brought writers onstage. How about in your town?

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