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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.

[rebelmouse-image 27087040 alt="""" original_size="500x375" expand=1]

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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