Despite a bloody sectarian strife, violence by Islamic State (ISIS) militants and street protests demanding reforms, Baghdad is facing another challenge stemming from deserving a UN honorary title. UNESCO accorded Baghdad the title of a City of Literature in December 2015, joining more than 40 others worldwide on the UN’s Creative Cities Network.
The distinction pushed Baghdad t quickly opt for holding literary activities, such as poetry reciting festivals, book expositions, painting and sculpture exhibitions to meet the minimum requirements of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. UNESCO places tough conditions on new members joining its creative network.
Besides having an outstanding literary heritage, a picked city should have vibrant contemporary scene and be a city where culture thrives. By joining the network, Baghdad committed to developing relationships and industries to strengthen literary culture for four years after the designation. Under UNESCO’s guidelines, Baghdad’s mayor should also expend $200,000 on literature activities during that period.
“Activities started to kick off as of the beginning of March,” declared Basim Abdul Hamid Hamoudi, head of a state body overseeing the implementation of UNESCO’s designation, called Baghdad, the City of Creative Literature Committee. “We are working together with many other state committees and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to organise literature and cultural activities in the coming four years, which is the period towards the implementation of UNESCO’s designation,” Hamoudi said.
The plans, he explained, was to hold literary events that would not be costly, with committees working in each cultural facility across the country to review its financial needs, worsened by years of war, instability and violence. Hamoudi emphasised that one of Baghdad’s literature and cultural landmarks, Mutanabbi Street, with its printing houses, libraries, bookshops and different literature and cultural activities, is enough to fulfil UNESCO’s conditions.
Iraqis in general, and residents of Baghdad in particular, write their history daily on the famed Mutanabbi Street. “Mutanabbi Street is the real creative Baghdad that spreads like a dream since the Abbasid caliph al-Mansour decided to build a new capital city for his caliphate,” Iraqi poet Yassir Omer said Still, Hamoudi insisted that there would be separate activities that would showcase Baghdad’s role in the world of literature.
Poetry reciting festivals and painting and sculpture exhibition have been held in Baghdad recently, which highlighter the city’s leading cultural role in the region, said Hamoudi. He said about 200 Iraqi and Arab painters participated in the exposition. Iraqis in general, and residents of Baghdad in particular, write their history daily on the famed Mutanabbi Street.
“Mutanabbi Street is the real creative Baghdad that spreads like a dream since the Abbasid caliph al-Mansour decided to built a new capital city for his caliphate,” Iraqi poet Yassir Omer said Renowned Iraqi novelist Abdul Rahman Majid al Rubaiee, who is from Nassiriya in southern Iraq, said: “Baghdad is an inspiration to many, even to foreigners in countries afar who wrote novels and produced movies on Baghdad’s history, culture and heritage because this city has its own charm and mystic.”
Insisting that Baghdad brought him the fame he enjoys, Rubaiee said: “Baghdad developed my way of thinking, my style of life and even my style of wardrobe.” Rejoicing in UNESCO’s decision, he said: “Baghdad was the capital city of the world, the ancient Mesopotamia.” Baghdad’s old quarters are witness to that rich culture.
One of the world’s oldest universities, built in 1233, still stands in the heart of the city on the Tigris, called Mustansiriya. In every corner of the school, the past resonates. In his novel the Land of Blackness, Abdul-Rahman Munif said he “drank Baghdad’s love with the milk” of his mother. “Even amid Baghdad’s charred ruins, the city’s destiny is still intertwined with ours, in an eternal bond of love and remembrance,” he wrote.
Nermeen Mufti, based in Baghdad, has been covering Iraqi affairs for three decades.