For decades, there have been little good news coming out of Iraq. Death and destruction have overshadowed whatever good reports about this great country since 1990. But as we begin 2022, there is a delightful piece of news that came, yes from Iraq, last week. It might very well be a sign that the nation is finally on the road to recovery. And it has nothing to do with politics.
The Arab’s greatest poet, Al Mutanabbi, died more than 1,000 years ago, comes alive. Not literally of course. But that was the headline. It is about street named after him in the centre of Baghdad. What is so special about this street? One would ask. It is a 1,000-year-old street that had been for centuries the cultural heart of the Iraqi capital and the historic hub of its books trade.
In a sign of a cultural renaissance, hopefully, the Baghdad mayor and hundreds of people walked the 2-kilometre-long road last week to announce its reopening following a decade long renovation. They even had fireworks. The crowd must have been delighted that the sound of the explosions this time was a celebratory one, for a change.
The street’s roots go back to the days of the Abbasid rule, in the 10th century AD. Poets, philosophers and scientists would gather there to showcase their latest achievements. It has become since then the place where one can find books, intellectual discussions and of course the renowned Iraqi tea.
In 1932, King Faisal named the street after Abul Tayeb Al Mutanabbi, considered by almost all Arabs as the greatest poet of all time. The street begins at an imposing statue of the poet, overlooking the immortal Tigris River, and ends in an arch, on which select excerpts from Al Mutanabbi’s most famous poems are engraved.
Al Mutanabbi was born in Kufa, Iraq in 915AD during the peak of the Abbasid State, when Baghdad was the global centre of science, arts and literature. One cannot understand Arab culture without delving deep into Arabic poetry. It is the most significant element of the culture. Other nations express themselves in novels for example. The Arabic novel is however new. Perhaps a couple of hundred years old. For thousands of years, Arabs expressed themselves in poetry.
Poets are thus looked at highly in Arab society. They are celebrated beyond their time and place. Mutanabbi was the greatest of all. He is considered as the best person ever to use the limitless Arab vocabulary. He was also known for his wisdom that is clearly shown in many of his 326 surviving poems.
Unfortunately for him, the Abbasid State began to disintegrate as he grew up. Non-Arab generals and minsters took over the reign and the actual Caliphs were merely ceremonial. Although, the culture and science prospered, political tension and border conflicts overshadowed everything else.
Major cities in the region, annoyed by the increasingly indecision and political infighting in Baghdad, started to separate and form their own independent states, further weakening the united Arab-Islamic state. The northern borders became vulnerable to Roman invasions.
Mutanabbi, a descendant of an Arab tribe that hailed for the Arabian Peninsula, thought he fix this, or help to fix it. He was an Arab nationalist, in the modern sense (Some argue that he was chauvinistic). His work is full of his defence of the Arabic language and identity and the call of unity.
He was overly ambitious. He thought he could convince the scattered Arab leaders to reunite and so began his famous journey that took him to Damascus, Aleppo and Egypt. He failed and was killed while on his way back to Baghdad. But he left us an extraordinary body of work that may never be rivalled.
Street crowded as usual
Just like its namesake, the book street that was reopened last week, has had more than its fair share of suffering and disappointment. It somehow survived the long years of war until March 5, 2007. On that fine spring day, and the street was crowded as usual at noon — students looking for textbooks, book lovers browsing the stalls for good deals, poets and novelists having their tea and arguing in the famous Shahbander Café.
At the point, a powerful car bomb exploded. The carnage left more than 40 people dead and nearly a hundred injured. The historic cafe was almost completely obliterated.
But this is Iraq, land of mythology. It will always rise from the ashes. And so did Mutanabbi Street. Today, it is back with its neatly-restored Ottoman era buildings and newly pained shops, new lightings and sidewalk.
According to Iraqi media, the renovation was financed by private sector banks. And that is a good sign. There are still institutions in Iraq that believe in the arts. Although not completely out of the norm in Iraq, the cradle of civilisation — 10,000 years of civilisation that introduced to the world writing, mathematics, paved roads, the wheels and astronomy. Legend says that Adam and Eve, before they ate the apple and fell from grace, lived in the garden of modern-day Al Qarnah, the meeting point of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Iraq’s cultural contribution to the Arab world of today has been immense too. Until the former regime of Saddam Hussein plunged the country in subsequent wars that devastated most the country, Iraqi universities, publishing houses and theatres were the preferred destination for Arab students, writers and artists.
And Mutnabbi Street was in the middle of all this as the meeting place, the cultural hub. Its reopening, therefore, gives a ray of hope in the new year that Iraq may finally be on the road to regain its rightful stature as a key player in this region and a cultural centre.
Politics have split this great country, leading to nearly its disintegration. Culture however, including Al Mutanabbi- both the poet and the street — has always been a uniting force.