art of resistance, Iraq

Books For Mosul | Restocking The University of Mosul Library.

//Al Mutanabbi Street by Art Hazelwood//

Once a major center of learning in the Middle East, the library at the University of Mosul was destroyed in 2014.

The Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project (IARP) is holding a book drive for Mosul to restore the library as a credible resource center at one of the Middle East’s most important universities. Community members can donate books or funds for shipping and handling costs.

IARP’s goal is to collect 15,000 books to help restock the shelves of the University of Mosul library and $15,000 to pay for shipping and handling costs. They are collecting good quality university-level books in English and Arabic on the following subjects: engineering, mathematics, humanities (history, art, music, literature, classics, etc.), medical school texts and references, references (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.).

Books can be sent to:

IARP
2021 E. Hennepin Ave, Suite 200
Minneapolis, MN 55413.

You can also donate to support the project here.

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art of resistance

Saleem Haddad | Guapa (Excerpt).

hb_59-204-1/Black Place II by Georgia O’Keeffe/

Saleem Haddad’s first novel Guapa was published earlier this year, by Other Press. It takes place over the course of a single day, and is about Rasa, a gay man in an unnamed Arab country.

Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists, and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. Then one morning Rasa’s grandmother, the woman who raised him, catches them in bed together. Following is an excerpt from the book, first published on Vice Reader.

The memory returns to me so vividly I feel I am back there, at 14, in the backseat of that taxi. At the time my father had been dead for 18 months, my mother had vanished the year before that, I was magically sprouting hair in places I was not expecting, and I was still sharing a bed with Teta.

I was returning from a history lesson at Maj’s house. We were both struggling with the material. Our school followed the British curriculum, which meant we had to study the history of Europe and the World Wars: the Kaiser, the Treaty of Versailles, then Churchill and Stalin. It all seemed like another universe to us, so Teta and Maj’s mother agreed to share the costs of a private tutor.

I hailed a taxi outside Maj’s house and got into the backseat, as Teta directed me to do when riding in taxis alone. The man behind the wheel was young, though I couldn’t make out his age: perhaps 18, maybe 20. He was wearing a tight red T-shirt that gripped his body. He drove without speaking. A familiar pressure inside me began to build. It was a terrible choking sensation that had been growing in the months since I lost my parents. I had no control over my destiny, and everything around me could suddenly die or run away.

I rolled down the window and pressed the back of my head against the leather seat. The crisp November air felt cold against my face, releasing the pressure somewhat. Through the streetlights, which lit up the inside of the car in recurring waves, I saw that the driver’s forearms were potholed with scars. I admired the way his T-shirt stretched tightly against his chest. His arms broke out in large goose bumps.

“Shut the window, it’s cold,” he said. I rolled up the window, feeling the choking sensation close in on me once more. I watched the muscles in the driver’s arms tighten as he shifted gears. The large veins running under his skin awoke a sensation inside me I had never felt before. I wanted to connect with him in some way, to be closer to him somehow.

“Is this your taxi?” I asked.

guapa

“My brother’s,” he said. His jaw clicked as he chewed a piece of gum. He sighed and put one arm behind the passenger seat while steering with the other. I looked at the hand resting behind the seat. His fingers were decorated with gold and silver rings. Dark black dirt was wedged underneath his fingernails. I glanced down at my own fingernails, which Doris had clipped earlier that day.

I tried to imagine what this man’s life was like, outside of this taxi. His rough accent meant he probably lived in al-Sharqiyeh, maybe in a tiny room that smelled of fried onions and cigarettes, because that’s what I imagined al-Sharqiyeh would smell like.

How much did we have in common, he and I? If I knew then what I know now, I would have put our differences down to a complex algorithm of class and culture. But back then I did not know about any of that, so I stuck to what we had in common: the car we were both sitting in.

“Do you drive this taxi often?” I asked.

“One or two nights a week,” he replied, making a turn into the side street that took us off the highway and toward my new neighborhood downtown.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy what?” His eyes flicked up to look at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were a cool gray, almost silver. “Driving the taxi,” I said, holding his gaze as I played with the dog-eared corners of the history books on my lap.

