Library hosts Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here poetry reading |

Steamboat library hosts Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here poetry reading

‘Seed’ in Arabic burned into “The Physical Basis of Life” by J.D. Bernal. (Photo courtesy of Janet Bradley)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Al-Mutanabbi Street is often called the heart and soul of Baghdad’s literary and intellectual district, a lively market of bookshops and cafes. For generations, writers and philosophers have met there to talk over coffee and banned books, and handwritten texts can be found in the bookstalls. It’s a place where people of conflicting faiths have found refuge and common ground.

The street is named after the Arab world’s most famous poet, Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi. The marketplace had been a place for study, conversation, curiosity and discovery since at least the 8th century.

On March 5, 2007, a car bomb was detonated on Al-Mutanabbi Street, killing 30 people and injuring 100 more. No group has ever claimed responsibility for the terrorist incident.

If you go

What: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here poetry reading
When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 5
Where: Library Hall at Bud Werner Memorial Library, 1289 Lincoln Ave.

About 7,400 miles away in San Francisco, a bookshop owner named Beau Beausoleil heard the news of the bombing. He had no connection to Iraq or Al-Mutanabbi Street, but he believed that an attack on writers and booksellers anywhere in the world was an attack on them all.

Beausoleil’s call for literary and visual art pieces commemorating those lost in the attack and showing solidarity with the global literary community resulted in an outpouring of books, prints, posters and poems. One hundred and thirty broadside pieces were initially printed on letterpress: one for each person killed or wounded.

The idea has since grown and evolved into a book arts and culture festival called Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. The title represents the belief that whenever, wherever a person sits down to read or write the truth is where Al-Mutanabbi Street begins.

Installations of the project take place across the world, and works from across the world are featured. Events have been hosted at venues including The Smithsonian Institute, and the broadside prints have been displayed in places including Iraq’s national library.

On Tuesday, Bud Werner Memorial Library hosts its third annual Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here event in Steamboat Springs, directed by book artist and activist Janet Bradley.

Bradley initially got involved with Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in 2012, while in London working on her masters in book arts. She went on to host exhibits in England and France, including one at London’s Iraqi Cultural Center. When she moved back to her hometown of Steamboat, she wanted to bring the event with her.

The event features art and poems read by Steamboat residents in their home languages.

“Reading a poem in your home language can be really moving,” Bradley said. “It can make you realize how much you miss that part of yourself.

“But this event brings people together,” Bradley explained. “To be able to meet other people in a similar position — that’s really exciting.”

“The power of all these different languages coming together in one voice, overlapping to create their own kind of poetry, always brings tears to my eyes,” said Bud Werner Memorial Library adult programs coordinator Jennie Lay. “At the same time, it brings a deep sense of hope and joy.”

Steamboat’s 2018 reading featured 12 languages, including Hebrew, Farsi, Arabic, Setswana and Turkish.

“It gets people thinking: who are we? Are we a bunch of white people at a ski area?” Bradley said. “It’s kind of incredible when you realize the people who are living here.

“It’s important to see people, really see them, and to think of people across the world not as boogeymen, but as people with children and poetry,” she added. “I think people tend to get negative feelings about what they’re afraid of and don’t know, and this helps people see that everyone is just a human being, trying to do the best they can.”

And just as the effects of the tragedy at Al-Mutanabbi Street aren’t limited to Baghdad, its significance and lessons aren’t, either.

“This pertains to everyone, everywhere, in every culture and country,” Bradley said. “If violence like this can happen in Iraq, it can happen anywhere. To pretend like it’s all about a certain nation makes us think we’re immune to it, and the minute we think like that, we’re in danger.”

A dozen years later, the rubble of the bombing has been cleared away, and some booksellers and cafe owners of Al-Mutanabbi Street have brought the market, slowly, back to life.

“We should be so grateful that we can march down Lincoln and have a Women’s March, or that we can write to the newspaper and tell them what we think, or walk into the Sheriff’s Office and complain about the cop who gave us a ticket,” Bradley said. “But, in many places in the world, you can’t. We should never, ever take that for granted.”

The event runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in Library Hall.

To reach Julia Ben-Asher, call 970-871-4229 or email or follow her on Twitter @JuliaBenAsher.

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