The death of Al Mutanabbi Street
Iraqi culture was reborn when Saddam fell, only to die again. A report from Baghdad's fear-haunted literary cafes.
By Phillip Robertson
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Near the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, at Al Rasheed Street, there is a meandering alley named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi. The poet's street branches away from Al Rasheed and heads down through a tissue of dilapidated buildings with thin columns that hold up warped balconies. Bookstores of every description occupy the street-level spaces, selling technical manuals, ornate copies of the Quran and a nice selection of pirated software. Al Mutanabbi then runs downhill toward the mud-brown bend of the Tigris until veering west at a covered market and the high walls of an old mosque school. Right at the bend in the road is Baghdad's legendary literary cafe, the Shabandar, where for decades writers and intellectuals have come to drink tea and smoke tobacco from water pipes. The place is smoke-scarred and dirty. When there is electricity, which is almost never, the fans do not cool the air at all. Literary men in their shirt-sleeves sit and smoke.