Q1/ Can you briefly tell us how the Al-Mutanabbi Street project came about and what its purpose is?
On 5 March 2007 a car bomb was exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, Iraq, the street of booksellers and the center of the city’s literary community. In one moment of the history of this busy street of shops, outdoor bookstalls and cafes, more than 30 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded.
In San Francisco, I read about the explosion in my morning newspaper. I was shocked that a community focused on the printed page, and the sharing of knowledge had been so mercilessly attacked. As a poet and bookseller I recognized immediately that if I were an Iraqi my bookshop would have been on this street and as a poet this would have been my cultural community that was attacked. The enforced governmental/media “distance” between myself and the Iraqi people suddenly dropped away.
My protest began with a call to poets, printers, writers and artists who value freedom of expression in the printed page. This grew into the Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadside Project and in a few months we had 43 broadsides and held our first exhibit and readings.
After some thought I decided to continue the project past 2008 and sought out a co-coordinator in the UK. I found a superb one in Sarah Bodman (in September of 2008), a professor at the Centre for Fine Print Research, UWE Bristol. Our goal was 130 letterpress printed broadsides created by writers and artists; 130 to mark the dead and wounded and to raise awareness of, and discussion about, what was lost on the street that day.
Artists, writers and staff at institutions have joined in around the world, organizing events and exhibitions of broadsides, and artists’ books with readings, talks and panel discussion events that have raised over five thousand pounds for Medecins Sans Frontieres.
In 2010 I proposed an artists’ book call as a response to the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street and Sarah Bodman joined me once again as co-coordinator. For the next three years we worked towards finding 260 book artists to produce 3 books each dedicated to al-Mutanabbi Street. We achieved our goal of 260 book artists in June of 2013.
An anthology of writing, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here , has been recently published (2012) by PM Press in the US, and a complete set of 130 broadsides was welcomed by the Director of the Baghdad National Library, Dr. Saad Eskander, and is now part of their permanent collection.
Sarah Bodman and the artists, printers, and writers, that have joined the project from the UK have been one of the main reasons that the project has expanded its reach into Europe and the Middle East.
Q2/ The project has been going since 2007, can you describe any highlights/turning points?
One of the highlights has simply been the response that we have had from artists in over 20 different countries who have contributed work in response to the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street. Between the writers in our anthology, the letterpress printers in our broadside project, the book artists in our artists’ book project, and now the printmakers in our printmaking project, we have a total of about 500 writers and artists participating in our project. The publication of our anthology, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Herein 2012 was an exceptional moment.
Another highlight is the support and encouragement of Dr. Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraq National Library in Baghdad. Last year the National Library welcomed a complete set of our broadsides into the permanent collection of the Library.
The joint exhibit Threads of Light // Al Mutanabbi Starts Here at the Mosaic Rooms marks another important milestone in the history of our project since this is the first time that we have exhibited with an Iraqi artist, the incomparable, Hanoos Hanoos. Also our upcoming exhibit at the American University in Cairo (opening 5 March, 2014) is important in that this will be our first exhibit in the Middle East. I hope there are more to follow.
Q3/ What are your plans/hopes for the future of the project?
I hope the project will earn the respect and trust of the cultural community of Iraq, and in other countries in the MENA region. I hope the time comes when the artists and writers of our project can work freely with writers and artists in the Middle East and North Africa. I hope our project will inspire exhibit goers in the West to see that the values of al-Mutanabbi Street are echoed in our own lives and that there is a way for all of us to stand on this small street together.
Don’t miss the Al-Mutanabbi Street Project Panel Discussion at The Mosaic Rooms 7pm, 22 January 2014. Find out more here.