“It’s just a job,” he said, turning back to the road. “Well what do you like doing when you’re not driving the taxi? Do you watch television?” Teta fed me on a diet of dubbed Mexican telenovelas, American television shows, and an endless stream of news. Perhaps his television set also showed those channels.

“I don’t have spare time. When I’m not driving, I work on a construction site.”

The next turn would take us to my street. I felt a sudden panic. I wanted to spend more time with this man. We were moving closer to something new and exciting. I wanted to be his friend.

And not just any friend, not like Maj or Basma, but a friend who would always be around, someone I could hug and be close to. My insides were buzzing. I wanted him to keep on driving, to take me out of this sad town, far away from that empty apartment with Doris and Teta.

“Is that why you have big muscles?” I scrambled to find a way to delay our separation. He glanced at me, studied my face for a while, clicked his chewing gum. Then his lips turned to form a crooked smile.

“Come up here and sit next to me,” he said.

I hesitated. It would be eib to say no, although it also felt eib to say yes. Stuck between two eibs, I left the books in the back and climbed into the passenger seat. We drove past Teta’s apartment. He took a right into a dark street and parked the car between two large trees.

He unzipped his jeans and pulled out his thing. It stood between us, hard, like an intruder to an intimate conversation. Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed it, and he let out a slight moan. I studied the thing in my hand, feeling it grow in my palm.

okeeffe/Black Iris by Georgia O’Keeffe/

“Yalla,” he whispered as his eyes scanned the area. “Huh?”

“Put your mouth on it,” he said impatiently.

I swallowed and bent down. He smelled sour and hot. I put his thing in my mouth and looked up for further instructions.

“Wet your mouth, wet your mouth,” he hissed. “Your tongue is like sandpaper.”

I swallowed a few more times until my mouth was wet, and this time the process went more smoothly. He seemed happy with this and sighed. He pressed down on my neck but he remained alert, his head darting back and forth as if following a game of tennis. I was down for a few minutes when my excitement began to disappear, replaced with a strong sense of guilt that I was making a terrible mistake.

I struggled, concentrating on breathing through my nose and not gagging each time he pushed my head down. I wasn’t sure how long this would last. He groaned. My mouth filled with salty slime. The warm hand at the back of my neck disappeared.

“Get out now before someone sees,” he said, zipping his trousers up. I wiped my mouth, took my books from the backseat, and got out of the car. The man started up the engine, reversed out onto the road, and sped off.

I looked around. There was no one. The awkward feeling slowly disappeared, and the memory of what happened seemed sweeter. I stored bits of it for later: the warm hand on the back of my neck, the sour smell, the shape of his thing in my mouth. I relived those memories as I walked home.

Teta looked up when I came through the door. I was terrified to face her. She always seemed to know everything. This was something she should never know. She was sitting in her nightgown, cracking roasted sunflower seeds between her teeth. On the television the news showed footage of bombs dropping on a busy neighborhood.

“You found a taxi?” she asked, picking at bits of seed lodged between her teeth.

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art of resistance, Palestine, Syria

The Book To Read: Victims Of A Map.

7-berlin-biennale-khaled-jarrar-briefmarken-2012-651x940/photo © Khaled Jarrar/

Victims of a Map is a beautiful bilingual anthology of Arabic poetry, including works of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al Qasim and Adonis. The three of them are absolute stars in the world of (Arabic) poetry.

Alongside the original Arabic, this book includes thirteen poems by Darwish and a long work by Adonis written during the Beirut siege in 1982 – never before published. It’s really a labour of love and you can feel it in every page (lovely translation by Abudllah al-Udhari).

