“In Cairo there is at least still a store where the Muhammedans can buy old books. In Baghdad one will not find that sort of thing. If one collects books here, and is neither prepared to copy them oneself nor to let others copy them, one must wait till somebody dies and his books and clothes are carried to the bazaar, where they are offered for sale by a crier. A European who wants to buy Arabian, Turkish or Persian manuscripts will find no better opportunity than in Constantinople for here at least there is a sort of bookstore where Christians — at least Oriental Christians — can buy books.'” — Carsten Niebuhr, quoted by Fjordman here
Well, in Baghdad much has been made, especially by breathless reporters, of bits and pieces of old Baghdad that are supposed to represent some time in the recent past of fabled high culture. It’s nonsense.
There is that obligatory mention of Mutannabi Street, the bookseller’s row, named after one of the most celebrated poets in classical Arabic, and a dab hand at panegyrics for the prince, turning to invective if Mutannabi was not given the reward he expected. On that bookseller’s row much of the merchandise consists of local publications, and also cheap Western books translated into Arabic. On offer at Mutannabi Street is to be found the effluvia and crap, including dogeared manuals and Life Magazines from 1957, and “literature” at the level of Ken Follett and Barbara Cartland (in Arabic), and of course endless books on the greatness of the Arabs and the Arab Dilemma and the Arab Renaissance and Whither The Arabs? and — what else? — Muhammad, and the Qur’an, and the Qur’an, and Muhammad, and did I forget to mention all the books on the Qur’an, and on Muhammad?
Yes, wonderful fabled Baghdad, all mahgoof-and-mutannabi-street-and-memories-of-loss, akin to those of Egyptian intellectuals of old Cairo and old Alexandria, when it had a “different” flavor — meaning that the Jews, and the Greeks, and the Italians, and the Armenians, and even the handful of French and British, were still there. They were all there, reading La Gazette de Caire or somesuch, supporting the local orchestra or opera or lycee, having cultural soirees — and look, just look at the syce-runners waiting outside Shepheard’s, in the old days when life was so…so interesting. Similarly, those who have this imaginary Baghdad in their heads are really longing for a time, decades ago, when there were still many Jews in Baghdad (before 1948-1951, and before the Farhud of June 1-2, 1941, and before the British left, in 1932). There were also many Christians, unafraid to walk the streets or go to church. Baghdad, like Cairo and Alexandria when the tone was not set by the primitive Muslims, and life in Baghdad was so much more… so much more interesting.
There’s a lot of blah about the “educated” Iraqis, and that “professional middle class” and its supposed high level of culture. It’s very exaggerated, in size and in attainment. A handful of sad-eyed musicians trying to play classical music. A professor of poetry here and there. That’s about it. In Islamic societies, there is so limited a place for art, or real literature, that for art Muslims endure Qur’anic calligraphy or yet another skyward-thrusting minaret-and-mosque complex, reminiscent of some kind of military installation — which, in a sense, it is. Or in the case of many of these terrible places, despite the prohibition on depictions of the human form, there is a twist on Hokusai or is it Hiroshige, with One Hundred Views of Our Leader.
Like most of the Arab Muslim dreams, even the very best (i.e., secularized, semi-westernized) of those born into Islam have little conception of how deep is the Western cultural bench, our rich history and their culturally impoversihed one. When they do travel to, or have a chance to study or live in the West, and visit our museums and libraries and universities, some must obscurely realize, with a pang, but do not like to dwell upon the thought, of how Islam has so limited the artistic and scientific and cultural potential of those born into it, those who whether in village hovel or in an urban hospital’s obstetrics ward, slide straight from the womb into the waiting straitjacket of Islam. Most who think of some “lost culture” that they had — in Baghdad before Saddam, or in Cairo before Mubarak and Sadat, have no good conception of what bookstores in the advanced West look like, what the publishing houses can put out, what people can routinely buy and read. For every 27 million people (the population of Iraq) there aren’t a hundred with the kind of literary taste, I’d wager, that can be found entering, say, a well-stocked university bookstore, even in a lousy university (is there another kind, these days?) — not to mention those who are to be found in used bookstores, the native habitat, with its transferred but well-accepted epithet (it is not the bookstore but the books that are “used”), or their online versions, devoid of the pleasures of travels to Serendip.
What Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815), celebrated traveller to those antique lands, noted the presence of in Cairo but the absence of in equally fabled Baghdad, no longer stands. Cairo, too, is a cultural wasteland, and has been since Nasser seized the property of, and booted out, those Jews, those Greeks, those Italians, and all those non-Muslims who, for a while between 1880 and 1955, made a bit of Cairo and a bit of Alexandria semi-interesting, semi-worldly. Ungaretti was born (in 1882) in Alexandria, Cavafy too. But they were the ones who brought in a taste of the non-Muslim world, and even the quasi-European world. This was the world of those who attended the premiere of “Aida” on the banks of the Nile (hint: Muslim Arabs were not the main audience). That world is gone, or will go as more of the terrified Copts leave.
And everywhere in the Muslim Arab lands, as they empty out of their last non-Muslims, they will be left with Islam, and nothing but Islam. One can already observe the acceleration of that creeping desertification, of the intellectual kind, everywhere in the Arab and Muslim lands. For no non-Muslims ever wish to return to a Muslim-ruled land. Why should they? Why would they?
And that “cultural center” in Baghdad, that Bookseller’s Row on Mutannabi Street, aside from the odd find — Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge was brought back to me by a friend — offers books little different in quality from those laid out at a two-block street fair in Queens or Brooklyn, with you eagerly conning the tables for good finds, only to come away in the end with nothing but dismal disappointment.