Chronicles of al-Mutanabbi Street (part 2)

In the early eighties of the past century, the Parliament Café suffered the worst fate that might befall a cultural Café in Iraq. A Cultural café, a chess battlefield and a great forum for Iraqi, Arab and foreign writers and intellectuals, was destroyed, and in its place rose a few shops^ a shop for repairing  shoes of poor people, a fast foods restaurant, and a stationery  shop whose owner dreams of quick profits.  The Parliament Café has been lost, leaving nothing but its cultural memory  of names. The names belong to scholars, thinkers and writers who are now absent. Some dead, some are in prison and the rest are beyond the borders exiled in lands to which they were forced to go. All have gone, but the place secured for itself a living memory that transcends generations quietly, actively and beautifully, and that was the greatness of the Parliament Café.

Thus, instead of  seeing Baghdad continuing its boom, which began in the fifties, we saw the relapse of Baghdad as well as the relapse  of the rest of our towns, villages and marshes. Instead of advancing the Iraqi economy, we find it declined with Iraq becoming shackled with Iraq burdens of debt, including paying compensations and costs of what has been destroyed. Instead of enhancing tourism, we lost most of its landmarks and foundations. Thus, Iraq became under international (de facto American) trusteeship, mandate.  Instead of continuing cultural, artistic and scientific creativity and production, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and talented professionals have migrate and preferred to face (except for a minority) the problems of alienation rather than the totalitarian repression.

The wonderful cultural cafés of Baghdad, especially those in Al-Rasheed Street, have their special characteristics, since they are an important part of Iraqi life in general and of Baghdad life in particular. Those who are accustomed to frequent them seem to have devoted hours of their weeks for this purpose. Those hours provide them with continuing social, cultural and scholarly communication with acquaintances and friends who are writers, scientists, intellectuals, artists and lovers of literature, arts and knowledge for these cafes have become more like spiritual temples in which the graceful rituals of worshipping Culture and Knowledge are practiced.

Those pioneers come to replace their life’s hours with intellectual and cultural meetings. They do so with high respect and great pride . They, often, arrange to meet after midday Friday of each week – on a regular basis – before they return to their sporadic divergent homes in the sprawling  alleys and places of Baghdad.

The distance of less than two hundred meters, also, separetes the vanished Parliament Café from the entrance of the cognitive and cultural stock market (al-Mutanabbi street). Late  poet Jameel Sidqi al-Zahawi used to attend  the Sufi School riding on his saddled and bridled white donkey and followed his servant.

The donkey  would be tied in the vicinity of the Scientific Institute. After two hours, al-Zahawi used to emerge  from the school, ride his donkey with the help of his servant and go home with his dangling  feet inside their Persian white silk sandals. Behind the school, al-Akmakhana Street starts.  The Akmak means  in Turkish bread. It was named so because the Ottoman Aramys main bakery was located at the other  end of the street, opposite the Shahbandar Café. Later, the name of the street was changed to Al-Mutanabi Street.

The noise of al-Muttanabi Street is beautiful and familiar. There is no other noise like it at all. Its beings are quite, beautiful and silent. Iraqis, Arabs and foreigners come to it looking for the birds of knowledge that always fly high.

Both sides of the street – you are now inside it- are filled with books  and writers, with buildings strongly and nostalgically hugging their history to their old  silent facadeys, by life and history, by the vitality radiating from eyes, buildings, gestures and books, paintings and photographic cameras.

The weekly stock market creatures come, singly and collectively, wandering, lookin with greedy eyes and checking the titles of books on the street pavements on both sides. They huddle in front of the wonderful books arranged beautifully behind clean and shiny glass facadeys.

They bend over the pavement books with heads converging and foreheadslit by smiling eyes hearing the high voice of naim al-Shatri, the wonderful southern who was the godfather of al-Mutanabbi Stock Exchange. Often, his voice was higher than the noise of those creatures.

His ringing voice announces the opening of his weekly auction of periodicals, reference books and text books of different types of literature, arts and science, alluring titles at more attractive prices!

There were two nice men in the memory of Al-Muttanabi  Street, Hussein Mahmoud al-Filfili and Ahmad Kadhum. Both were sellers of second hand books, and they used to display their wares in al-Shari’s public auction held on a small space in front of his bookshop. The small place becomes crowded. Buyers and the curious onlookers extended their necks to see al-Shatri, for he was a strenge and exotic man. It is a scene that is worth seeing  and deserves careful observation, reflection and a narrative documentation. Here, we see friends and lovers of the book, which is the best friend in the whole world, we see them being forced to leave their loyal friend.  Among them, there are large groups of writers and artists who sold their books or swapped them unfairly, just to live. The intellectuals and the rest of the other social strata in Iraq have faced what has not been faced by any other nation in this world.  They faced two cruel destructive sieges. No one was excluded except the olive-wearing writers, artists and subscribers who were always awarded gifts, donations, and grats daily, weekly, monthly and on declared and undeclared occasions.

The siege of repression, pression and fear was living inside the outer siege which was the comprehensive blockade (i.e. economic sanctions) that was unparalleled in human history. It was  even outside the inhumane globalization and its new system, the so-called world order.

Many scholars, writers and intellecdtulas became booksellers on the side-pavements of al-Mutanabbi street and other places in stricken Baghdad. They did so despite their embarrassment and shyness, especially pioneer academicians.

The only exceptions were the pampered academicians of the patriarch. Most of those pioneers secretly offered their precious books with titles and prices to Naiim al-Shatri,the godfather and supervisor of book-sales to sell the books for them in his weekly sales.

In Al-Mutanabbis cultural stock market, you get to meet poets, writers, philosophers, scholars, artists, painters, sculptors, actors, musicians and others. You meet them alive and dead in the Shahbandar Café which is a cultural café situated in the end of Al-Mutanabbi Street and is considered a cultural rest-house. It is situated  across the street from Al-Sarai Bazaar which played a vital role in Baghdads civilized and cultural history, since it is Baghdads main book market. History tells us that the beginnings of the market were during the Ottoman period.

At the time, it was a leather market where bags, satchels, saddles, bridles, betls and holsters were made. In 1816, Dawood Pasha, the wali. Governor of Baghdad, built al-Sarai (Govermnent adquarters). In 1902, the first Print House was founded near the market in a place called Jadeed Hassan Pasha. The new Governor, Namiq Pasha, built the post office in 1905.

It was followed by the Government  Press. Thus, the soil became ready for the seeds of bookshops and the change from a leather market to a book market. The first book shop, according to history, sold ancient scrolls and books of medicinal herbs, poetry and genealogy. After touring, shopping and chance meetings, you will find yourself resting in the Shahbandar Café where you will  enjoy photos of Old Baghdad hanging on the walls of this wonderful café. It should be mentioned here that some of Baghdads cafés were recognized, in the  first decades of the past century, as cultural establishmrnts or schools for music, singing and Iraqi maqams. Their patrons were greatsingers, talented story tellers and lovers of Iraqi maqams. One of those cafes was Al-Mumayiz Café which was on the riverbank, near  Al-Shuhadaa Bridge and adjacent to Al-Asfiya Mosque with its minarets which were used by soldiers to fire on students during the 1948 demostrations. In the afternoon, a serene quietness invaded Al-Muranabbi Street which ends with zigzagging paths that descend to the Tigris River after passing by historical mosques  and buildings. With night coming, the street is deserted and the quietness turns into loneliness, while the headless statue of al-Mutanabbi continues to stand in Al-Bilat Square.

“Gilgamehs” magazine, 2014

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