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.

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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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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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