In The Desert (Diary of Beirut siege), great Syrian poet Adonis writes:

“My era tells me bluntly

you do not belong

I answer bluntly

I do not belong

I try to understand you

Now I am a shadow

Lost in the forest

Of a skull”

Most of the poetry by Adonis and Darwish and al-Qasim particularly, is written in a simple, everday language, but it speaks of the things greater than life – the hollowness of isolation, inevitability of “destiny”, solidity of “roots”, overwhelming hopelessness and permanent yearning for freedom.

victims

In We are Entitled to Love the End of Autumn Darwish writes:

“We are entitled to love the end of autumn and ask:

Is there room for another autumn in the field to rest our bodies like coal?

An autumn lowering its leaves like gold. I wish we were fig leaves

I wish we were an abandoned plant

To witness the change of seasons. I wish we didn’t say goodbye

To the south of the eye so as to ask what

Our fathers had asked when they flew on the tip of the spear”

As it is written in the introduction of this book, the poems in Victims of a Map express not only the fate of Arabs, Syrians or Palestinians, but also of the humanity itself, trapped in a contemporary tragedy. The resistance poetry by Darwish, al-Qasim and Adonis, raises a local tragedy to a level of a universal one.

Just think about it – how many people are today, and in how many ways – victims of a map? In The Story of a City, al-Qasim writes:

“A blue city

dreamt of tourists

shopping day after day.

A dark city

hates tourists

scanning cafes with rifles.”

Read this beautiful little anthology! Like it is often the case with great poetry books – you’ll never finish reading it and it is worth all of your time.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

War Works Hard

Desert Songs Of The Night

In The Country Of Men

After Zionism

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: The Librarian Of Basra.

librarian/image © The Librarian of Basra/

Here is a real-life hero story. Alia Muhammad Baqer was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra (Iraq). Baqer saved around thirty thousand books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.

Her story inspired two children’s books, one of them being The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (illustrated by Winter in bright acrylic and ink). It might be presented as a children’s book, but this lovely story is out there for everyone.

The book is written in a simple style and it’s very easy to understand, but the story it describes is not a simple one – it took a lot of courage to do what Alia Baqer and her friends did.

Baqer worked at the library for fourteen years.  As the war spread out, she tried to make sure books from the library would be safe, but the government officials denied her requests that the books be moved to safety. That is when she started to smuggle books out of the library.

The-Librarian-of-Basra-image

Soon after the 2003 invasion Basra was suffering from a humanitarian crisis in which residents lacked both water and electricity. The city was suffering, its people were suffering. Not long after Alia smuggled most of the books, the library was also destroyed.

Her new mission at the time was to raise funds to rebuild the library. The library was rebuilt a year later and she was reinstated as chief librarian.

One thing you could say is missing from this book is showing the sides involved and responsible for the war – that is not represented. It definitely doesn’t want to burden children (and adults) with US involvment in the war.

Some people would say that’s a good thing – beacuse it shows a war story, and all war stories are alike and show how wars never work, how they destroy societies. That is the most important thing, I guess.

On the other hand, you could say there needs to be an awareness, a burden of responsibility, for this is a war that is still going on, and it is a war that didn’t just happen. Our lives are political (and politicized) from an early age, and we do not need to run away from that fact or protect children from it.

I am also aware of that fact that more people enjoyed this book without the political stuff in it, because it makes them feel better and it doesn’t open the space for criticism, anger, doubt, protest. This book could have given more if you look at it that way.

Still, I appreciate it for introducing me to Alia Baqer, a woman who thought about more than her own safety and well-being in the worst of conditions. She thought about the future, did something heroic for the land of uncertainty that is tomorrow.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

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art of resistance, Lebanon

The Book To Read: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine.

blog_OP_bubbles_hakawati/illustration by Ayloul, for the article ‘The Hakawati, a story in pieces‘, The Outpost magazine/

“A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables. A storyteller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns. Like the word ‘hekayah’ story, fable, news, hakawati is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki’, which means talk or conversation. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine has had a good number of notable works by now, but this is his first book I (finally) managed to read. The rain was pouring most of the days last week, so I sat on my little balcony, letting myself go where Alameddine takes me. It was a good journey – I was bewitched and wanted more with every page.

