Bombs and books on Mutanabbi Street.
March 13, 2007 2:14 PM   Subscribe

The Bookseller's Story, Ending Much Too Soon. Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post writes about Mohammed Hayawi, "a bald bear of a man," who ran the Renaissance Bookstore on "Baghdad's storied Mutanabi Street." Back in 2005, Phillip Robertson wrote a Salon article about Al Mutanabbi Street, "Baghdad's legendary literary cafe, the Shabandar, " and Hajji Qais Anni's stationery store: "Hajji Qais had been on Al Mutanabbi street for 10 years and the vendors all knew him... He wore a beard and was also known as a devout Sunni who had no problem hiring Shia workers or spending time with Christian colleagues." Both Hayawi and Hajji Qais were killed by bombs, the cafe has been gutted, and the street that "embodied a generation-old saying: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads" is no longer its old self. "When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper." Two views of a part of Baghdad that doesn't make the news much.
posted by languagehat (40 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

Thanks for posting this, languagehat.
posted by poweredbybeard at 2:28 PM on March 13, 2007

There's something about the destruction of libraries, bookstores, and schools that hits me harder than the ending of lives. Maybe it's that, while individual lives are precious, everbody dies eventually. But destroying knowledge makes us all poorer. I know that probably sounds pretty bad, but somehow the destruction of books makes it all the more real for me.
posted by lekvar at 2:40 PM on March 13, 2007

Thanks for this. These are the kinds of stories I didn't want to see, but also knew were inevitable. It's also the kind of thing I've wanted to see reported from the beginning, from that March now four years past, when the bombs began to fall. Every day must hold tragedy in Baghdad, and it has been and continues to be so easy for many to forget that... but each day also holds small triumphs. I really enjoyed this anecdote:

He was always a proud man. Every so often, Hayawi would repeat this story: He was driving to Syria on business in his yellow Caprice and was stopped at a U.S. checkpoint, manned by two Humvees, outside the Euphrates River town of Ramadi, in western Iraq. Through a translator, one of the American officers, clad in camouflage and dusty from a desert wind, began to ask him routine questions.

" 'What are you doing here?' the soldier asked.

"I said, 'What are you doing here? You're my guest. What are you doing in Iraq?' "

"He laughed and he patted my shoulder," Hayawi recalled.

He sounds like he was an interesting person to know, among so many others whose stories go unreported. It is difficult not knowing whether to weep or feel anger at all these senseless deaths, still more to attempt to take in and understand the magnitude of the loss. It is difficult not to feel that there is a large hole, a gap in the fabric of humanity where all those lives are absent.
posted by wander at 2:49 PM on March 13, 2007


When all looks like a Holy War between the Christians and Muslims, it's easy to overlook the two sides working together in a war against knowledge.
posted by wendell at 2:51 PM on March 13, 2007

Lekvar: I completely agree with you. I was truly upset when the museums of Baghdad were looted, and reading this story reminded me of that.
posted by wander at 2:52 PM on March 13, 2007

Not to diminish the horror of what happened, but it might even pale in comparison to the looting of Iraq's museums after the invasion. Terrible stuff all around. Civilization began here, literally. You can never replace this stuff.

On preview, what wander said.
posted by bardic at 3:10 PM on March 13, 2007


Saw this story recently and was so moved by it. A rare view of Baghdad's cultural life.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:10 PM on March 13, 2007

Oh crud... what a depressing read. I know that I try to avoid stuff like this, just to keep my spirits up. I know that turning my eyes and brain away from stories of suffering in Iraq isn't the moral thing to do, but... y'know...

It was also a very human read, giving insight into aspects of Iraqi culture that are opaque to me. I mean, of course I knew that literary life existed there, but this is the first time I've read about it. It was passive, rather than active knowledge. This also gives me an emotional conduit into the conflict. When all that the news reports say is that X number of Iraqis are dead, I can't put myself into the situation. But putting this into the context of my local independant bookseller getting blown-up and his store ruined... that I can understand on a visceral level.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by Kattullus at 3:11 PM on March 13, 2007

Thanks for the post...I remember the original Salon story and how interesting the man, the shop, and the street all seemed.

What a goddamn shame.
posted by rollbiz at 3:15 PM on March 13, 2007

Yet 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 anymore.

It is a sad way to learn about a man.

I feel helpless after reading that. I know what it feels like to try and make sense of a country that doesn't make sense anymore.

