The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged baghdad
Hulagu does Baghdad

I highly recommend you take the time this fascinating New Yorker piece on the Mongols and the sacking of Baghdad. An excerpt:

On January 29, 1258, Hulagu’s forces took up a position on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad and began a bombardment. Soon they had breached the outer wall. The caliph, who had been advised against escaping by his vizier, offered to negotiate. Hulagu, with the city practically in his hands, refused. The upshot was that the caliph and his retinue came out of the city, the remainder of his army followed, they laid down their arms, and the Mongols killed almost everybody. Hulagu told Baghdad’s Christians to stay in a church, which he put off-limits to his soldiers. Then, for a period of seven days, the Mongols sacked the city, killing (depending on the source) two hundred thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or more than a million. The Mongols’ Georgian Christian allies were said to have particularly distinguished themselves in slaughter. Plunderers threw away their swords and filled their scabbards with gold. Silver and jewels and gold piled up in great heaps around Hulagu’s tent. Fire consumed the caliph’s palace, and the smoke from its beams of aloe wood, sandalwood, and ebony filled the air with fragrance for a distance of a hundred li. (A li equalled five hundred bow lengths—a hundred li was maybe thirty miles.) So many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs.

The stories of what Hulagu did to the caliph vary. One says that Hulagu toyed with him a while, dining with him and discussing theology and pretending to be his guest. A famous account describes how Hulagu imprisoned the caliph in a roomful of treasure and brought him gold on a tray instead of food. The caliph protested that he could not eat gold, and Hulagu asked him why he hadn’t used his money to strengthen his army and defend against the Mongols. The caliph said, “That was the will of God.” Hulagu replied, “What will happen to you is the will of God, also,” leaving him among the treasure to starve.

Hulagu takes the Caliph

The bookseller of Baghdad
Chip Rossetti has a lovely profile of one Baghdad's most prominent booksellers in the trade website Publishing Perspectives:
In a region where import restrictions and government censors made the free flow of books a rarity, and in an era before the internet, Qasim Al-Rajab’s devotion to hunting down books and making them available earned him the nickname of shaykh al-kutubiyyin (the shaykh of booksellers.) Loyal customers also dubbed him al-Fihrist-”the Index” — partly for his prodigious memory and partly in homage to a famous 10th-century Baghdad bookseller, Ibn Nadim, who wrote a well-known bibliography of the same title. Between 1960 and 1972, he also published a regular journal-cum-catalogue, al-Maktaba (The Library), which featured articles and announcements about major new books published elsewhere in the world. Qasim Al-Rajab also launched a project of reprinting editions of medieval Arabic texts. That meant getting hold of rare manuscripts in academic libraries in places as far as London, Leipzig and Leiden and then publish modern editions in Beirut, India and Pakistan, where printing costs were cheaper. He would also occasionally print them, as well in Iran, which was known then for its good printing technology and for having state-of-the-art presses. In all, he published around 200 books, including editions of 1001 Nights and medieval works of Arabic travel literature.

This is part two, on the current situation:
Then came the American invasion in 2003. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, books began to be imported into Iraq again, but that new freedom came with a price: “People were importing certain types of books and getting killed for it. At the time, mainly in 2004 and 2005, people were eager to get books that had been banned in the time of Saddam Hussein.” The rising sectarian violence was reflected in the importation of inflammatory literature — both Shi’ite and Sunni — into Iraq. “Some dealers approached importers from Iran, and they introduced to the market very extreme kinds of books. On the other hand, other booksellers were bringing in books from Saudi Arabia — extremist literature on the other side.” The violence and sectarianism were a far cry from the bookselling environment Qasim Al-Rajab had once known: “In his time, my grandfather would sell books by Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Shia. Bookselling then was very different from the sectarian situation post-war,” said Ibrahim.
Writing, Memory, Baghdad
The last issue of Words Without Borders focuses on memory in literature. There is a deeply moving excerpt from an upcoming book, Dreaming of Baghdad, by Haifa Zangana. The author recalls a friend and comrade captured, tortured and executed by Saddam's government. A piece of writing full of affection and almost unbearable sadness. 
I did not know then that it would be the last time I would hear his laugh. When he was arrested, he was on his way back to pick up his suitcase from a friend's place. He did not foresee any danger. He had the false sense of security of a man who is paying his last respects to his city. His instincts failed him, this man who regularly traveled from city to city, refuge to refuge, base to base. 

Read the whole piece (very well translated by the author herself) here.