In The Eyes Of The World, A Reimagined Iraq
Iraq seems to have entered the world’s consciousness mainly through violence _ through murderous coups, brutal suppression of Iraqi citizens and, for the past three decades, wars and invasions. Today, five years after the start of the U.S.-led invasion, whenever Iraq appears in the news, references to suicide bombs, casualty numbers, the military “surge” and terror usually accompany it.
To reverse the tide of violence in Iraq we in the Western world need to change not just our political positions and military tactics but our very perception of Iraq and its people. And that perception cannot be shaped by the claims of the tyrants who once ruled the country or the extremists who are currently trying to gain control over it. Instead, we need to look at the similarities between Iraq’s culture and ours, and understand that the people there want the same basic human rights that we in the West enjoy.
For many years another, more peaceful, Iraq existed in the book market on Mutanabi Street in Baghdad. Then, on March 5, 2007, the book market was devastated by a car bomb. Salim al-Kushalli, who lost five brothers in his family’s print shop, was not surprised by the attack. “Of course we were expecting Mutanabi Street to be targeted one day,” he said in an interview on National Public Radio, “because anyone targeting Mutanabi Street is targeting Iraq’s civilization.”
Named after the revered 10th-century Arab poet Abul Tayyeb, Mutanabi Street was a democratic space where books by Shia ayatollahs, Sunni theologians, Communist theorists and Western writers lived side by side in a sort of republic of imagination that transcended the boundaries of nationality, religion or ethnicity. Here, people from different backgrounds lived in peace, and poets, philosophers and even fundamentalist clerics, could express their ideas on the pages of books without retribution. With its bookstores, print shops and cafes, Mutanabi Street resisted the idea of invasion or totalitarianism.
If the Bulgarian philosopher Tsevan Todorow was correct when he said, “only total oblivion demands total despair,” then it is places like Mutanabi Street that protect the Iraqis against despair. Such places also remind the rest of the world that Iraq is represented neither by Saddam Hussein nor by the Iraqi Shiite leader and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that Iraq cannot be defined by either its political elite or its invaders. Another Iraq had existed before them and would continue to exist in the imagination of its people, in the same books that were destroyed on that March day when a bomb murdered the booksellers and their customers.
The country we now call Iraq _ which was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the British and the French in 1921_ was once part of the Cradle of Civilization, with a history going back to ancient Mesopotamia and Sumer. It was a land in which different ethnicities and religions lived and the Islam it boasted of was not that of the ideological extremists, but of the rich civilization that existed during the 8th and 9th centuries under the Abassid caliphs.
A country’s past reminds us that if things were once different, then there is some promise that the future can also be different. That promise once thrived on Mutanabi Street.
Why do people who live under the threat of guns and bombs care about books? Would books save the woman who walked the streets without the veil from getting raped or killed? Would they save her children from bombs? Would they protect the universities where faculty and students have died? Would they save the religious and ethnic minorities from being murdered or driven out of their homes?
What Mutanabi Street offered was a sense of security that was just as important as national security: It restored to the Iraqi people a dignity that was not steeped in violence. After all, the most important arsenal democracies have is not military but cultural. Tyrants are terrified of the kind of perception that allows every individual to regard the right to life, liberty and happiness as their birthright.
I was against the war before it started, but that has not prevented me from feeling the responsibility of what has happened and what is happening there. There were people who supported the war not because of their affinities with the U.S. administration, but because they had been frustrated by the world’s silence in the face of monstrous crimes committed by Saddam Hussein: the relentless persecution and execution of Iraqi citizens, the use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish. These atrocities occurred when the world’s leaders averted their gaze, carried on business as usual with Saddam and encouraged him in his war against Iran. Only a few human rights groups, activists, Iraqi dissidents and journalists showed empathy with the Iraqi people.
Are we not paying for that silence today? This was the wrong war, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, but the concern for the rights of the Iraqi people and the Kurdish minority was not wrong and remains valid today _ especially when elections in a country without democratic institutions are celebrated as a sign of democracy, and factional wars between Shiites and Sunni are defined as part of the Iraqi people’s cultural inheritance.
Whether we are against the war or for it, whether the United States pulls out of Iraq or remains, we know that in a democracy not just the governments are accountable. We, the people are all implicated. Our silence implicates us and does not protect us from the violence that happens in other parts of the world. A secure and democratic Iraq will make the rest of the world a more secure and free place.
We can support the besieged civilians in Iraq by joining the organizations that support the rights of Iraqi women and minorities and by lobbying their government to help relocate Iraqi refugees. We can help by rebuilding universities, restoring museums and libraries, by supporting the new institution that was almost immediately built after the destruction of Mutanabi Street, the Iraq National Library and Archives. Through our support and empathy, it will become easier to answer the question: Where will the Iraqi people go to restore their confiscated dignity, which they need in order to resist the violence that is imposed on them by both domestic terror and foreign invasion?
Perhaps to a street named after a poet who lived more than 1,000 years ago, whose nickname, al-Mutanabi, meant “the man who wants to be a prophet,” and who wrote poetry so close to the original language that it became untranslatable. That is where you go to regain your pride; that is where you go to remind yourself and the world that killing women because they do not wear the veil, butchering one another in the name of Islamic factions and bombing civilians and streets that are named after poets are not the only things the world should remember of Iraq.