My country did this , his blood is on my hands and I can't carry that burden. If I really thought about it I don't think I could take anything seriously again.
posted by nola at 3:19 PM on March 13, 2007


(Dort, wo man Menschen verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Bücher)
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:19 PM on March 13, 2007

Dort, wo man Menschen verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Bücher

This is true ... and indeed happening in Iraq. The purge is of books, knowledge and men, as the crossfire between the Sunni and the Shia intensifies.
posted by ericb at 3:47 PM on March 13, 2007

Anthony Shadid. If you like this he has a book full more.
posted by stbalbach at 3:48 PM on March 13, 2007

(That was a kinda invocation of al-Sharia al-Niwdog, earlier)
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:57 PM on March 13, 2007

How odd that those who support slavery (compulsory taxation) somehow lament this. This is no different that taxation. I wonder if madatory tax supporters will follow their own logic (if he doesn't like the society, leave)
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 4:26 PM on March 13, 2007

posted by Smedleyman at 4:38 PM on March 13, 2007

*unsuccessfully resists quipping “And To Think I Saw It On Mutanabbi Street.”*
posted by Smedleyman at 4:39 PM on March 13, 2007

Sad end for an interesting man. I recall reading one of the original articles about the fellow. Though, as for the post, the more inside aspect of posting could have been used to greater effect.
posted by Atreides at 4:45 PM on March 13, 2007

How is the US not being held responsible for damages resulting from the civil unrest it has caused in Iraq? The people of Iraq really do deserve complete reparations for the war of aggression they've been subject to. What ever happened to "You break it, you buy it??
posted by mullingitover at 4:46 PM on March 13, 2007

How is the US not being held responsible for damages resulting from the civil unrest it has caused in Iraq? The people of Iraq really do deserve complete reparations for the war of aggression they've been subject to. What ever happened to "You break it, you buy it??
posted by mullingitover at 4:46 PM

You know, old Large Intestine (read Shitbag) Powell had a great idea, we should have just bought Iraq instead of going all Mongol on the place. The only problem is: what would we have done with all the current tenants who might have obejcted to us building big bases and embassies and stuff?

What do you do when the world's policeman is a bad cop?
posted by geos at 5:49 PM on March 13, 2007

Gnostic Novelist, I'm honestly confused by your comment. Any chance I could get you to expand it a bit?
posted by lekvar at 6:15 PM on March 13, 2007

...and the First Annual UbuRoivas Award for Outsanding Achievement in the Field of Non-sequiturial, Off-topic, Drunken Strawman *WTF?* Comments goes to...[pregnant pause]...Gnostic Novelist!!!
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:19 PM on March 13, 2007

I'm guessing GN meant to leave that comment in another thread. Not that I have any idea which thread would be more appropriate for it.

Though, as for the post, the more inside aspect of posting could have been used to greater effect.

Yeah, sorry about that, as soon as I saw it on the front page I thought "Jeesh, ya wordy bastard, use [more inside] next time."
posted by languagehat at 6:35 PM on March 13, 2007

another thread in another site, perhaps, languagehat.

however, drunken browser-tab errors are still a valid grounds for nomination for the award, and according to competition rules, comments are taken at face value without any attempt to look deeper for what actually caused their appearance in the thread.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:42 PM on March 13, 2007

I hope all of you who supported (and/or continue to support) the war read this.

Great work, assholes!

Seriously, war supporters don't get nearly enough shit for their immoral and ridiculous fantasies.
posted by chaz at 7:13 PM on March 13, 2007

Tears And Blood And Shit
posted by homunculus at 7:44 PM on March 13, 2007


As a lover of history my heart sinks when I hear about this.
With the development of capitalism, irreversible time has become globally unified. Universal history becomes a reality because the entire world is brought under the sway of this time’s development. But this history that is everywhere simultaneously the same is as yet nothing but an intrahistorical rejection of history. What appears the world over as the same day is merely the time of economic production, time cut up into equal abstract fragments. This unified irreversible time belongs to the global market, and thus also to the global spectacle.
-Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

We recognize only one form of history, and the side effect of our society is the fading away of other histories, casualties of war or technology...
posted by nasreddin at 8:42 PM on March 13, 2007

posted by Vindaloo at 8:52 PM on March 13, 2007

posted by eritain at 9:50 PM on March 13, 2007

thanks for this post, languagehat, painful as it is.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:00 PM on March 13, 2007

So this could explode into a wider regional conflict?

