Al-Mutanabbi Street: Poets and Printers Respond to a Casualty of War

On March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, Iraq, killing 30 people and wounding more than 100. Named after the famed 10th-century classical Arab poet, Al-Mutanabbi, the street was for centuries the center of Baghdad bookselling, the heart and soul of an ancient city’s literary and intellectual community. From its wreckage came the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, which sent out a call to letterpress printers worldwide: Craft a visual response to the attack.

Artist Garrett Queen, London

Artist Garrett Queen, Charlottesville, Va.

The response was immediate. More than 40 printers, including three from New Mexico, enthusiastically answered that first call with a powerful edition of broadsides. Since then, the number has grown to 130. A complete set will be donated to the National Library in Baghdad. Two other sets are traveling for exhibition.

The Press at the Palace of the Governors pays homage to the effort with a new exhibition in the John Gaw Meem Community Room and with a special reading from the broadsides at 6 pm on Friday, March 4, in the History Museum auditorium.

Readers include poets Anne Valley-Fox, Lisa Gill and James Thomas Stevens, bookstore owner Dorothy Massey, poet and bookstore owner Leo Romero, and poet-publishers Janet Rodney, JB Bryan and John Brandi. Many of the readings will be translations of work by Iraqi poets. New Mexico printers who contributed to the project are Suzanne Vilmain of the Counting Coup Press, Janet Rodney of Weaselsleeves Press, and Tom Leech of the Palace Press.

The event is free. From March 4 through April 30, the Broadsides from the Al-Mutanabbi Street Project exhibition is open by appointment. Call Tom Leech at (505) 476-5096.

Artist Nadia Chalabi, London

Artist Nadia Chalabi, London

“The Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition is not an anti-war project, nor is it a healing project,” said Beau Beausoleil, San Francisco bookseller, poet, and founder of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. The coalition feels that until we truly see what happened on this one winding street of booksellers and readers, on this one day in Baghdad, until we understand all the implications of an attack on the printed word and its writers, printers, booksellers and readers, until we see that this is our street, until then, we cannot truly move forward.”

The Arthur and Matta Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University has more information about the project on its website.

The coalition offers copies of the broadsides for sale. Proceeds benefit Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit agency working to relieve suffering in Iraq and other troubled areas of the world.

We hope the books created will use al-Mutanabbi and its printers, writers, booksellers, and readers, as a touchstone,” Beausoleil said. “We hope that these books will make visible the literary bridge that connects us, made of words and images that move back and forth between the readers in Iraq and ourselves. These books will show the commonality of al-Mutanabbi Street with any street, anywhere, that holds a bookstore or cultural institution.”

Artist Heinz Stefan Bartkowiak, Germany

Artist Heinz Stefan Bartkowiak, Germany

Download high-resolution versions of the above images by clicking here.