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Al-Mutanabbi Street: Locating Contemporary Iraqi Culture

[Audience members attending the exhibition. Image by Amin Alsaden] [Audience members attending the exhibition. Image by Amin Alsaden]

The last installment of the three-part exhibition titled Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here opened on Monday 13 May at the Cambridge Arts Council. The exhibition features artists' responses to an explosion that took place in Iraq on 5 March 2007, at al-Mutanabbi Street, an important artery in historic Baghdad and home to an abundant number of bookstores and street book vendors. The anonymous attack killed and injured dozens of innocent people who frequented or worked on the street, and it destroyed the Shahbandar coffeehouse, a historic meeting place for Iraqi artists and writers. Originating from twenty-four countries, the 260 international artists participating in the show reflect on that fateful day through a series of unique books and broadsides made specifically for the project, produced in different formats and sizes and combining various textual as well as graphic elements. The third exhibition presenting eighty of these works runs through 21 June, at the CAC Gallery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A number of events have accompanied the three exhibitions over the last few months: readings, receptions, panel discussions, film screenings, and performances. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of those who originally created it and the many teams that bring its travelling exhibitions to audiences at various places around the world, the project accomplishes through the works it presents the goal of highlighting the tragic attack and contemplating its cultural repercussions. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful moment during a visit to the exhibition takes place when one engages with an artist's book, and attempts to understand how its creator in turn engaged with the incident: the kind of traumatic aspects highlighted, the others suppressed; the piece’s form, type of binding, and its materiality; and the overall message intended, with all its nuances and subtleties. The plurality and range of artistic responses found in these exhibitions provide a rich medium through which one can begin to grapple with the complexities of the attack remembered—a medium the experience of which is in fact difficult to convey in words, as it requires the direct engagement of the visitor with the intricate pieces, picking a book that appeals, leafing through it, interacting with its tactility and composition, reading its visuals and words, and reflecting on its content. The experience will therefore vary widely from one person to another, and the best strategy to approach the works is probably to let one’s expectations or inhibitions go, to wander around the exhibition and to pause at different works, or to reexamine the same pieces, on subsequent visits. Only a spontaneous approach to the works can match the artists’ visceral engagement with the tragedy.

For someone who attends a number of the events held in conjunction with the exhibitions however, and aside from the artists’ works displayed, the tone of the conversations, as well as the general direction taken by the initiative, soon become vaguely distressing. The reasons behind this discomfort are revealed with time, and one is forced to make a distinction between the art works, and the exhibition as a project that has its own motives and efficacy. Before long, one begins to question two aspects of this project. First, the fact that the attack at al-Mutanabbi Street is being portrayed as a fatal blow to cultural life in Baghdad. Second, and more importantly, the project’s narrow focus seems to prevent a meaningful and productive engagement with culture in contemporary Iraq.

While the exhibitions, along with their associated events, bemoan the tragedy that took place on al-Mutanabbi Street and its purported devastating impact on culture in Baghdad, a larger picture seems to be obfuscated, and perhaps even obliterated, in the process. Indeed, treating al-Mutanabbi Street as though it constituted the heart of Iraqi culture is problematic and should be reconsidered. Both the exhibitions and the attack that they memorialize must be perceived against a vast, and much more catastrophic, background. It is not only book selling that one should be concerned about, but a whole cultural scene that has been defiled, as well as generations of Iraqis ravaged by wars, brutal regimes, international sanctions, foreign interventions, a severe lack of basic services and rights, and relentless terror. One’s attention should be directed toward the continued violence, widening economic and sectarian divides, a dysfunctional political process, and all the other factors that negatively affect culture in Iraq today.

What needs to be remembered is the looting of museums and archaeological sites, the burning of libraries and archives, the destruction of historical monuments, the dire neglect of vital cultural infrastructure, and the damage that the majority of higher education institutions have recently endured. More importantly, one has to keep in perspective the loss of Iraqi academics since 2003, that about a quarter of the country’s population is now illiterate, that school attendance by Iraqi youth has alarmingly dwindled over the last couple of decades, and that over ninety percent of the population has no access to the internet. One has to remember that although a free and safe book trade is an important activity within a particular community, the definition of culture encompasses a much broader range of intellectual activities and their supporting institutions. In other words, al-Mutanabbi Street may certainly be an iconic and spatial representation of cultural life in Iraq, but by no means its barometer. al-Mutanabbi Street is just another Baghdadi street.

