Sunday, August 19, 2007

The pen is mightier in Mutannabi Street, Baghdad

By Nabeel Yasin
Published in the FT Weekend: August 18 2007 00:19 Last updated: August 18 2007 00:19

On the first Monday morning of March this year a suicide car-bomber forced his way through the crowds on the meandering alleyway of Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad and parked outside a row of bookshops and street cafes. Minutes later he detonated his cargo of gas cylinders. Twenty-six people, including the driver, were killed and many were injured as shops, stalls, printers and the famous al-Shabender coffeehouse were destroyed. In the aftermath of the bomb, shreds of paper from thousands of books, magazines and journals came to rest amid the body parts scattered across the smoking waste.

This was not Mutanabbi Street’s first bomb. A package left in a bookshop exploded during the summer of 2005. In both cases, booksellers were back in business within days, their eclectic wares on display outside the shops. The brave browser can buy almost any book here - I have seen works by communist poets, martyred clerics and Lebanese astrologers alongside a selection of Haynes repair manuals.

The booksellers’ decision to stay open despite the attacks has been inspirational to many Baghdadis. But strikes on the “thinking quarter”, the alleyway named after the Iraqi poet al-Mutanabbi, have sent a message to Iraqi intellectuals: free-thinking liberalism will not be tolerated. This literary and intellectual haven is no longer safe.

This anger doesn’t spring from the sectarianism of modern Iraq, but from a much older tradition, a slavish adherence to a highly evolved Iraqi ideology of violence. This credo has long been at the heart of political life. After four decades of coups, counter-coups and dictatorships, people understand violence as the pre-eminent means of change. It is the only force that is universally proven to work.

The current precarious situation in Iraq at first appears to be the result of post-invasion insurgency and a revival in sectarianism. But the Iraqi belief that violence is the only response to the presence of US and other allied forces is simply how people there feel the culture should respond to any invasion. The occupying forces are being destabilised, but so is any Iraqi living in the name of peace, openness and freedom.

The origins of this allegiance to violence go back thousands of years. The history of the land of Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and Tigris, is peppered with tales of invaders and conquerors. When the region became home to the three great monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, their disputed sacred heritage made the place a permanent battlefield.

In the second half of the 20th century, the ideology of violence gathered a cultish momentum, becoming a doctrine that drove political change. In the late 1950s, Iraqi politics split out into Ba’ath, communist and nationalist factions, and violence erupted into the mainstream.

Violence was part of every young Iraqi’s experience. When I was nine years old, in 1959, I went with my brothers to join in the celebrations marking the first anniversary of the People’s Revolution when the monarchy was overthrown. For the first time I saw people dragged into the streets and stoned. My brothers and I were attacked with bullets and knives as we tried to escape.

Michel Aflaq, the founder of Ba’athism, wrote that to be a true Ba’athist a person should “be ready to annihilate his [enemies’] physical form”. Iraqi Ba’athists took this message to heart, and after a failed attempt to assassinate General Kassim in 1959, a successful 1963 coup led to lawless carnage across the country.

Untrained National Guard squads raided houses with machine guns and within weeks so many people had been rounded up that the new international sports stadium became a concentration camp. My brother was detained and tortured there.

The Ba’ath party made violence legal. Thousands were killed, and every Ba’athist leader was authorised to pursue power by any means. Saddam Hussein’s reputation as a remorseless torturer propelled him through the ranks of the party.

Once he was in charge, the leadership showed their loyalty by executing enemies (and filming it). State television then broadcast the beheadings, hangings and torture. It sent the message that if you were not with the Ba’athists, you were against them and a violent end was your natural reward. Two generations of Iraqis, some 60 per cent of the population, have been raised in the shadow of war, sanctions and the fervent belief that violent action is the only way to change the status quo.

Iraqis also see the carnage in their country as a direct continuation of the ancient traditions of hardship, war and martyrdom. The murderous vocabulary of thousands of martial poems, short stories, novels and speeches published during Hussein’s quarter-century in power still dominate thinking and – crucially – the wider artistic sphere. And little wonder. Forty years ago Iraqi students were free to read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Shakespeare, travel to art galleries and exchange cultural ideas with the rest of the world.

One of Hussein’s first acts was to draft a cultural blacklist. Thousands of writers were banned, Arab poets such as al-Jawahiri and myself as well as western works including Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie and Tin Tin.

Today’s insurgents have mixed the nationalist elements of old with those verses from the Koran that speak about the jihad. What’s missing is the culture and history that have been purged from mainstream Iraqi life.

Recently in Baghdad I met three survivors of the bookshop bombings who continue to ply their trade among the tobacco and tea stores still left. One of them said to me: “We have always respected the book’s power and we know it is a challenge to bring culture [to Iraq]. But literature must live to be a tool against terrorism and extremism.” It is hard to fault their vision, though their victories remain small. Many in Iraq are unaware there is another way to live. You can buy books, but the security situation means that most people don’t dare browse in bookshops or share opinions in cafes. Theatres, cinemas and playhouses are darkened and coffee shop culture has been almost killed off by curfews.

Many now use the internet to share ideas and discoveries, but even this lively forum for young Iraqis who don’t dare go out of their homes can only happen when the haphazard power supplies are running.

Online chat promises anonymity, but what really makes artistic communities viable and worthwhile is the buzzing, face-to-face artistic exchange that is so much a part of Baghdadi heritage. Iraqis can preserve and expand the rich culture of Mutanabbi Street. We have already seen this happen - the area experienced a brief renaissance after the fall of the Ba’athist regime (the booksellers had survived during the Hussein years by trading in approved pulp-military literature).

A revived booksellers quarter will give people a centre from which to debate philosophies, books, films and music in safety, knowing others are doing it too. If this happens I believe a new sense of culture and government will emerge.

Iraq needs help from the west, but Iraqi poets, writers and artists need to ignite a new set of cultural aspirations among the young. The older generation of (mostly exiled) writers needs to show faith in young Iraqis. I am organising a conference that will bring these groups together. From this conference we need to offer new artists public exposure; we need to publish, exhibit and stage their work.

I really believe that artistic endeavour, and the personal satisfaction it brings, offers genuine hope for a changed outlook. The act of creation harnesses the same passion that makes people chase a cause – even one of violence.

Nabeel Yasin is an acclaimed Iraqi poet who fled the country in 1979 with his family. He lives in the UK but has made frequent trips back to his homeland. ‘Nabeel’s Song’, by Jo Tatchell (Sceptre £7.99) is the story of his life.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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