PHILLIP ROBERTSON. Selected Stories.

June, 2005, Baghdad, Iraq. As the sectarian bloodshed accelerated, men still went to the Shabandar cafe on Muntanabbi street for discussion and writing. On this particular day, conversation was quieter than usual and the easy comraderie of the patrons was gone. I learned the day I visited that the owner of the Shabandar had received death threats. Some of the men seemed to be paying close attention to the activities of the guests.
Photo: Phillip Robertson

Aug. 26, 2005 | 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.

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, walking carefully under the white-hot sun, a man carried a bag down Al Mutanabbi Street and walked into Hajji Qais Anni's stationery store, stayed for a short time, then left without his package. When the package exploded a short time later, the blast killed Hajji Qais, who was sitting near the door where he kept watch over his shop. The bomb set fire to his place, and it is now a blackened shell on bookseller's row.

Hajji Qais had been on Al Mutanabbi street for 10 years and the vendors all knew him. He sold greeting cards for births and anniversaries along with Christmas and Easter gifts, cologne and pens. He wore a beard and was also known as a devout Sunni who had no problem hiring Shia workers or spending time with Christian colleagues. Aside from stocking a few items related to Christian holidays, there was nothing unusual in his shop. He wasn't a known member of any political party, and he was, according to his neighbors on Al Mutanabbi Street, a generous man who often gave money to the poor.

No one in the district will speak openly about who killed him, including his own son.

Ahmed Dulaimi, a young guitarist for Iraq's only heavy metal band, told a story that has been going around Baghdad these last few weeks. There was an ice seller selling ice from a small shop on the sidewalk in the Dora neighborhood. One hot day, a man came up to him with a gun and said, "You shouldn't be selling ice because the Prophet Mohammed didn't have ice in his time." Then the gunman shot the ice seller dead. This story terrifies Iraqis but they often laugh when they recount it, because it is absurd that anyone would get killed for selling ice or shaving a beard. It is also true that the ice-seller anecdote follows a pattern of killings around the capital where Islamic militants have regularly assassinated Iraqis for violating strict, and utterly random, codes of behavior. The point of the ice-seller story is that now, anyone in Iraq can be killed for any reason at all. After Hajji Qais was killed, more than one person mentioned these spontaneous assassinations, and they spoke about them the way they'd describe a sandstorm, an all- encompassing thing that no one can stop.

Baghdad's literary neighborhood has a long history of dissent and a well-practiced tolerance of other ideas. Under Saddam, Al Mutanabbi Street was a center for small anti- regime cells who published illegal copies of their tracts, under fake names. Because the place was known for intellectual resistance to the regime and as a center for liberal ideas, the government hated it. In the manic days after the fall of Baghdad, a flood of Western journalists came to Al Mutanabbi Street to meet dissident Iraqi writers, and in the cafes and shops there was always the excited roar of conversation. Men clinked their tea glasses on small cups, they gestured, hatched their schemes. English translation was a hot commodity in those early days. I was at the Shabandar cafe in May 2003 when Amir Sayegh, an Iraqi Christian, came over and told me how he worshiped Sidney Sheldon over Joyce and Faulkner as the greatest writer to ever write in English; he had no use for the literary canon, but he took writers in and made them part of the neighborhood.

Amir hatched a million schemes for post-Saddam Iraq. He wrote long advisory letters to President Bush, and he wanted to start an English instruction school for adults, which was reasonable and nearly succeeded. Amir explained to any captive listener that he was working on a manuscript that tracked Baghdad's exploding inventory of graffiti. "Saddam is coming back," he had copied down from a dust-colored wall in the old city right after Baghdad fell. Beneath it was the response, "Yes, but he's coming back through your ass." By June of last year, he had more than 3,000 quotations from the street and he was carefully adding new quotes to his archive. The same walls were rewritten, edited by anonymous authors, the graffiti turning against the U.S. When I left in September 2004, he was kind enough to give me a copy. Amir, compulsive chatterer, couldn't stop talking because he had years of unborn commentary stored for the exact moment when the regime collapsed. When the time had finally come, it was almost more than he could bear. It was Amir, Socratic in his ugliness, ex-radar technician, dissident spokesman, who believed Iraq could survive the occupation to scatter the ashes of the dictatorship.

"This is the real parliament of Iraq," a Shabandar dweller exhorted after the invasion. "This is where the real discussions take place." If the Shabandar was Iraq's parliament, then al-Sayegh was its prime minister. If you were a writer in Baghdad, it did not matter where you came from, you ended up at the Shabandar, because the cafe and the book district received everyone. Amir would find you there. If you were a thief, then your stoop was in Bab Al Sharji. For literary types, it was Al Mutanabbi Street. There happens to be a great symmetry in Arabic that binds the words for "writer" and "book" in a single sound. Book is "kitab," writer, "katib," and the difference is little more than a shift in stress when the words are spoken.

The Death of Al Muntanabbi Street was originally published in in 2005. In 2003, I was lucky to meet Hamid Al Mokhtar, an Iraqi novelist and poet who had been persecuted by the old regime. Al Mokhtar was returning to freedom after his long stretch in Abu Ghraib prison, only to find that the literary culture he loved was under threat by armed groups. Al Mokhtar took me on a tour of Al Muntanabbi street and explained what was being destroyed. Much of the story takes place in the Shabandar cafe, the center of Iraqi literary life. The book market runs along the street right outside the cafe.

The Shabandar cafe was destroyed on March 5th, 2007 when a car bomb exploded on al Muntanabbi street killing dozens and injuring as many as a hundred people. An Iraqi judge traveling through New York told me that the owner of the Shabandar had been killed in the blast.
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