Thursday, March 06, 2014

'Al-Mutanabbi Street: Seven Years On' event held at London's Arab British Centre

Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad

On the seventh anniversary of the car bomb that killed more than 60 people, wounded over 100 and destroyed around 50 bookshops in Baghdad's famous Al-Mutanabbi Street, people crowded into the meeting room of the Arab British Centre in central London yesterday to commemorate the 5 March 2007 attack.

The attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street was seen as an onslaught on the heart and soul of Baghdad’s cultural and intellectual community. The winding street - named after the great 10th century classical Arab poet Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi - is filled with bookshops and outdoor stalls and has for centuries been a meeting place for poets, political dissidents and literary aficionados.

(L to R) Barbara Schwepcke, Margaret Obank, Ghassan Fergiani

The audience heard from a panel of four London-based publishers and booksellers - Brian Whitaker, Margaret Obank, Barbara Schwepcke and Ghassan Fergiani - who discussed the wider relevance and symbolism of Al-Mutanabbi Street, and issues of freedom of expression and safeguarding literary heritage.

Two young actors, Syrian Ammar Haj Ahmad and Iraqi Dina Mousawi, give beautiful readings, in the Arabic original and in English translation respectively, of poems by the great Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef. The poems appear in the anthology Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, edited by Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi and published by PM Press. The poems included "Night in Hamadan", "April Stork" and "Solos on the Oud", all translated by the Libyan poet, scholar and translator Khaled Mattawa. Copies of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here were on sale at the event, and audience members were also able to pick up free copies of Banipal 37, which showcases Iraqi authors. Images of Al-Mutanabbi Street were projected onto the wall behind the panel throughout the event.

Dina Mousawi

The event, Seven Years On: Preserving Literary Heritage, was jointly hosted by Banipal Magazine and the Arab British Centre. It was one of tens of events held around the world on 5 March this year and in previous years following San Francisco poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil's founding of the coalition Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, to speak out against the destruction of books and writing and people that day. The afternoon event at the Arab British Centre was followed by an Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here evening of poetry, film, drama and photography at UCL Archaeology Lecture Theatre, presented by Iraqi playwright, writer and scientist Hassan Abdulrazzak and Dr Alan Ingram.

Beau Beausoleil had expressed the importance of commemorating the anniversary of the bombing, saying he wanted to "dedicate the readings this year to the tens of thousands of 'disappeared' in Iraq". In this video he speaks compellingly about  Al-Mutanabbi Street and why as a poet and bookseller he felt the need to do something to respond to the attack through founding Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.

Brian Whitaker and Barbara Schwepcke

The audience included several Iraqis who spoke movingly on their memories of, and post-attack visits to, Al-Mutanabbi Street. Another contributor from the floor was soldier turned writer Adnan Sarwar, who was serving in the British Army in Basra at the time of the Al-Mutanabbi Street attack. His essay British Muslim Soldier won the Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize.

The panel was chaired by journalist Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor of the Guardian newspaper, author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian life in the Middle East and What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, and founder of the website Al-Bab: An open door to the Arab world.

Whitaker's co-panellists were  Margaret Obank, co-founder of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature; Barbara Schwepcke, founder of Haus Publishing and the bookshop BookHaus; Ghassan Fergiani, founder of London-based Darf Publishers, Dar Fergiani in Libya, and three London bookshops including West End Lane Books and Queens Park Books. The event was introduced by Ruba Asfahani, Arab British Centre communications manager.

Brian Whitaker read part of a long article by the late American-Lebanese journalist and author Anthony Shadid "The Bookseller's Story, Ending Much Too Soon", published in the Washington Post on 12 March 2007 just a week after the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street. The article appears in full in the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here anthology. In the article Shadid vividly recalls a visit he made to Al-Mutanabbi Street in summer 2003, and in particular he remembers the bookshop of Mohammed Hayawi and the contents of his bookshelves. They contained everything from books by communist poets and martyred clerics to a 44-volume tome by a revered Ayatollah. The bookseller, with whom  he struck up a friendship after that first 2003 meeting, was among those killed on 5 March 2007. Shadid's article was a tribute to Hayawi and what he represented, and to how "Al-Mutanabbi Street always seemed to tell a story of Iraq." In the months after the invasion the street revived into an intellectual free-for-all. 

