Can Baghdad Reclaim Its Title As Intellectual Capital Of The Middle East?

13th century manuscript depicting scholars at an Abbasid library
13th century manuscript depicting scholars at an Abbasid library
Birgit Svensson

BAGHDAD — On Fridays, you can get a taste of just how special Mutanabbi Street used to be. For a couple of hours once a week, this neighborhood in the Iraqi capital returns to its former glory when everybody who is anybody in the Baghdad’s art and culture scene is out on the famous “book mile.”

The street has been renowned for centuries: a place where the printed word was bought and sold, where poets offered readings, where philosophical discussions went late in the night. Musicians publicized their forthcoming concerts, publishers negotiated with writers, actors looked for producers and directors, and vice versa.

Nowadays, those who want some space on the “book street” — which is nearly a kilometer long — better get there early to try and cram themselves in among everybody from professional book dealers with first editions on offer to modest sellers of second-hand titles.

Even greater than the swarms of sellers are the crowds of buyers, and at noon men and women in equal numbers leave the street with stacks of books under their arms. Everything winds down when it’s time for Friday prayers. The books are packed up again until next week, and by 1 p.m. at the latest the street has been swept clean.

It used to be, Mutanabbi Street dealers say, that you saw people reading all over Baghdad, but today hardly anybody reads in public anymore. They put this down to the reign of terror that has and to some extent still does hold the city in its sway.

A deficit of intellectuals

As an Arabic saying goes, Middle Eastern books are “written in Cairo, printed in Beirut, and read in Baghdad.” At no time was this truer than in the days of the Abbasids, who reached their political and cultural highpoint in the 8th and 9th centuries while Europe was in the dark Middle Ages.

Traces of all this aren’t so easy to find anymore. The war and terror destroyed most of what remained. But now one of the old centers is being revived: the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, founded by Al Ma’mun (786-833), the son of Harun al-Rashid from One Thousand and One Nights. His intention was to create a gathering place for the intellectual elite — and the goal is the same today.

The best view of the new House of Wisdom is from the water — the residence of former Iraq King Faisal I lies majestically on the banks of the Tigris. After the monarchy ended, the palace was used from the late 1950s as parliament, people’s court, military museum and more before its present incarnation. That it was plundered and set on fire after U.S. troops arrived in 2003 is no longer obvious because the white and beige building has been lovingly restored.

But the purpose of the renovation and reopening has not been widely announced. Our boatsman doesn’t know — “an academy, a school maybe?” he ventures — although the building is just a stone’s throw upriver from Mutanabbi Street and just down the street from the boat harbor.

Baghdad's Mutanabbi Street - Photo: Salam Pax

The reason for the discretion is the dramatic security situation in Baghdad, where the intellectual elite have been under threat for the last decade. Many intellectuals have been killed or abducted. Many have fled abroad. The UN estimates that nearly four million Iraqis have left the country — scientists, lawyers, doctors, professors and teachers among them. The country has experienced an unprecedented exodus of its educated classes, who found themselves oppressed by corrupt politicians.

The result is a desolate public sector, inefficient administrative structures — and incompetent decision makers. Iraq urgently needs a new elite. The country’s leadership has recognized this and has been spending generously on scholarships for study abroad.

Most of those receiving scholarships go to the United States, the UK and France, and others go to India, Russia and Egypt. The new House of Wisdom, working closely with Iraqi universities and with the support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is supposed to bundle the know-how acquired abroad, further develop it, and make it useful for Iraq’s reconstruction.

Shamran al-Ejli has the key to an old Abbasid palace right next door to Bayt al-Hikma and linked to it by a garden gate. The palace is in grave disrepair and is not open to the public, but touring it does offer a sense of its former glory.

Ejli is the president of the new Bayt al-Hikma. "The original legendary House of Wisdom was built before this old Abbasid palace," says the 63-year-old Iraqi historian. "It was a universal institute for the translation of books about philosophy and history. Many scholars of the Arabic and Muslim world met up at the ancient Bayt al-Hikma, particularly those with roots in Persia or Europe. They translated many books from Greek and Latin into Arabic. In fact, Europeans often translated these works from Arabic into their own languages."

He goes on to point out that this is what made Bayt al-Hikma "so important, both for Islamic as well as western civilization. It was on the one hand an institute with a library. But it was also a publishing house for philosophy, anthropology and history."

Incubator for a future elite

Others aren’t so sure about that. British researcher Jim al-Khalili, who has just published a book about the ancient Bayt al-Hikma, says that too little information now exists to be able to make clear-cut statements about its historical role.

But Ejli sticks to his guns, and says the future will deliver the proof. The new House of Wisdom is, in any case, not a copy of the old, he adds, as he leads us into his office for small glasses of sweet tea: "But we feel bound to its philosophy." It is a foundation for research, an incubator for a future elite, he says, "so of course we need a library with the relevant resources."

The largest room in the house is Ejli’s office, which was also that of the former king. All the other rooms are study rooms that will progressively be filled with scholars and researchers. The theater used by the king for private cultural evenings is the only space large enough to be converted into a library.

For the time being, research carried out at Bayt al-Hikma concerns only Iraq. The topics include the role of women, and a project about young people in Iraqi society is in the pipeline. "When we’ve researched all groups we’re going to put the information together and develop a strategy so that everyone in this country can be involved in its reconstruction," says Ejli. Since Iraq has effectively been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 20 years, during which time little scientific exchange was possible, the first priority has to be recording and consolidating developments in the country during that time.

But the information will be put to other uses as well, with Egypt serving as model – the Bayt al-Hikma in Cairo acts in an advisory capacity to both government and state institutions.

"Here in Iraq we want to work on a broad basis and perhaps once again become an example of scientific cooperation for the whole world — as we were back in the day of the Abbasids, when the House of Wisdom wasn’t a theoretical think tank but a lively place of exchange,” Ejli says, adding, “We still have a long way to go."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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