Last week I went to visit An Inventory for al-Mutanabbi Street, an exhibition at the Westminster Reference Library that commemorates the five-year anniversary of a car bombing in Baghdad.
al-Mutanabbi Street was the heart of the city’s intellectual and literary community as well as the centre for the country’s publishing industry. Here, book sellers, publishers, talkers and thinkers would meet to debate, interact, read, write and drink coffee. The books were diverse – from religious texts to children’s comics, classic novels to the latest paperback.
The car bomb on the 5th March 2007 killed thirty and injured hundreds.
Beau Beausoleil, a poet and book shop owner, sent out a call for an international response – and over the years, his campaign has led to an anthology, exhibitions, written and constructed pieces that explore the endurance of words and ideas beyond the frailty of the page.
The Westminster Reference Library is behind the National Gallery in the centre of London. I passed a crocodile of shrieking schoolchildren and drilling road works to step inside the quiet.
The collection felt very special with a diverse and beautiful range of responsive pieces. I felt particularly drawn to Loretta Cappanera’s It’s Spring that remembered the bombing and the demonstrations against Iraqi war in Rome alongside mourning the memory of her father. Sue Bovington’s Tigris Thames used the poem ‘O Blessed Tigris’ by Iraqi poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The River’s Tale’ whilst Stephanie M. Stigliano’s Looking Backwards used postcards, scraps of fabric and stamps sewn and strung together. Drawing upon these different formal and informal reference points was interesting and inspiring.
I signed the visitor book, left some words there. Down the staircase, past the pin boards with the leaflets for short courses and coffee mornings and something in the way the light fell in the entrance made me stop.
And then I was outside again – the sound of a mechanic drill again, into a street, into a city, into another river.
The collection is no longer at the library but will spend the next few years travelling San Francisco, New York, New Jersey, Maine and Manchester. Please visit the site to find out more.