From Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad's Street of the Booksellers
2012 | Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here | By Jordan Elgrably
The freedom to walk, to move, to get up and go anywhere you desire, has always seemed a natural right and privilege to me. It is something that most of us take for granted—we’re not concerned about roadblocks or checkpoints, random i.d. checks or razzias such as the cops in Europe routinely subjected non-European immigrants to when I lived there in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nor do we, in America, worry about walking our city streets for fear of a bomb going off at a sidewalk café. Walking is freedom and a form of meditation with several variations—city, desert, mountains, beach.
My first taste for walking came when I was small child. I got up in the middle of the night, snuck past my mother’s bedroom, and went for a stroll on the Hollywood Freeway. I was four years old. Some Good Samaritan, as family members called him, spotted me wandering along the freeway at three in the morning and took me to the nearest police station. Some think it an early indication of my nomadic genes, and it was the first of my youthful attempts to run away in order to see more of the world. The psychologically-prone might declare it an intuitive response to my parents’ recent divorce—a way to release my anger and disappointment that I wouldn’t have both my mother and father around to take care of me everyday. Walking as a form of protest?
Later, as a pre-pubescent kid, I discovered the mountain trails near Lake Arrowhead and the scraggly hills of Malibu and Topanga, where I went to summer camps, and one of my favorite wilderness walks was through the arid climes of Joshua Tree. At the time, I did not realize that other kids in countries rife with conflict and war—Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, South Africa to name but a few—were often unable to walk where they pleased, either from fear of being stopped by hostile forces or the very real possibility of stepping on a landmine or cluster bomblet.
One of the first books I came across while a freshman in college that inflamed my imagination was Three Journeys, An Automythology, by Paul Zweig, in which he describes driving and walking through North Africa’s Sahara, an other-worldly landscape of Berbers, Touareg nomads, mountains, plateaux and desert oases or oueds. “The landscape is becoming mountainous,” Zweig wrote, “but mountains unlike any I ever saw: black carved slopes, like enormous reliefs chiseled and thrown down over a vast space. The harmony of colors and shapes is unearthly.”
Zweig’s narrative was a form of poetry and left me with the distinct sensation that there were still places in the world that remained virtually untouched. “Two hundred miles without a trace of life: no palm trees, no scrub, no people…in the Sahara, nature still possesses an archaic prehuman ugliness: rusty dunes, beds of dried blinding mud, rocky waste heaps strewn for miles…”
It was also something of an introduction to southern Morocco, the region of my paternal grandfather, who was a Berber Jew from the small town of Taroudant, which some called “the grandmother of Marrakech.”
The Sahara would become a figment in my literary imagination, the primal place to walk, to be lost, to be away from the world, and later—while living a writer’s life in Paris—I often envisioned myself on a Saharan journey. Paul Zweig’s time there left an indelible imprint. “The Sahara drove itself against me physically and demanded a physical response. But, as it turned out, I had not come there to be ‘in the world’ at all. The enormous whispering I had listened to had been something else entirely. It had caused stabs of insomnia, dwarfing my uneventful ‘literary’ life…
“Instead, in the Sahara, sleeping in a tent, walking at night over a sea of rock, under a cream of stars, huger than anything I had ever known or imagined, the images which came to my mind were images of enclosure; as if I could not grasp this immensity and this simplicity, except as a way, not of being outside, ‘in the world,’ but of being inside something far different from the world. It was like being inside a soul…”
My Moroccan family had moved to France before World War II, where my father was born. I went to live in Paris in my junior year of college, and soon began filing stories as a freelance journalist. After growing up the prosaic streets of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the city’s historic monuments and buildings, cobblestone streets, bridges over the Seine, open-air markets, cafés, bouquineries and intimate quarters like the Marais, the Bastille and Pigalle were absolutely enchanting. On many occasions, both day and night, I would traverse the entire city on foot, and often during these walks, I ran into memorable characters.
One time in Montparnasse, I stumbled across the great playwright Eugene Ionesco as he quarreled with his wife in front of their apartment building; she demanded the octogenarian take a taxi, but the creator of “The Lesson” and “The Rhinoceros” insisted on walking to their destination. On another occasion, a little further to the south, I found myself facing the tall, gaunt figure of Samuel Beckett, the playwright from Ireland who had adopted France as his second homeland. The author of “Waiting for Godot” didn’t slacken his pace, however, when we nearly ran into each other, but continued ahead, though I mumbled, “Bonjour, monsieur.” As he walked on, I remembered the famous stabbing incident, when a pimp had knifed Beckett almost fifty years earlier in those very streets. After he had healed and the police insisted on pressing charges, Beckett met his attacker briefly while in custody. When Beckett asked him why he did it, the man answered, “Je ne sais pas, monsieur.” Some believe it was this incident that fed Beckett’s nihilist and absurdist imagination.
Later, living in the Andalusian town of Granada, up in the old Arab quarter, the Albaysin, I become an ardent lover of the Alhambra gardens. Each morning I would look out the window of my cármen—an old Moorish home facing the Alhambra across the hill, known as the Cármen Aben-Humaya—and prepare my thoughts for the day. After several hours writing and a simple lunch of bread, manchego cheese, and tempranillo or Rioja wine, I would stroll down the old Albaysin streets and across to the next hill, entering the Alhambra gardens through a secret back gate. I walked and lollygagged for hours each day in these lush Moorish gardens, with their Islamic calligraphy, ornate topiaries and bountiful fountains. Inside the palace, I especially enjoyed lingering beneath the mudejar ceilings and studying the intricate geometric carvings.
Everywhere I walked, in Paris and Granada, I carried a book with me. I would often stop to read in a café, ordering an espresso and occasionally taking notes when inspired by thoughts of a character or a new story idea. Despite the fact that terrorist bombings had occurred many times in Paris and other major European cities, I never felt endangered. Like others around me, I presumed that the police would pursue the culprits as international criminals. We did not experience the same climate of fear that overtook America after 9/11; we did not lose our right to privacy under new Draconian surveillance laws like those enacted under the USA Patriot Act.
Thinking back on those years of personal and creative freedom, I offer a baraka, a blessing or prayer, for the Iraqis of Baghdad who have yet to discover their own freedom in a new era of sovereign democracy. These days, whenever my hectic schedule allows me to lollygag in a café in Los Angeles, I envision a time of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East—I imagine a region in which, like Europe, there will be open borders, so that nothing will stop us from traveling from Haifa to Damascus or Kirkuk. Call me a dreamer, but someday, too, the artists and intellectuals of Baghdad will once again be able to enjoy the cafés and bookshops of Mutannabi Street without fear, and they will share with us the freedom to walk wherever their hearts desire.