In its essence, The Hakawati is an hommage to all the great storytellers of the Arab world and the art of storytelling itself. It is a story about the magic of stories and it was done so well it became magic in itself. And really – where would we be, what would we know, how would we feel – without stories? There’s no life, no memories, no history without stories. Like Alameddine writes:

What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

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/The Hakawati, photo via Leonard Shoup/

The Hakawati is a mixture of stories that unravel throughout the book –  it is a historical novel and a family saga, and an impressive short story collection told at the same time. It takes its inspiration from everywhere – old Arab folktales, the Bible, the Qur’an, modern Lebanese storytellers, etc.

Music also pulls its strings here – particularly the oud, an instrument that was so important for Osama (the main character). And there’s more than one reference to the great Umm Kalthoum and the notion of tarab – known in Arab music as a musical ecstasy, the merger between music and emotional transformation.

The book is also a sort of a love letter to Beirut and Lebanon. Which doesn’t mean their relationship is perfect – like all great lovers, they went through a lot of turmoil. Osama returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The Beirut he finds is a shell of the Beirut he remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and – stories. Alameddine writes:

“Like all cities, Beirut has many layers, and I had been familiar with one or two. What I was introduced to that day with Ali and Kamal was the Beirut of its people. You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.”

You’ll come to know the diversity of Beirut through this book – there’s Elie, the neighbourhood bully and a militia leader, Osama and his half-Druze family (his mother is Christian and his sister Lina too), Jewish childhood friend Fatima, and a lot of other striking characters.

They are all lost – being the young generation during the Lebanese civil war – like their lives have been on hold for too long and now it’s hard to press the play button again. But if there ever was and is comfort, it is found in stories. Osama digs through the stories of where he came from – at times it is to know that he was and is at all, and at times it is to know where he can go or that he can go (on) at all.

And that is the beauty of stories – no matter how lost you are, you can always find your place and your people there. It is the eternal shelter –  you can just sit there and wait till the storm passes.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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art of resistance, Iraq

Manuscripts don’t burn: Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad.

On March 5th 2007, a car bomb exploded on al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad. More than 30 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Al-Mutanabbi Street is the historic center of Baghdad bookselling, with bookstores and outdoor bookstalls, cafes, stationery shops, and even tea and tobacco shops. It has been the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community.

In 2010, Beau Beausoleil put out a call for book artists to join ‘An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street’, a project to “re-assemble” some of the “inventory” of the reading material that was lost in the bombing. The inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street was as diverse as the Iraqi population, including literature of both Iraq and the Middle East, history, political theory, popular novels, scholarly works, religious tracts, technical books, poetry, mysteries; even stationery and blank school notebooks could be purchased on this street, as well as children’s books, comics, and magazines. Arabic was  the predominate language but books in Farsi, French, German, and English were also represented. Because books have their own journeys, ones quite unknown to us, there were also a few books in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, or Italian, as well as classic Greek and Latin, Hindi, or Russian.

The coalition asked each book artist who joined the project to complete three books (or other paper material) over the course of a year, books that reflected both the strength and fragility of books, but also showed the endurance of the ideas within them. They were asked to reflect both the targeted attack on this “street of the booksellers” as well as the ultimate futility of those who try to erase thought.

halah1Art, Home, Lands by Oded Halahmy

This project brought me back to my childhood in Baghdad. When Iraqis want to read, the first place they turn to is Al-Mutanabbi Street, a Mecca for all writers, poets, novelists, students and anyone who is thirsty for knowledge. I remember my mother and I would walk from our home to Al-Mutanabbi Street so we could purchase books. From Al Mutanabbi Street we would walk to the Shorjah Market, where we always bought our groceries from the many vendors in the market. I loved to learn, so these trips became food for the mind, for the body and for the soul.”

bolton1What is a book? Poems for al-Mutanabbi street by Ama Bolton

“I wrote the first of these poems after hearing Dr. Saad Iskander on BBC Radio, and later printed it as a broadside for the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. I joined the project because it gave me a chance to do something instead of feeling powerless.”