One project surely cannot be expected to address the immense predicament that Iraqi culture is confronting today. But given the context, no serious endeavor can afford to overlook a basic recognition of the larger picture within which the attack took place, nor can it plausibly eschew the loud cry for help coming from within Iraq. After all, and given the fact that this particular project is explicitly only concerned with commemoration, what good is solidarity if Iraq’s critical issues continue to be ignored, and if Iraqis, who have to live with the attack’s repercussions, continue to bleed. One should not expect more, but one cannot help but think that more can be done, that more must be done, even within the limited scope of an exhibition like Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. A more intensive, rather than extensive, involvement can certainly be conceived. That is, it may be possible to take advantage of, and to push, the project’s focus rather than restrict it to a liminal zone that thoroughly resists any possibility of a consequential engagement. It is one thing to perpetually remember, another thing to heal.

Perhaps the anxiety was compounded after gaining further insight into the vision of the project’s originator, Beau Beausoleil, a San Francisco poet and book dealer. In a conversation during his visit to Cambridge in early April 2013, Beausoleil rejected the suggestion that the exhibition could also invite artists–particularly Iraqi artists–who would participate with book projects that do not only commemorate, but rather envision solutions to Iraq’s cultural problems, even if such solutions are conjectural or utopian. Beausoleil explained that the show is more about the rest of the world, especially Americans, coming to terms with and acknowledging the tragedy that took place at al-Mutanabbi Street. It is an indisputably noble and commendable ambition. And yet, one can only regret the opportunity being missed. One wonders about the logic of an act that, instead of giving a helping hand to the fallen, prefers to agonize over the other’s fall from a distance. And very simply, one may ask why this project, ostensibly addressing a tragedy that took place in Baghdad, should not be more concerned about Iraqis than the rest of the world.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the world needs to realize the fact that culture in Iraq today does not need mere commiseration–it requires active and committed aid, both intellectual and logistical. It is not to say that artistic or creative endeavors should universally be instrumentalized, nor is it to suggest that all initiatives should terminate their engagement with Iraqi affairs unless their projects produce palpable results within the country. But it is to point out the perils of engaging with blighted contexts – even honest and well-intentioned efforts can be perceived as below par, or as simply naïve. And it is also to identify the urgent need for effective engagements that can yield results Iraqis themselves can benefit from, without neglecting the world's need to ponder its complex entanglement in the dilemma Iraq finds itself in today. Thus, to be more specific, if this project's mission is solely informative, then there is a lot more about the current state of culture in Iraq that the world needs to know about; if the project's objectives are merely commemorative, there are more serious issues to bewail; and if the project considers its efforts an act of solidarity, there is a lot more to solidarity than grieving in isolation. This project, and others like it, can become a forum where ideas are generated, where solutions are found, and perhaps where a better future for culture in Iraq is imagined. This particular project holds great promise for making substantial contributions, as it evolves, adds more works to its collection, and as its exhibitions travel to additional destinations. Beyond lamentation and remembrance, such exhibitions can become places where a genuinely concerned global community can help pick up the pieces and think along with Iraqis, envisaging solutions for a country whose cultural stamina needs to be restored and boosted. It matters less whether Iraqis or Americans are contributing to such projects, and whether they are participating from within or outside Iraq; what truly matters are the intentions and mode of engagement with the cause.

This is not to undermine the incredible devotion that went into these exhibitions and the years of sincere and hard work put into them, by everyone involved. On the contrary, any contribution, if only by shedding some light on the various problems plaguing Iraq today, or for that matter any afflicted community around the world, merits lavish praise. The exhibited works alone are worthy of repeated visits; they are dazzling in the multiplicity of their responses to a singular event, captivating in the variety of their aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional expression. The works brought together for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here bring tears to one’s eyes, when one realizes the common humanity that allows people to sympathize with others’ calamities. This is however an impassioned plea for more, a call to transcend an indulgence in mourning that threatens to hinder reparation and progress. This is an intimation of a desire that such efforts should look forward and not only backward. To borrow a metaphor close to the project, one can think of the illustration titled "Bloodstained Pages", by printers Grendl Lofkvist and Dave Stevenson, used to promote the travelling exhibitions: an open book, with a blood-stained map of Iraq blotched across its visible pages. Perhaps it is time to flip the page. Flip it, not tear it. The stained pages will still be there, and the tragedy should always be remembered. But the next pages, hopefully gleaming with a brighter future for culture in Iraq, should eagerly be anticipated.

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