Clarke: I find it difficult to walk through the scenario which creates the wider regional war. The Saudi, Jordanian and Syrian leaders are all rational. The Iranians, despite what we may think of them, are very rational actors, from their perspective. So the idea that any of these nations is going to want to have a multination war is hard to understand...

Graham: I disagree. I believe the chance that the chaos in Iraq could bring countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia into the mix is in the forty to fifty percent range. The big danger is what I call the August 1914 Syndrome... If the Saudis come in heavily on the side of the Sunnis, as they have threatened to do, and the Iranians -- directly or through shadow groups like Hezbollah -- become active on behalf of the Shiites, and the Turks and the Kurds get into a border conflict, the flames could spread throughout the region. The real nightmare beyond the nightmare is if the large Islamic populations in Western Europe become inflamed. Then it could be a global situation.

Rosen: Iraq will be the battleground where the Sunni-Shia conflict will be fought, but it won't be limited to Iraq. It will spread. Pandora's box is open. We didn't just open it, we opened it and threw fuel into it and threw matches into it... It took about ten years for the Palestinians to become politicized and militarized when they were first expelled from Palestine. You're likely to see something like that occurring in the huge Iraqi refugee populations in Syria and Jordan... I'm convinced that the monarchy in Jordan will fall as a result of this, and Israel will be confronted with a frontline state on its longest border with an Arab country.

Scheuer: I can't help but think we've signed Jordan's death warrant. The country is already on a simmering boil because of the king's oppression of Islamists. It could turn into a police state like Egypt, or an incoherent, revolving-door-type government like Lebanon is becoming now.

Rosen: You're going to see borders changing, governments falling. Lebanon is already on the precipice. Throughout the region, government officials are terrified. Nobody knows how to stop it. This is World War III. How far will it spread? Anywhere there are Islamic movements, like in Somalia, in Sudan, in Yemen. Pakistan has always had Sunni-Shia fighting. The flow of Iraqi refugees will at some point affect Europe.

McPeak: The worst case? Iraq's Sunnis begin to be backed into a corner, then the Sunni governments -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia -- jump in. Israel sees that it's threatened by these developments. Once the Israelis get involved, then everybody piles on. And you've got nuclear events going off in the Middle East. That would be about as bad as it could get.
Beyond Quagmire

Those are the worst case scenarios. As for the best case scenarios, here's a thought from Nir Rosen: There's going to be a genocide of Sunnis in Baghdad.

And, jeez... Remember when we had posts about What Bush Got Right ?

Take a deep breath. These are the good old days.
posted by y2karl at 10:05 PM on March 13, 2007

posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:48 PM on March 13, 2007

How odd that those who support slavery (compulsory taxation) somehow lament this.

Please spare us your mental illness, OK?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:49 PM on March 13, 2007

Henry Moore once said, if a fire broke out and I had to choose between saving the Mona Lisa or a cat, I'd save the cat, and I'd never regret it.
posted by matteo at 6:18 AM on March 14, 2007

(and by the way, Aeschylus wrote 79 plays. Only 7 have remained)
posted by matteo at 6:23 AM on March 14, 2007

I've put off reading this until today because I knew how painful it would be. My heart is still broken over the looting of the museums and libraries of Baghdad, and sometimes I feel almost guilty of despairing over these things when children die every day in Iraq. But I still do.

When a book is lost, when knowledge is lost, a world is also.

posted by jokeefe at 4:43 PM on March 14, 2007

Images of Mutanabi Street.

A sad story on so many levels. May Mohammed Hayawi and all those who were killed in that bombing rest in peace.
posted by nickyskye at 9:42 PM on March 14, 2007

Gnostic Novelist, I'm honestly confused by your comment. Any chance I could get you to expand it a bit?

Sorry. Wrong thread
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 10:53 PM on March 15, 2007

nickyskye's link brought me to this WaPo article from last September about the street...

(Violence Changes Fortunes Of Storied Baghdad Street is the title, in case registration issues make it difficult to access from that link)
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:11 PM on March 15, 2007

oh, dear. from the september article:

"We are walking with our coffins in our hands," said Mohammad al-Hayawi, the owner of the Renaissance book store, one of the street's oldest shops. "Nothing in Iraq is guaranteed anymore."
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:15 PM on March 15, 2007

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