Al-Mutanabbi and Baghdad’s Legendary Love of Books

Syed Amir on the classical poet who is still remembered in the vibrant literary scene of Iraq’s capital

Al-Mutanabbi and Baghdad’s Legendary Love of Books
In Baghdad’s long history, the legend of al-Mutanabbi Street occupies a special place. Named after one of the most celebrated poets of the Arabic language, Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi al-Kindi, born 1,000 years ago in Kufah, it has been renowned for its numerous, quaint, old-fashioned bookshops and popular cafes. For a long time, it served as a gathering spot for the poets, writers and intellectuals of the city. A stone’s throw away from a giant statue of the iconic poet standing by the Tigris river, al-Mutanabbi Street has been especially popular on Fridays when a bevy of musicians, singers and artists showcase their talents and ply their music, enthralling onlookers. It is a living testament to the old Arab aphorism: “Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads.”

The latest devastation to befall Baghdad was the US invasion of Iraq on March 2003, with the avowed rationale of cleansing the country of weapons of mass destruction. None were found; however, al-Mutanabbi Street was not spared the carnage inflicted on the rest of the country.

The violence spiraled after the US invasion.

On a peaceful sunny day in March 2007, a suicide bomber struck al-Mutanabbi Street, killing over 30 people and injuring many more. Many irreplaceable manuscripts, historic bookshops, and cafes, notably the Shahbandar Coffee House that had attracted throngs of scholars in years past, were severely damaged or destroyed. It took a year to partially repair the damage and clear up the detritus. The former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, reopened the restored street on December 18, 2008.

Depiction of Al Mutanabbi by Kahlil Gibran, 1917

Statue of Al-Mutanabbi in Mutannabi Street, Baghdad, made by Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat

The bombing of the legendary street set off worldwide outrage, especially among book-lovers and bookshop owners. The owner of a leading bookselling company in San Francisco, Beau Beausoleil, had a seminal idea. He decided to launch an art and writing project to immortalize the street and to honour the literary traditions of many years that it personified. He started a writing project, entitled “al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” and invited various writers to help by making literary and artistic contributions. To his surprise, these arrived in large numbers over the years. Beausoleil articulated a novel interpretation of the title of his project. As cited in the Economist, he explained, “whenever someone sits down to write towards the truth, or sits down with a book, that is where al-Mutanabbi Street starts.”

Urdu poetry and literature are strongly influenced by Persian literature and its iconic poets, writers, and philosophers; giant figures like Saadi, Firdausi, Hafiz, Rumi and Jami are familiar to most students of Urdu literature. However, this is not the case with Arabic literary luminaries.

Al-Mutanabbi was born in 915 AD, a millennium ago, and is often described as the Shakespeare of classical Arabic poetry. Until the past century, students of Arabic were routinely taught Mutanabbi’s work in India. Yet, now he is unknown even to literary scholars. Professor Philip Hitti in his landmark book, History of the Arabs, speaks of him as “[...] the poet laureate al-Mutanabbi whose bombastic and ornate style with its flowery rhetoric and improbable metaphors renders him the most popular and widely quoted poet in the Muslim world. And an early authority calls his poetry the height of perfection.”

Mutanabbi in his early life spent a considerable amount of time living among the Bedouins, studying their beliefs and habits. His name is derived from his claim made in his youth, while he lived among the nomads, as someone capable of making prophecies. However, later in life, he recanted the false claim. He gained fame for excelling in creating exquisite panegyrics, a genre of poetry written to exalt or praise someone important, such as a king or ruler, commonly known as Qasida or ode. It was the time when the once mighty Abbasid Caliphate was going through its twilight phase and a number of small autonomous principalities had sprung up. He cleverly employed his talent to gain favour with the ruler of Northern Syria, Sayf al-Dawla, founder of the Emirate of Aleppo, and became his close friend and confidante. He participated in battles alongside Sayf al-Dawla against the Byzantine Empire and many of the panegyrics were composed to praise him for his battlefield exploits. These masterpieces earned him a lasting place in the pantheons of Arabic poets, endowing his poems with a timeless quality.

The favours of kings and rulers are notoriously ephemeral and unpredictable, subject to shifting into displeasure without much notice. Mutanabbi’s preeminence at the court aroused professional jealousy among other court poets. The king’s displeasure together with growing resentment against him by other poets forced him to flee Syria in 957 for Egypt. From then on, he led a peripatetic lifestyle, becoming known as the wandering poet. In the later period of his life, he lived variously in Baghdad, Kufah and Shiraz, finally returning to Iraq in 965. In the meantime, he was unable to find a steady, enduring patronage from any of the reigning monarchs, as he often managed to offend them with his acerbic verses.

Mutanabbi’s end came in a very bizarre manner in 965. The story is told that his poetry had gravely offended a person named Dabbah al-Assadi, who nursed a lasting grudge against him. The latter plotted and intercepted him while he was traveling out of Baghdad with his son and a servant. Sensing danger, he attempted to run. However, his servant shamed him, reminding him of all the brave words that he had enunciated in his poetry. Embarrassed, he decided to stay and fight, but was killed along with his son and the servant. He was only fifty years old.

He famously wrote:

If you see lion’s teeth, don’t fancy that he is smiling at you.

I am the one whose literature can be seen even by the blind

The desert knows me well, the night, the mounted men

The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen 

The author is a former assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a retired health scientist administrator at the US National Institutes of Health