Catamaran Literary Reader Nonfiction Editor
"Some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation." — Fahrenheit 451
As the fifteenth century was drawing to a close, William Caxton, England’s first printer, traveled to the Flemish city of Bruges. Today the city, with its late medieval architecture and meandering cobbled streets, seems a museum piece, but then it was a lively trading center where Italians, Germans, Spaniards, and others met and exchanged goods — and ideas. Arts and culture flourished, and new technology was everywhere. Visitors were assured of eating well thanks to the invention of drift nets, which resulted in an abundance of seafood. Followers of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling were filling the city with paintings in a medium new to northern Europe, oils. And the printing press with movable type — the machine on which Johannes Gutenberg had printed his 42-line Bible a couple of decades before—was changing the intellectual life of the city. (Printing on movable metal type was well established in Korea, and information about it could have traveled through the vast Mongol empire to West Asia, and from there to Europe.)
There in Bruges, at a table overlooking a foggy canal, over a meal of mussels and ale, Caxton would discuss the new printed texts with scholars and artists who were arriving from all across Europe. Among those joining him would have been Colard Mansion, a Flemish scribe who printed the first book using copper engravings, as well as the first books in English and French. Also at the table would have been Anthony Woodville, the second Earl Rivers, an English Francophile and translator. Woodville had recently completed a translation of a French text called Dits Moraulx des Philosophes. The book was a compendium of the wisdom of ancient philosophers. Would Caxton have a look at it?
The Englishman set about editing and proofreading the translation. In Bruges, working with Mansion, he mastered the art of printing, and when he returned to England he established a press there, and made Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers the first dated book printed in England.
So it is that the seed of free speech that was planted by followers of Muhammad found fruit at the very inception of bookmaking in England — for, while the French version of Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers was itself a translation from Latin, the English text was in fact a translation of a translation of a translation. The Latin text was a translation of an Arabic text, called Muhtar al hikamwamahasin al kalim (“Choice Maxims and Finest Sayings”),which was written in the eleventh century by Abul Wafa Mubasshir ibn Fatik, an Egyptian emir.
The Islamic world was then and remains today one of the great centers of book production. Arabic calligraphy lends itself to textual decoration, and demand for glorious Qur’ans spurred book arts to unprecedented heights. But another factor was equally important in the flourishing of Islamic bookmaking — its tradition of freedom of speech.
Umar, the second caliph, whose caliphate began just two years after the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, declared that the weak must be allowed to “express themselves freely and without fear.” Subsequent caliphs expanded on Umar’s notion, and established a system of madrasahs, or educational centers, in part to encourage such expression. This system became the explicit model for the concept of academic freedom in European universities.
But freedom of expression is never an easy sell — shifting shape like a djinn, it all too readily assumes the form “You are free to express your agreement with my beliefs.” In the mid seventh century, Umar’s successor, the third caliph, Uthman, established an authoritative Qur’an through the simple expedient of burning competing editions. In the eleventh century, as Abul Wafa Mubasshir ibn Fatik was writing the text that would journey through Latin and French to become the first dated book printed in England, Turkish forces were busy demolishing the Royal Library of the Samanid dynasty in Persia (which contained one of the earliest Qur’ans and other rare books).
Two centuries later, in 1258, the Abbasid dynasty’s great flowering of Islamic scholarship was dealt a harsh blow when Mongol forces besieged Baghdad. The city was then a place of parks, libraries, and book stalls. Its gardens produced fruits and spices. It boasted palaces of marble, jade, and alabaster. A European visitor said that the Tigris ran between the eastern and its western parts of the city “like a string of pearls between two breasts.” But, with the help of Nestorian Christian and Shiite Muslim allies, the Mongols breached the city walls. It is estimated that over the following week of rampage they killed hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents, and they laid waste to many of its buildings and monuments. Among their targets was the Grand Library — known as the House of Wisdom — which was perhaps the greatest repository of historic, scientific, and literary documents of its age. So many of its books were flung into the Tigris that it was said a man could cross the river on horseback over the pile. For six months, it was reported, the waters of the Tigris flowed black from the ink of the books (along with red from the blood of scholars). It was a river of ink.
In an echo of that event Iraq’s national library was burnt following the U. S. invasion in 2003.
Even as Caxton was publishing Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers,Jewish and Islamic literatures were being destroyed in Spain. Of the Spanish auto-da-fé the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine would say, “Where they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn humans.” His observation is recorded on a memorial at the concentration camp at Dachau, so that we will not forget the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s and 1940s (20,000 books were burnt in a single public spectacle in 1933), nor the larger holocaust that followed. Such memorials are important, for tyranny hates memory.
And so Mutanabbi Street starts here — it starts wherever books are made, exchanged, and shared. It starts when we remember the bomb that destroyed part of Baghdad’s historic booksellers row, on March 5, 2007, killing more than thirty people and injuring many more. The intent of the bomber was to prevent the free discussion that books attract. And, to a degree, he was successful. But so long as we do not forget to remember, he will not, in the end, prevail.
Mutanabbi Street is named for Abou-t-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi (915–965), one of the great poets of the Arabic language. Mutanabbi is also renowned for an extraordinary feat of memory—he is said to have memorized the contents of a thirty-folio book in a single reading. Tyrants and bigots like First Emperor Qin Shihuang of China’s Qin dynasty, who was said by the historian Sima Qian to have burnt most of the country’s ancient literature (and buried many of its scholars alive), or the priest Diego de Landa, who destroyed the entire written literature of the Maya people with the exception of four codices, seek to erase cultural memory in order to bask in the eternal sunshine of the cleansed cultural mind. For them, books are a target, because they represent and enable remembering.
Consider the case of Afghanistan’s Taliban, who tried hard to enforce forgetting throughout that unfortunate country. In an effort to erase all trace of the region’s pre-Muslim past they blasted into bits the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, and they smashed artworks and destroyed books wherever they could find them. They destroyed the National Museum in Kabul and shattered most of its contents.
But even as they did their worst, the museum’s staff found a way to hide many prize items, and over the years of Taliban rule they refused to divulge their locations despite intense persecution. Years after the museum had been destroyed, when the Taliban had been driven from power, those artworks were brought forth from their hiding places. The museum itself was rebuilt. The art objects went on a world tour to demonstrate that Afghanistan’s cultural heritage had survived.
Today, in bold Arabic script on a banner above the museum’s entrance, a new motto is written: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” Through his act of remembering, Mutanabbi helped to keep his culture alive. By remembering the poet, Mutanabbi Street did the same. And by remembering Mutanabbi Street, we keep alive the seeds of freedom.
Tom Christensen served as Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief for Mercury House Press for 10 years. He has published more than 20 books as author, editor or translator including the best-seller Like Water for Chocolate (co-translated with Carol Christensen). In 2012 he released a hardback nonﬁction work titled 1616: The World in Motion to much acclaim.Publishers Weekly called Motion one of the ten best history books of the season. His translation of selected poems of José Ángel Valente was released in September, 2013 from Archipelago Press. Since 1999 he has worked as the Director of Creative Services for the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco producing several museum art books a year. His writing has also been published in many magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Playboy, Omni, and Harper’s, as well as in reviews and journals. He is a former member of the National Book Critics Circle. He has a BA, MA, and ABD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.