Syrian actor Ammar Haj Ahmad 

Whitaker asked Fergiani about his experiences of being an Arab bookseller. Fergiani told of his memories of going to his father's bookshop in Tripoli during his childhood in Libya. "My father started his bookshops in the 1950s with a small collection of books. He was one of the first booksellers in Tripoli." The business grew to three bookshops, two for Arabic books and one for English language books, and Fergiani's father became a distributor, bringing books from Lebanon and Egypt. "But in 1978 that all ended when Gaddafi decided that the government would take over the importing of books and no one could own their own business. So they closed my father's shops down and took all the inventory."

Fergiani's father moved to London in 1979 and he started a new publishing company and opened a couple of bookshops. "When Gaddafi started opening up a little bit my father decided to go back, and he started with another bookshop and he had to buy back from the government all the books he published, all his inventory, back from the goverment to open a new bookshop. Now we are back to another three bookshops in London run by my family, my brothers and sister, and we started the publishing business again. I think our first 20 books are about the Libyan revolution, different aspects from people who lived it, and her in London we are starting a publishing venture again doing translated literature from Arab countries."

Margaret Obank said that literary heritage should be "preserved in a live way, and carried on for the next generation. Here we are bringing many strands together. The bookselling world, readers, publishers, performers to commemorate this terrible destruction on Al-Mutanabbi Street which was really an attempt to silence the freedom of voice of literature and of books." 

She said that when Banipal was founded in 1998, "one of the reasons we gave then was for the sheer joy and excitement of reading beautiful poetry and imaginative ." She had been delighted to find last year that a study had proved that reading literary fiction has intangible benefits to the reader such as increased empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. "We hope we're making a difference," she said. " the position of booksellers and literature in society is therefore absolutely fundamental to the development of that society. And we've also always though that literature reflects the heart and soul of a country's culture, its ideas and dreams.

The room adjacent to the Arab British Centre's meeting room is home to the Banipal Arab British Centre Library of Modern Arab Literature (BALMAL), and during the tea and biscuits session at the end of the event members of the audience were able to browse the library's books and find out how to become a member.

Obank explained that the library had begun  in 2008 after the Arab World was the Market Focus of the London Book Fair. The Banipal display at the LBF of works of Arabic literature translated to English became the nucleus of BALMAL. Banipal has a books database of  some 1100 translated works, of which around 620 titles are now in BALMAL."We are always looking for ways to increase the number. We don't have any funding for the library."  Among the 1000 or so Arab authors Banipal has published in the 16 years of its existence, there are more than 110 Iraqis.

Barbara Schwepcke emphasised the vital role of the bookseller. "As a  publisher who started his career as a bookseller used to always say, 'a book is only published when it's sold." That bookseller turned publisher was the late Werner Mark Linz, who was head of the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. It was he who introduced her to Arabic literature some 10 years ago when he pressed a copy of a translation of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz's novel Miramar into her hands when they were boarding a train from Cairo to Alexandria. "Next, he gave me Children of the Alley, and I was hooked." 

 the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here anthology

Schwepcke recalled how in November 2012 she arranged a meeting between Prince El-Hassan bin Talal and Mark Linz at the Book Haus in London to discuss a 10-year project of dialogues and publishing of 100 books in 10 categories, ranging from religion and philosophy to literature and arts to preserve and promote the genius of Arab civilisation. 

"Great minds, it is said, think alike," Schwepcke said. "What emerged from that meeting was a synthesis of the views underlying Prince El-Hassan's pioneering WANA Forum [West Asia - North Africa Forum] and Mark's original plan for an annual conference and papers as well as plans to publish the most distinguished scholars from the West Asian and North African region.

Schwepcke added that "by broadening the geographic sphere, these two men made sure the endeavour they conceived that day would be different from other publishing projects and avoid privileging one particular core national, ethnic, religious or linguistic group. Instead it would concentrate on shared values and concerns and include works from Turkey and Iran, as well as all the 'Stans'.

Schwepcke said that following Mark's sudden death on 9th February 2013, "I have decided to go ahead with the project, and to publish the books in Mark's memory. I hope to continue his work, building bridges across cultures, religious and language divides, both between but also within the Orient and Occident and thereby build a lasting memorial for the great publisher he was.

"Naguib Mahfouz once said, 'true death is forgetfulness'. And that is why days like this are so important," she concluded. 

Full details of The Gingko Library: A Library Dedicated to the Memory of Werner Mark Linz can be found here.
report and photographs by Susannah Tarbush

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