Baghdad, Iraq – Haj Mohammed al-Khashali has outlived four sons and one grandson, killed together when a car bomb tore through Mutanabbi Street in 2007.
Sixteen years later, and 20 years after the United States-led invasion of his country, 89-year-old Haj Mohammed is still serving tea in the Shabandar coffee house, on the corner of the historic street he first encountered as a child running along it towards the Tigris River.
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Back then, it was not yet known as the Booksellers’ Street, but everyone knew of the 10th-century Arab poet Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi – who wrote of war, courage, and love – whom it was named after in 1932, during the reign of King Faisal I.
Little did al-Khashali know back then that he was running past the building housing his future coffee shop, which had been standing since 1904 and functioning as a coffee shop since 1917.
Observing his customers from behind his old wooden desk earlier this month, al-Khashali recalled the academic meet-ups of the 1960s, after he began renting the property in 1963, and Shabandar played host to political debates over tea and packs of cards.
Over the years, Mutanabbi Street evolved into a symbol of intellectual freedom, attracting writers, artists and dissenting voices from across the country. It also attracted booksellers, giving birth to the well-known Arab saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads,” as people flocked there to feed their passion for reading.
The walls of Shabandar are lined with photographs of prominent politicians from an earlier time – and the framed faces of al-Khashali’s four sons and grandchild, who were among the 30 people killed in the March 2007 suicide attack on the street outside. He has three surviving children, one son and two daughters.
“When I was young, photography was my hobby, I loved pictures. When the explosion damaged the building in 2007, I had the archives of all the photos, so I printed them again,” he explains. “Despite the pain, I promised myself after the explosion that I would renovate this place.”
In 2023, the kilometre-long street stays open into the night – the crowds milling past tables of books an indication of the country’s improving security situation and the end of the COVID pandemic that shut the street down three years ago.
But during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that overthrew former president Saddam Hussein, and the resultant sectarian conflict, Mutanabbi Street was not spared the violence as armed groups resisted the invasion and then fought each other.
By the time the US declared the end of its mission in Iraq and withdrew in December 2011, between 110,000 and 120,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed, according to the Iraq Body Count project.
That number has gone up to at least 200,000 civilians – and 288,000 Iraqis in total including combatants – who have died violently in the 20 years since 2003, the project says, as the country faced devastating challenges, including the rise of armed groups. Today, the United Nations says nearly one-third of Iraq’s 42 million population lives in poverty.
“I lost four of my children because of what happened after 2003, and it’s still an open scar in my heart that won’t heal,” al-Khashali says, as a bulbul shifts nearby in a wooden birdcage suspended from the ceiling. “They took down one dictator and implemented many others,” he says, referring to the persistent political challenges and corruption that have plagued the country.
“None of them has served this country; all Iraq’s politicians served their interests only,” Zahraa Kadhim, 74, chimes in. She is sitting, sipping tea opposite her 27-year-old granddaughter. Above them is a portrait of Nuri al-Said, who served eight terms as prime minister during the British mandate and the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.
Kadhim had not been to Mutanabbi Street much since 2003, but had come from Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where she has lived since 2014, to see what the street looked like after recent renovations.
“In the 1970s, I worked at the general automotive company, and I used to visit this street with my colleagues every day after work,” she remembers. “I felt different when I walked in [today]; I didn’t feel the historical identity of the place any more.”
Lost identity or new life?
Many of the booksellers on Mutanabbi recall the invasion and occupation. Jaafar Karim, 69, opened his business on the street in 1992, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and at the beginning of a decade of sanctions.
Because conditions were difficult, Karim left his job at the education ministry to sell books on Mutanabbi to make enough to support his family. At the time, censorship in Iraq was strict, as Saddam Hussein sought to control what people were thinking by banning books and choking expression.
“There is a vast difference between Mutanabbi pre-2003 and Mutanabbi post-2003, especially in the freedom of writing and publishing,” he says. “Now there is more freedom in acquiring books and no censorship or ban on books.”
A neighbouring bookshop owner, Mohammed al-Kutubi, agrees, even amid growing fears among some of a clampdown on freedom of speech including the recent sentencing of six people to prison for social media usage deemed by a governmental committee to be “indecent”, and the increasing role of religion in politics – most recently evident in the passing of a law banning the import of alcohol.
“After 2003, we had more freedom in publishing and writing,” the 71-year-old says, although he also criticised the lack of censorship for allowing an influx of books with what he called “extremist ideologies”.
“During the sectarian war, it was difficult to reach the street at times, and we faced threats from extremists,” he adds, rearranging his books. “A lot of my colleagues died in the 2007 explosion.”
Both the booksellers and locals are less pleased with the recent renovations of the street. Paid for by a donation from the Central Bank of Iraq and the Iraqi Private Banks League, work, including redoing the street and pavements in stone, installing a new lighting system, and painting the buildings on the main street, began in August 2021 and ended three months later at a cost of $3m, according to Omar al-Handal, representative director of Baghdad-based construction company Diamond Loft.
“We restored the buildings as they used to be,” al-Handal says. “It was a deserted, dark area full of stray dogs and now there is life,” he said.
“Look at this! It’s paint, it’s not the authentic colour of the bricks,” bookshop manager Nabil Ali laughs, pointing at the graceful walls of the Baghdadi Cultural Center that hugs the bank of the Tigris beside the Mutanabbi statue. The 11th-century building with its courtyards and arched walkways has been through a number of incarnations since it was built as a stunning palace for Abbasid Caliph al-Mustazhir Billah, serving as an Ottoman archive, then a military school and then a civil court, before the governorate rehabilitated it after it was vandalised during the invasion.
But 65-year-old Ali is more concerned about rising costs. Locals say the improvements have led to increased rents, making their livelihoods ever more untenable in a country of rising exchange rates, dinar devaluations and endemic corruption.
“The building owner doubled my rent because the street has become a magnet to visitors until late hours,” says one bookshop owner, Baraa al-Bayati.
The eight-foot-wide alleys on both sides of the street are untouched by the renovations. “Thank God they didn’t touch this part,” an old man says, in the shadows. “They ‘took care’ of the main street only, and they ruined it!”
Inside another of Mutanabbi’s stores, a 50-year-old man, who refused to share his name, said: “How would I describe how the street has changed in the past 20 years? How would I describe Iraq? No education, no health system, and no infrastructure.”
He lights a cigarette. “I cried when I saw American troops entering Baghdad, and I was surprised to see some people welcoming them with flowers!”
If Mutanabbi Street is the face of Baghdad today, it is a complex picture. For some, the street is a symbol of a new and wealthier country, ripe for investment; for others, it is a place of loss, and a memory of a more cosmopolitan city yet to return. They long for a past they understood.
“Saddam was a dictator, but I think it was the most effective way to run a country like Iraq,” the man continues. “What is democracy? And what do we gain out of it in these 20 years? Nothing. Just corruption, killing and destruction.”