Last night the US Secretary Condoleezza Rice appeared on Foxnews’ O’Reilly Factor.

The host was a bit tough, though he did not ask aboutNo one could have imagined them slamming a plane…

O’Reilly: The truth of the matter is our correspondents at Fox News can’t go out for a cup of coffee in Baghdad….

Rice: Bill, that’s tough. It’s tough. But what – would they have wanted to have gone out for a cup of coffee when Saddam Hussein was in power?..

That’s almost as tough as the 9/11 commission. But what about cafes in Baghdad? has a story.

[Al Mutanabbi street] heads down through a tissue of dilapidated buildings with thin columns that hold up warped balconies. Bookstores of every description occupy the street-level spaces, selling technical manuals, ornate copies of the Quran and a nice selection of pirated software. Al Mutanabbi then runs downhill toward the mud-brown bend of the Tigris until veering west at a covered market and the high walls of an old mosque school. Right at the bend in the road is Baghdad’s legendary literary cafe, the Shabandar, where for decades writers and intellectuals have come to drink tea and smoke tobacco from water pipes.
“This is the real parliament of Iraq,” a Shabandar dweller exhorted after the invasion. “This is where the real discussions take place.” If the Shabandar was Iraq’s parliament, then al-Sayegh was its prime minister. If you were a writer in Baghdad, it did not matter where you came from, you ended up at the Shabandar, because the cafe and the book district received everyone. Amir would find you there. If you were a thief, then your stoop was in Bab Al Sharji. For literary types, it was Al Mutanabbi Street. There happens to be a great symmetry in Arabic that binds the words for “writer” and “book” in a single sound. Book is “kitab,” writer, “katib,” and the difference is little more than a shift in stress when the words are spoken.
Today, the street where books and writers coexist has become a street of ghosts. —

Iraqis still shop in the book district, but most of the intellectuals who felt free to say what they thought in public are either in hiding or have fallen silent out of fear that spies for various armed groups will target them for assassination. Iraqi writers are starting to head underground, retreating to protected offices. Because literary culture is so bound to a particular neighborhood of Baghdad, an attack on Al Mutanabbi Street is an attack on Iraqi culture itself. This is a culture once so vibrant that a famous slogan in the Arab world ran, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.”

On the following Wednesday, five days after I met Mokhtar at his office, I took Ahmed down to Al Mutanabbi Street. We found the Shabandar open. There were a few younger men sitting on the benches keeping an eye on the clientele and they had beards, a new development for the Shabandar. These are newcomers, who come to keep watch on the smokers and tea drinkers. —

No one spoke in the cafe, and most of the customers were smoking in silence; if they did speak, they kept their voices low so they wouldn’t be overheard. Men sitting on benches across the cafe looked away when we glanced in their direction. People were monitoring us, a few were waiting to see what would happen, keeping an iron in the fire with respect to possible future events. When we’d come in, I had seen a man in his 30s wearing a particular kind of beard that the jihadis favor. He was reading a paper and made a show of not looking up. Fighters in the Mahdi Army wear this beard. It also didn’t have to mean anything, although those beards were not common two years ago.

We asked [the owner Hajji Mohammed] why he’d closed the cafe last Friday on its busiest day of the week.

“Fridays I lose so much money because people buy a tea and sit all day and when it comes time to pay, they come to me and lie about how many teas they had. So I closed the cafe. We also had generator problems,” Hajji Mohammed said. It was a massive lie, which he did not expect us to believe. Fridays are the busiest day for the Shabandar, the day that writers from all over the city come to discuss, translate and work on manuscripts; business booms. — The real reason Hajji Mohammed closed the cafe, which everyone on the street knows, is that he has been receiving threats from insurgent groups who don’t like his clients and their politics.

Two days later, on Friday, in the faint hope of finding the Shabandar open, we went back to Al Mutanabbi Street to meet Hamid Mokhtar, but the cafe was shuttered. —

We found Mokhtar waiting in front of the Shabandar. He said, “We can’t stay here.”

— “We are all targets for assassination now.” Mokhtar, who is well known in Iraq for spending eight years in Abu Ghraib during Saddam’s regime, knows the feeling well. While other writers cooperated with the previous government, Mokhtar was one of a small number of intellectuals who continued to work without producing the obligatory paeans for the dictator. Eventually, security men came to his house and arrested his typewriter, and finding that unsatisfactory, eventually returned for the man himself. These days, rail-thin but looking much healthier than he did after his release from prison, the soft-spoken Mokhtar argues for religious tolerance and national unity. In Iraq, now a crucible for at two distinct fundamentalist movements, the act of publicly advocating these principles in Baghdad is flat-out heroic.

“When I appear on television and in magazines, that brings me to the attention of these [armed] groups. Many of my friends have been killed, even my colleagues from prison have been targeted. Before, we were suffering under Saddam, but now there are many Saddams.” In the aftermath of the occupation, those loyal to any one of the numerous armed politico-religious gangs are indistinguishable from anyone else in Iraq. The threat is invisible.

[Crossposted at European Tribune and dKos.]

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