Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bonfire of the Books

Even Arabs who don't read history know a thing or two about the Mongols. Just say Mongols and see what they'll say.
In Arab collective consciousness, the word "Tatar" conjures up images of terror and destruction. The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 remains one of the most dramatic events in our history, superseded, perhaps, only by the Fitnas: the martyrdom of Ali ibn Abi Talib and years later his son, al-Husayn. We think of thousands and thousands of soldiers, uncouth and uncultured as all soldiers everywhere are, rummaging through this city of splendour, the seat of culture, the centre of Abbasid learning and civilization, and putting it on fire, killing and pillaging and burning. Ancient armies were customarily allowed three days of pillage: those got 40, we are told, after which probably nothing was left to destroy! One enduring image of the fall of Baghdad is the story that Mongol soldiers threw all the books of Dar al-Hikma into the Tigris making a bridge on which to pass with their horses. Survivors later recounted that the waters of the river ran black from the ink... Rivers of blood, rivers of ink... As a child, I found this image awe-inspiring: so many books, enough books to make a bridge for an army to ride on? So much hatred, enough hatred to destroy the whole product of human learning on a winter afternoon?

The comparison with the latest invasion and occupation of Baghdad was not late in coming. Since the 2003 siege the coalition has been compared to the Tatars. People were reading history in an attempt to find some consolation, not really to understand. But little did one expect the scenario of the occupation to turn so twisted. At least the Tatars had a name and an address.

The image of the manuscripts blackening the Tigris came back to my mind this week as another, slightly similar catastrophe took place. A bomb exploded in the book market of Baghdad: Shari' al-Mutannabi. With thousands (Iraqis and others) having lost their lives in vain since the mindless occupation, is it even ethical to mourn the loss of books?

But books are not simply paper with ink and writing, are they? They would wipe our history, our culture, our consciousness those who burn our books. And what is man if not consciousness? what remains when all else is gone?

Majid al-Sammara'i's article in Hayat, above, points out the symbolism of the site: both as a locus of culture and books and as an urban space with its own modes of existence and way of life. A double blow then: not just to the books themselves but to bookishness and the cultured life. The demons do not just come from "beyond the river" now, (Ma waraa' al-nahr or Transoxania) they also come from within. And they don't care for learning and culture, the demons. What do they care for, really? Which gods do they bow before? Which altars do they offer all those sacrifices to? The gods of oil, perhaps...

Let's hope someone lives to tell the tale...

WP's Anthony Shadid has a touching profile of Mohamed al-Hayawi, a bookseller on Mutannabi Street who died in last Monday's bombing.



Blogger Perkunas said...

Very nice post. One hopes that all of the most literate people don't leave Iraq, that there are pleenty of people left who can sustain a moderate, educated society there, but you just can't blame anyone for leaving Iraq the way it is now.

Monday, March 19, 2007 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger Van Gogh said...

جميل اوى البوست بتاعك
بس عندى سؤال...اامغول لما حاولوا يخشوا مصر كان فيه قطز....تفتكرى ممكن يجى قطز جديد لمغول الزمن ده...؟؟
اول مرة ليا هنا بس مش هتكون الأخيرة

Tuesday, May 08, 2007 3:27:00 AM  
Blogger khadiga said...

كان فيه قطز آه: كان فيه مماليك قصدك، كان فيه حكم عسكري، وكان فيه عسكر عايزين يحافظوا على مملكتهم. طبعاً قطز تعب جداً لحد ما أقنع المماليك إنهم يحاربوا، ودفع حياته ثمن لده...
أعتقد أنه ممكن يكون فيه قطز جديد لمغول زمانا، بس المشكلة إن مش ممكن نفضل نستني البطل المغوار الفارس اللي يجيي ينقذنا. يمكن لازم كل واحد فينا يكون قطز...
شكراً على الزيارة وآسفة على الرد المتأخر

Sunday, June 03, 2007 3:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Friday, December 17, 2010 8:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Este artículo fue muy interesante, sobre todo desde que yo era la búsqueda de ideas sobre este tema el pasado jueves.

Monday, December 20, 2010 5:21:00 PM  

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