Books and bombs: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

A street becomes a symbol of the power of words on paper; when it is destroyed, a project seeks to rebuild it in words and paper.

The pictures of maps here are from a book made by my friend Mona Kriegler for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, a really interesting project that makes explicit the relationship between place and the imaginative, between symbolic and physical realities.

The project began in March 2007 when an American poet, Beau Beausoleil, read about an incident in Iraq the previous day – a car bomb exploding on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing 26 people and wreaking devastation. The street, named after a revered 10th-century Iraqi poet, had been home to bookshops, stationers and cafes where writers and artists gathered, and the bombing was widely seen as an attack on the country’s literary and intellectual life.

Mona Kriegler, The Autonomy of Pain

In truth, the area had started to transform in the 1990s after western sanctions started to wreak havoc on Iraqi cultural life without any need for explosive; rather than a flourishing bookshop quarter, it had become a place where impoverished intellectuals came to sell the contents of their personal libraries, spreading out their books on the street, and a rash of photocopying shops had sprouted to cater to those starved of reading matter by the dearth of imported publications. Al-Mutanabbi Street was not so much an address as a symbol of traditional art and culture. The image of a street of bookshops being blown to smithereens is a powerful one, though, and Beausoleil’s response is an equally powerful symbolic action, seeking to rebuild an area of the city in words, images and paper.

Beausoleil first asked poets and writers to contribute poems in memory of the victims of the bombing, and this became a call to letterpress artists to make broadsides – large posters, of the sort traditionally used for publishing news, ballads and proclamations – as a visual response, focused on text and typography. The next phase was a callout for book art, and between 2010 and 2012 260 artists contributed to an alternative library, which has become a touring exhibition. The third phase is a call for submissions from printmakers to contribute on the themes of absence and presence. The project as a whole already has almost 500 contributors from around the world, so it has clearly harnessed something powerful around the symbolic connections between site and art.

Attacks on culture through the actual destruction of objects, buildings and places is a common feature of conflict throughout history, of course. In a recent talk at the Mosaic Centre in London, London-based Iraqi artist Rashad Salim pointed to the burning of a library in Tripoli, Lebanon in January as just the most recent example. In the real world, Al-Mutanabbi Street was rebuilt in bricks and mortar in 2008 (before-and-after pictures here), generating conflict over whether the government was prioritising its symbolic value over the needs of other parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country that were destroyed in the war and/or fell into disrepair. The street’s continuing symbolic reconstruction in words and paper (an inversion of the Demolition Project) can perhaps be extended to a wish to restore all the culture that is lost in war or to iconoclastic rampage – all the vanished streets where artists once met, all the burned books, demolished libraries, smashed statues, ruined archives, ripped paintings…

krieg2

The book art contributed to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here includes ingenious and beautiful work, some of it drawing on the image of the map. My friend Mona’s contribution, Pain and Memory, is one of these, using gold thread to stitch together the “scar” of Al-Mutanabbi Street on hand-drawn and aerial maps of Baghdad, an idea that draws on the Japanese wabi sabi tradition of repairing broken objects with a thin gold line along the cracks. The book is largely made up of photographic portraits of people who have been injured or broken in some way, with their scars (some of them invisible) traced in gold paint, thus drawing out relationships between the city and the body. A very different take on the aesthetics of destruction and repair, making beauty out of the tracks of repair.

Mona’s gold-stitched lines made me think about the debate between those who want to build anew and those who want to restore – similar arguments have taken place in Baghdad over Al-Mutanabbi Street and in New York over the World Trade Center site. Do we want to wipe out any sign that destruction has happened – whether by building something completely different or by constructing an exact copy of the original – or do we want to reveal and memorialise it? There is a small round plaque high up on a wall on a street near my house, commemorating the first bombing in the first Zeppelin raids in London in 1915; I walked past it a thousand times before I noticed. London is full of such small, discreet nods to damage caused in long ago wars. Beau Beausoleil’s project could prove a more enduring and constructive way to acknowledge damage through the fragile medium of paper.

Mona Kriegler, The Autonomy of Pain

More on Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here book art here, here and here.

A long piece on the project here.

Book photographs: Dafne Louzioti, Mona Kriegler