Monday, March 12, 2007

Loss of a learned one

A fascinating article about an intriguing man, worth reading if only to shed much-needed light on the wealth of culture and learning that the Iraq occupation does nothing but threaten.
Mutanabi Street always seemed to tell a story of Iraq.

Its maze of bookshops and stationery stores, housed in elegant Ottoman architecture, was named for one of the Arab world's greatest poets, a 10th-century sage whose haughtiness was matched only by his skill. The street was anchored by the Shahbandar Cafe, where antique water pipes were stacked in rows three deep. On the walls inside were pictures of Iraq's history: portraits of the bare-chested 1936 wrestling team, King Faisal's court after World War I and the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939.

In its heyday, this street embodied a generation-old saying: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads. But under the U.N. sanctions that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, isolating it from the world, its stores were lined with magazines 20 years old, obsolete textbooks and dust-covered religious tomes that seemed more for show than for sale. It became a dreary flea market for used books, as vendors sold off their private collections in an attempt to get by, and Hayawi and his brothers eked out a living by selling religious texts, works of history for university curricula, and course work in English, what he called a passport.

In the months after the invasion, Mutanabi Street revived into an intellectual free-for-all. There were titles by Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a brilliant theologian killed, as the story goes, when Saddam's executioners drove nails into his forehead. Shiite iconography -- of living ayatollahs and 7th-century saints marching to their deaths -- was everywhere. Nearby were new issues of FHM and Maxim, their covers adorned with scantily clad women. On rickety stands were compact discs of Osama bin Laden's messages selling for the equivalent of 50 cents. Down the street were pamphlets of the venerable Communist Party. As one of the booksellers once said, quoting a line of poetry by Mutanabi, "With so much noise, you need 10 fingers to plug your ears."

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