BAGHDAD It was the most unlikely setting for a performance of street theater but also the most poignant — the deeply scarred site of a massive car bombing early this year on Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street that killed 30 people.
The hourlong performance Nov. 8 by the National Folklore Ensemble broughtthe silent reverence and a top-level coterie of theatergoers to the bustling street in central Baghdad, lined with bookstores, libraries and cafes before it was devastated by the March bombing.
Among those seated on white plastic chairs watching the performance on a hastily created stage — a carpet laid out amid the bare space between historic Ottoman buildings — was the wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and an array of poets, editors and intellectuals, according to Muna’thar.
“It was very beautiful,” said Rahim Thamer, whose bookshop was among those wrecked by the March 4 bombing. “Many, many people stopped to watch.”
“Our aim was to revive Mutanabi Street,” said the director of the play, Haider Muna’thar, referring to Baghdad’s ancient center of the arts. “We also wanted to emphasize that drama can survive anywhere.”
The piece, “A Window on a Shadow of the Deceased,” was written by Muna’thar based on the works of Ghaib Tuma’h Farman, a renowned Iraqi novelist who left the country in the 1940s to study in Egypt.
The one-off performance by the amateur group, which has had to go underground and rehearse in secret, was advertised by last-minute word of mouth, with organizers unwilling to broadcast the event, fearing it would attract bombers.
Days after the blast, poets and intellectuals gathered at the site to recite verses beside the bloodstains and vow defiance amid the rubble.
The Nov. 8 perf came just days after a project was launched to revive the Mutanabi book market, once famous across the Arab world. On Nov. 4, Iraqi deputy prime minister Barham Salih laid the cornerstone of a reconstruction project for the street, which is slated to take six months to complete.
A favorite hangout of the Arab literary world, the book market was opened in 1932 by King Faisal II and named after Arab poet Abu Taib al-Mutanabi. As a popular dictum of the 1960s had it: “Books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad.”