ruffRabii by Donna Ruff

“My book is both a lament for lives lost and a testament to the enduring nature of books and learning. Formally, the work is like a book- but its pages tell a visual story of grief. The names of those who died in the bombing are written on the ribbon that winds through pages of cut away text blocks. These names represent only a few of the many thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives in the war.”

szujewska3The Iraqi BookSeller by Laurie Szujewska

The Iraqi Bookseller is inspired by The Bookseller’s Story Ending Much too Soon, an article written by Anthony Shadid for the Washington Post Foreign Service on March 12, 2007 . Shadid’s story is a personal account of the Mutannabi Street bombing told through a reminiscence of his friendship with Mohammed Hayawi, a bookseller on the street. It is intended to be both a remembrance of Hayawi and a tribute to Shadid’s poignant story of his friend.”

martin1Not a straight line by Emily Martin

“My intention with Not a Straight Line was to recreate the movements of someone browsing on Al-Mutanabbi Street. The book is comprised of 10 linked Coptic bound books with one line of the text in each of the books. To read the book the viewer must find their way along the linked books that turn this way and that way much as a meandering street would. The text I wrote is one of defiance, the written word can be damaged but will always prevail.”

woodd1Manuscripts don’t burn by Dan Wood

‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’ is from the novel ‘The Master and Margarita’, written in the 1930’s by Mikhail Bulgakov, the soviet writer and satirist. The line is spoken by the devil to a writer who had destroyed his own work, which then magically reappears. It has been interpreted through the years as a testament to the writer and artist’s perseverance through oppression, and became somewhat prophetic for Bulgakov’s own life.

These are only couple of book artist featured in Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. To see more, go to Book Arts  and Al-Mutanabbi Street.  For more on impressions of Al-Mutanabbi street, read an essay by Lutfia Alduleimi. Here is an excerpt:

Before I was born in al-Mutanabbi Street, I was no one. I could deny the documents that made reference to my birth on a particular day of the year or a certain province of the country. I was a mere small woman without a place in this world. Then I was born on al-Mutanabbi Street the day my first book was published–A Passage to the Sadness of Men. I had discovered as a girl of nine the richness of the story through 1,001 Nights in a room that girls were forbidden to enter, and I was determined to become the contemporary Shahrezade. This young girl had no future, except perhaps to become a woman set aside to live a pointless life among quiet, forgotten women. But Shahrezade, the first woman to use the magic of imagination to narrate the tales of the East, plucked me out of my time and visited upon me the spell of dreams and tattooed a shining mark on my forehead, setting in place my destiny, as had the gods and goddesses of old:  Go to the place of books. You will be one of those women who narrate stories, one of the daughters of Shahrezade.”

And do read the above mentioned article The Bookseller’s Story, Ending much too soon by Anthony Shadid for Washington Post. Here is an excerpt:

Unlike the U.S. soldiers who die in this conflict, the names of most Iraqi victims will never be published, consigned to the anonymity that death in the Iraqi capital brings these days. Hayawi was neither a politician nor a warlord. Few beyond Mutanabi Street even knew his name. Yet his quiet life deserves more than a footnote, if for no other reason than to remember a man who embraced what Baghdad was and tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense anymore. Gone with him are small moments of life, gentle simply by virtue of being ordinary, now lost in the rubble strewn along a street that will never be the same.

After his death, I thought back to our conversation on that summer day. As he often did, Hayawi paused after an especially vigorous point and dragged on his cigarette. He ran his hand over his sweaty cheeks. ‘Does this look like the face of 39 years?’ he said, grinning. He then knitted his brow, turning grimmer. ‘We don’t want to hear explosions, we don’t want to hear about more attacks, we want to be at peace,’ he told me. He always had dark bags under his limpid eyes, whether or not he had slept. ‘An Iraqi wants to put his head on his pillow and feel relaxed.’

Iraq Body Count for yesterday, 21st of August, is 36 civilians killed, August casualties so far – 1,017 civilians killed. Documented civilian deaths since 2003 vary from 127,685  to 142,924.

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