The Shabandar Cafe: A symbol of Iraq's spiritual condition

The Shabandar Cafe: A symbol of Iraq's spiritual condition
Mutanabbi Street was a bustling, artistic quarter in Baghdad where Iraqi intellectuals would gather, read and converse during some of the country's unhappiest days.
6 min read
04 Mar, 2017

Ten years ago today, a car bomb exploded on Baghdad's historic Mutanabbi Street - the traditional book-sellers area of the capital - killing 30 people and wounding 100. The blast tore through the Shabandar Cafe, a gathering place for writers and intellectuals for generations, killing four of the owner's sons and one grandson.

No group ever claimed responsibility for the attack, but their message was clear: the illusion of any "freedom of expression" in the wake of a disastrous US-led invasion and occupation was definitively shattered. Poets would receive death threats, journalists would be kidnapped, professors "disappeared" (much of this documented by the Brussells Tribunal) and the old police state terror would be replaced by a ferocious extremism, where questioned loyalty to God - rather than the president - would become a pretext for murder.

But the Shabandar Cafe - on a street named after a 10th century poet that had been a refuge for writers of all faiths since the 8th century - in a city that has lived through many sieges and invasions, would rise again. And in its own way, it has become a measure of Iraq's spiritual condition.

I remember the cafe well, and spent many Friday afternoon's there in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the dog days of the embargo - when even lead pencils and stethoscopes were banned at the border due to being considered "dual use" by the draconian US and UK-backed UN sanctions regime - I would meet professors there tearfully selling their collections of Shakespeare or Walt Whitman to pay for basics like food and medicine.

The old Arabic proverb "Egyptians write, Lebanese publish, Iraqis read" was especially true until the end of the 1980s, when literacy rates were higher than in some American states. Iraq's public education system was the pride of the Arab world.

Owner of the Shabandar Cafe, Mohammad al-Khashali,
who survived the blast that killed his four sons
in February 2010, [Hadani Ditmars]

I first discovered the street in 1997, when, on assignment for the New York Times at the time of the UN weapons inspections cat-and-mouse games with Saddam, I missed a surprise visit to one of his palaces, organised at an unsociable hour of the morning by our eager minders. These were spooks we had to pay for the honour of spying on us who preferred the term "guide", as if they were benign ministry of information employees rather than mukhabarat [intelligence]. After the invasion, many of the better English speakers would go on to work for American television crews, most of whom had never known the pre-invasion realities.

Down at the "press centre" - the bunker-meets souk like space that housed the minders  and local "correspondents" - each was in his own tiny cubicle. The only one left turned out to be a young cousin of Tariq Aziz and a student of English literature, who decided to take the lone Canadian journalist to Mutanabbi Street.

The street was such a revelation for me with its cafes and bookshops and wily Iraqi intellectuals playing for time, in a sanctions-plagued police state. It offered more treasures than any of Saddam's palaces Mar-a-Lago style glitz. I felt like I'd found the soul of Iraq.

The last time I visited - on assignment for a special issue of New Internationalist in 2010 - I found the street had become a bit of a Disneyfied tourist destination.

As I approached from al-Rashid, where garbage and grimy streets surrounded the statue of the great Iraqi communist poet al-Ressafy (a fervent nationalist, who railed against the British and the monarchy) I was met by a concrete barrier and Iraqi soldiers. Dirt and danger had been temporarily banished, so that what remained of the old intellectual class could wander freely in the streets, browsing through an array of reading material ranging from back issues of Architectural Digest to books in Arabic about Che Guevara.

Still, I was delighted to find the 78-year-old owner of the Shabandar, Mohammad al-Khashali, who survived the blast that killed his five sons, as well as the daughter of the great poet al-Jawahari who was running for election on a platform supporting women's rights and social programmes. 

She quoted from her father's poem My Brother Jafar:

"Shout at the poor and the hungry, but only if you first insult their tormentors whose bellies are full."

A Kurdish advisor to the ministry of culture stopped by for a coffee and told me, "Baghdad has always been cosmopolitan. This new sectarianism is very recent."

The old Arabic proverb, Egyptians write, Lebanese publish, Iraqis read was especially true until the end of the 80's, when literacy rates were higher than in some American states.

He showed me a laminated map from 1834, compiled by an English cartographer who was one of the few cartographers of the era that also included demographic data.

"At this time," he explained, "Baghdad was mainly Kurdish and Jewish. The Arabs lived on the outskirts of the city."

Encouraged by this multicultural vision of Baghdad and his faith that it would rise again, I asked if he and his friends could take me to some parts of the old Baghdad they'd been documenting for a new book.

"No," he told me frankly, "it's too dangerous to go there."

I said my goodbyes and wandered out into the dirty streets past concrete barriers, careful to cover up my cameras and slip on my hijab. Al-Resaffy looked on impassively as wildcats picked at the garbage in the streets that surrounded his statue, and the Shia religious banners hanging from adjacent balconies fluttered gently in the wind.

Mutanabbi Street February 2010 [Hadani Ditmars]

Now the Shabandar, mother of all survivor cafes, is to host a reading on 5 March. It's one of dozens of global events organised by the Muttanabi Street Starts Here collective, a loose coalition of poets around the world, holding a torch for the Shabandar, and for what it represents.

Spearheaded by San Francisco poet and book seller Beau Beausoleil, the group has produced 130 broadsides, one for each person killed or injured in the 2007 blast, and since donated to the National Library and Archive of Iraq, in addition to 260 unique artists' books dedicated to Iraq's literary heart.

While Iraq is arguably still a police state - and freedom of expression still a challenge - Iraqi artists, writers and poets still find ways to circumvent authority and create.

And in the land where written language was invented, the book as an object/artifact is still alive and well. As ebooks and Google strike fatal blows to the traditional publishing arts in the West, dodgy internet connections mean that the book is still a valued object in Iraq.

And Iraqi poetry, so revered that a friend attending the old Babylon poetry festival once mistook empty streets as the sign of an air raid, rather than the result of a nationally televised poetry competition, shines on.

I wonder which poems will be read at the Shabandar this 5 March? Perhaps The Conversation of the Stone by Abdul Wahab al-Bayaty.

A Stone said to another:

I am not happy in this naked fence

My Place is in the palace of the sultan.

The other said:

You are sentenced to death

Whether you are here on in the sultan's palace

Tomorrow this palace will be destroyed

As well this fence

By an order from the sultan's men

To repeat their game from the beginning

And to exchange their masks.

Translated from Arabic by Bassam Frangieh.

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