February 22, 2013

“Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” aims to reassemble books lost in Baghdad


A car bomb set off on March 5, 2007 in Iraq killed thirty, wounded 100, and hit the center for bookselling and cultural exchange in Baghdad. This was a major hit on al-Mutanabbi Street, which was named after a 10th-century poet and has been a safe space for intellectual discussion since at least the 8th century.

In response, Beau Beausoleil, a bookseller and poet in San Francisco, began a project called Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. He and coordinator Sarah Bodman asked writers and letterpress artists to create broadsides to show their solidarity with Iraqi authors, readers, and booksellers. Within two years of the bombing, the project grew to 130 broadsides, one for each person killed or injured in the blast.

Heartened by the response, Beausoleil expanded the project in 2010, asking book artists to “reassemble” the inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street by creating books over the course of one year that reflect on this street’s past as well as its future. His aim was “to commemorate not just the tragic loss of life, but also the idea of a targeted attack on a street where ideas have always been exchanged.”

These books reflect the fragility of the medium, but also books’ power to endure and survive. Each artist created three books — one to be donated to the Iraq National Library and the other two to circulate the U.S. on tour.

A portion of the now-271 book collection is now available for viewing at the San Francisco Center for the Book, the Cambridge Arts Council, and the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

As richly varied as the world’s readers and writers, the reassembled inventory includes scrolls, “bricks,” and other book objects made of sandpaper, papier-mâché, ex-votos, transparent acrylic, fiberboard, ultraviolet ink, ready-mades, and conventional bookmaking materials. Participating artists employed everything from traditional to high-tech to experimental bookmaking techniques and used both ancient and original texts from an array of genres and languages. Though each book is distinct, they all grapple with understanding the implications of the bombing for both the citizens of Iraq and the international community.



Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.