Some sensitive, yet profoundly brave individuals respond to horrific events by setting unflinching gazes upon complex subjects, when so many others would avert their eyes toward simpler matters. Through September 2, Central Library's Lower Link Gallery is hosting a traveling exhibit of books and prints created in response to the 2007 attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street, the heart of Baghdad's historic literary district.
Though no one has claimed responsibility for the car bombing, we can hardly say that the structural breakdown resultant from Western meddling in the Middle East didn't have a violent impact on the area. The environment and context in which this event transpired was the bloody midpoint of America's unprovoked "War on Terror," which devastated Iraq's infrastructure.
The general understanding is that the attack was a targeted act of censorship, or more simply put, a way to make Iraq's literary crowd too afraid to gather and discuss ideas. The explosion destroyed the historic Shahbandar coffeehouse — a cultural hub for generations of Iraqi writers and intellectuals — and killed 30 people, wounding a hundred more and reducing the street to rubble.
In an act of solidarity with Iraqi booksellers, San Francisco-based poet and proprietor of second-hand book store, Great Overland Book Company, Beau Beausoleil, almost immediately responded with a collaborative project called "Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here."
I went to view the Al-Mutanabbi exhibit the same day that a colleague sent me a link to Dahr Jamail's essay, "On Staying Sane in a Suicidal Culture," regarding his work with author and psychologist Joanna Macy. Jamail served as a front-lines journalist in Iraq for several months, and returned to the states with a toxic storm of grief and fury raging inside of him, stricken by the atrocities he'd witnessed.
On a daily basis, we're inundated with news about environmental crises and human conflicts, but at the same time discouraged from feeling our honest, fearful, angry reactions. Our genuine and natural human responses are reduced to pathologies by a trance-inducing corporate consumer culture, which propagates the message that everything is fine, Macy claims. The hyper-individualism of our culture has resulted in a nation of obedient, isolated people who "turn their grief for the world against themselves," she says.
Macy argues that for many of us, life is lived on a narrow path between the twin gullies of helpless despair and numb apathy, and we find ourselves toppling into one pit or the other. It seems almost a radical act, she says, to be fully present to what is happening in the world, and to allow our hearts to move past the point of breaking, into action. Truly bearing witness requires taking on a burden that must be transformed into something useful before it sinks us.
The Al-Mutanabbi Street project seeks to counterbalance horror with love and solidarity. From the ashes of a chaotic, destructive act, a flurry of focused creation has arisen. Compassion swells and confronts ignorance. Artists and writers constructed messages of hope and pleas for peace, angry cries for unforthcoming answers, and meditations on our commonalities. Whether outrage or sorrow or powerful resilience is expressed, the common thread throughout the collection is empathy. "We're trying to see ourselves on that street, shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary Iraqi civilians who have suffered so much over these years," Beausoleil says.
If you try to consider everything that's happening around any particular situation, "you can become completely paralyzed," Beausoleil says. "One of the key things in this is seeing some specific event that resonates with who you are on a very personal level. For me, as a poet and a bookseller, the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street was exactly that, because I knew immediately, that's where my bookstore would be. As a poet, that would be my cultural community. So the distance between myself and the Iraqi people just dropped away."
A huge part of the project's driving force is to dispel the whole notion of '"the other."
"There's a sense of commonality that I keep trying to get at; that a street like Al-Mutanabbi Street is really a street that appears everywhere," Beausoleil says. Often, the title of the project's associated exhibits is "Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here." Al-Mutanabbi starts "anywhere there's a cultural institution, a library, a university, a bookstore. Wherever someone sits down and begins to write toward the truth. Or where someone picks up a book to read," he says. "Right now, Al-Mutanabbi Street starts in Rochester."
When we talk about seeing Al-Mutanabbi Street here, Beausoleil says the project also means to address issues of censorship and academic freedom in our own country and in the countries represented by the project's other participants. He sees this work as activist art, seeking to spark social consciousness. "I want the exhibit to be troublesome, in the very best sense of that word," he says.
Beausoleil says people often ask him why he doesn't address other aspects of the war, such as the invasion, the occupation, or Abu Ghraib. "You have to pick something, you can't address everything," he says. "I think that if you focus on one thing, you can see basically everything in that one moment. And that's the way I feel about the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street."
