Lauren and I walked around the John Rylands Library on Saturday, hushed and light footsteps, slips of warm wooden floor where the sunlight hit.
In the central Reading Room, there was an exhibition commemorating the Al-Mutanabbi Street bombing in 2007. The room was quiet and vaulted, people were studying with heads down and we trod quietly and whispered.
Al-Mutanabbi Street was the hub of Baghdad’s book and stationary trade, forming a literary, intellectual and cultural heart of the city. The buildings belonged to printers, publishing houses and bookshops, the streets were made up of kiosks and cafes; people met to write, read and talk. As an article says, on March 5th 2007 the day was like any other – the street full of voices, people browsing, “pages being turned”. Then a bomb was detonated. Thirty-eight people were killed, thousands of books became firewood and the street was destroyed.
The exhibition The Death and Life of Al-Mutanabbi Street was composed of paper broadsides – posters which have for centuries been printed to share news and events. With few words but strong visual messages, they are immediate and powerful expressions. The Al-Mutannabi Street Coalition has gathered broadsides which respond to, commemorate and denounce the attack on Iraqi culture and literature.
Lauren and I stood for a while reading them. Odd to be standing in the northern city – printworks, and Primark bags – and to be thinking of Baghdad – the dusty streets, paper and blood burning – hoping for peace. The physical form has frailty: covers may be burnt and pages torn apart, but the ideas within them endure and transcend.