Posted by: sean | September 21, 2006

The violent death of books in Baghdad

Via verbal privilege, the Post gives us a sad account of Mutanabi Street, where Baghdadis used to go to buy books and discuss ideas.

Under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Mutanabi Street was the nexus for resistance and freewheeling debates, where underground writers published illegal books that denounced Hussein.

“I wish you could see how it used to be on Fridays,” Shatri spoke before he broke down in tears. “You could not even walk. The whole street was filled with books and people. Mutanabi Street is a part of how great Baghdad is.”

Then, in a reverent tone, he uttered a proverb known across the Arab world: “Cairo writes. Beirut publishes. And Baghdad reads.”

Since 1963, Shatri has peddled books on Mutanabi Street, like a faithful friend, through military rule and political oppression, wars and embargo. Of all the eras he has watched ebb and flow, it is today’s Iraq, with its violent nature, that most mocks the proud legacy of Mutanabi Street, he said.

“It means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad,” Shatri said.

Two Fridays ago, Shatri took action. He and other members of his writers union gathered in front of his shop. They sipped breakfast tea. Then, at around 9:30 a.m., they poured kerosene over a pile of books and set them aflame.

“I cried when I was burning the books,” Shatri said.

“It’s a message to the government,” said Nakshabandi, who also took part. “It’s an S.O.S. Help us. An important part of Baghdad is dying. And it is on its last breath.”

“But no one got the message. There was no action.”


  1. Sean,

    For another taste of everyday life in Baghdad, you may be interested in an upcoming book called “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran ( The book takes an anthropological perspective about how the CPA personnel (Coalition Provisional Authority) live a fantastic life in an area called the “Green zone” within Baghdad, an exclusive utopian district funded and governed by US military-industrial interests. Also, another fine work by the author is seen here: (, where he discusses how the “implementation” of governance went wayward from the very outset of the invasion, despite what seemed like an initially solid, spirited, and optimistic post-Hussein atmosphere.


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