Now seven years in, this ongoing project is ever-evolving. "We continue to add new art disciplines to the project," Beausoleil says. So far, it includes work by 130 letterpress printers who created broadsides for the project, 260 book artists from 20 different countries who made editions of three books, all the same, for the book project. "One set is in the UK, one set is on the east coast — in Rochester — and I have one set here on the West Coast," he says. "We're in the midst of a print project that is called "Absence and Presence" and we've signed up more than 200 printmakers for that."
The project also includes a 300-page anthology, called "Al-Mutanabbi Starts Here," published in 2012 and created with the help of 15 contributing editors, who in turn reached into their community of writers to bring people in. "We have a lot of Iraqi writers in the anthology, a lot of Middle Eastern writers, North African, as well as American writers," Beausoleil says.
One of the display cases at Central Library holds works by seven Rochester-area artists. In "Shadow of Loss," by Kristine Bouyoucos, a series of contemplative silhouettes stand frozen, as if uncertain what to do, and the author's words personally connect the horror of the Al-Mutanabbi bombing with a bombing in her hometown of Oslo, Norway. The wide-open covers of Barbara Fox's "That Day on Al-Mutanabbi Street," reveal fragments of an empathetic poem of fury and despair, printed in both Arabic and English: "Weep. Do Weep. Pain Becomes Hate. You pull your hair and roll in ashes."
"Al-Mutanabbi Street — A Vicious Circle," by Denmark-based artist Mette-Sofie D. Ambeck stands upright, cracked slightly open. Each page contains a central circular cut out, ringed with intricately cut patterns that progress from architecture, people, coffee pots and hookahs to guns, gas cans, and bombs. The final hole is simply ringed in scorch marks, razing everything that had been built up previously. This is about all I could spy through the meager opening of the book, which also teased with a narrow glimpse at an essay in the front, seemingly about Al-Mutanabbi's history.
I'll admit, I feel pretty frustrated each time I view a show featuring artist books locked under glass, with only their covers or a few pages exposed. I understand the reasoning behind this — their delicate nature pawed by many oily and fumbling fingers doesn't make for a lasting object — but I long to explore the full contents of the creation. How can I talk about something of which I have only gained a vague understanding?
And with a subtle ping of illumination, I rolled my eyes at myself as I grasped the perfect irony of the situation. There I stood in Rochester's largest public library, amid a range of sensitive reactions to a violent attempt at restricting access to information, lamenting my lack of access to these particular books.
Some simpler works are much easier to view in their entirety, such as the section of letterpress works displayed in the long hallway of the gallery. One unique work, "The Diameter of the Bomb," by Oakland-based duo Bill Denham and Kim Vanderheiden, replicates the mere 30 centimeters which caused so much destruction, with paper strips radiating outward, like a negation of the sun. A destroyed street scene is printed black-on-black, beneath a translated poem by Yehuda Amichai about the far-reaching impact of the act.
I had noted none of the art books shown at Central Library were created by Iraqi artists. Their eventual inclusion is another goal. "I completely understand if no Iraqi artists want to work with us on this project, considering the person who started this project is from the country that invaded them and occupied them for eight years," Beausoleil says. "Slowly, we're making contacts, and I think the time will come when we've won both the respect and the trust of the Iraqi cultural community and they might want to work with us."
The bombing can also be seen as an attempted denial of Iraq's cultural history. "In the earliest maps of Baghdad, which was founded in the 8th century, you can see an area of the city called the 'scribes' quarter,' which has always been an area associated with books and writing, and places to buy books," Beausoleil says. Named for a poet, "Al-Mutanabbi Street is just the latest iteration of that. The street as we know it now has been there more than a hundred years, but that quarter of the city has always had streets like Al-Mutanabbi."
But defiantly, and undeniably, resilient regrowth reaches toward the light. Al-Mutanabbi Street was reconstructed and reopened in 2008, and in part due to Beausoleil's efforts, the world is still discussing what transpired there. Several Rochester organizations are holding events in collaboration with the exhibit. For more information, visit libraryweb.org. Keep watching the project evolve: al-mutanabbistreetstartshere-boston.com.