One dead renaissance man in Iraq

hookah 0The Style section of The Washington Post is known for blurring the lines, from time to time, between traditional news features and the first-person, magazine-style writing that once was labeled "new journalism." The emotional, first-person piece by Anthony Shadid titled "The Bookseller's Story, Ending Much Too Soon" is labeled an "appreciation" and that is what it feels like. It's a fine piece, although it contains one phrase that got under my skin and has been bugging me.

The piece tells the story of the late Mohammed Hayawi, who ran his family's Renaissance Bookstore on Baghdad's bookish, freewheeling Mutanabi Street -- until he died in yet another car bomb that killed at least 26 people.

Hayawi, we are told, was an open-minded, modern Sunni man who managed to enjoy some of the freedoms that came with the American invasion and smoked a water pipe with Shiites and Kurds. But he also struggled to understand precisely why the United States was so obsessed with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Shadid writes:

Hayawi resented the occupation but voted in the elections the United States backed. He was a devout Muslim, but feared the rise of religion in politics. In his bookstore, once-banned titles by Shiite clerics, imported from Iran, vied with books by radical Sunni clerics, among them Muhammad Abdel-Wahab, the 18th-century godfather of Saudi Arabia's brand of Islam. Profit may have inspired his eclectic mix, but Hayawi also seemed to be making a statement: Mutanabi Street, his Baghdad and his Iraq would respect their diversity.

What got to me was -- no surprise -- the writer's blunt statement that his friend was "a devout Muslim." I am sure there are many in Iraq who would agree. There would be just as many who would disagree, citing the books on his shelves and other issues. At the moment these camps are arguing, with guns, swords and bombs.

Who can make such a statement, today? There is, we must repeat, no one Islam. There is no one legal or doctrinal authority that speaks for Islam. So how does Shadid say this? What does this phrase mean, that the man and his friends -- Sunni, Shiites and Kurds -- considered him devout? Was he an American newspaper's version of a devout Muslim? Why?

It helps to read more about this unique section of the city, which Shadid does a wonderful job of showing us.

In the months after the invasion, Mutanabi Street revived into an intellectual free-for-all. There were titles by Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a brilliant theologian killed, as the story goes, when Saddam's executioners drove nails into his forehead. Shiite iconography -- of living ayatollahs and 7th-century saints marching to their deaths -- was everywhere. Nearby were new issues of FHM and Maxim, their covers adorned with scantily clad women. On rickety stands were compact discs of Osama bin Laden's messages selling for the equivalent of 50 cents. Down the street were pamphlets of the venerable Communist Party. As one of the booksellers once said, quoting a line of poetry by Mutanabi, "With so much noise, you need 10 fingers to plug your ears."

Mutanabi Street today tells another story.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

What can you say?

You can say that the owner of Renaissance Bookstore -- secular or devout, who knows? -- lived in on a street where Osama clashes with Maxim, where people remember ancient martyrs and the new modern theologians killed by nails driven being driven into their brains. And now the bookstore man is dead. No wonder the story contains a sad note of confusion.

Please respect our Commenting Policy