“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.” —As written by Ian Frazier in the April 25, 2005 issue of the New Yorker, about the Mongols attacking Baghdad on January 29, 1258.
The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.
—Abu al Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (died 965 CE)
“I love books and I think reading is so important in my life, important to culture and education and expanding your world view.” she said, “I make books. I love reading books. I love libraries, everything about books, going to bookstores, sharing stories about books I’ve read. So, I thought, ok, I can do this.” Malden artist Stephanie Mahan Stigliano’s thoughts about her
invitation to participate in Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: An Exhibition of Artist’s Books and Broadsides.
On March 5, 2007, on al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, Iraq, named for the great, tenth-century, Arab poet whose statue stands here, a suicide car bomb exploded in this centuries old book market killing more than 30 people and injuring more than 100, “…leaving a crater more than nine feet deep in the middle of the street, the center of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community,” reported Edward Wong and Wissam A. Habeeb in the March 5, 2007 edition of the New York Times, “There are no Americans or Iraqi politicians here—there are only Iraqi intellectuals who represent themselves and their homeland, plus stationery and book dealers,” said Abdul Baqu Faidhallah, 61, a poet who frequently visits the street. “Those who did this are like savage machines intent on harvesting souls and killing all bright minds.”
Historic, blocks long, al-Mutanabbi Street, known throughout the world, is made up of book sellers, where stalls and tables stacked with books of all types in several languages are published, bought, sold, traded and sought, along with stationery stores, tea houses and cafes that were peaceful meeting places for book lovers and poets. Wong’s and Habeeb’s New York Times report describes the Shahbandar Cafe where “free expressions of political opinion” were expressed and “the cafe became popular with foreign reporters seeking comments from Iraqi intellectuals on the changes roiling Iraqi society.”
In San Francisco, Beau Beausoleil, poet and bookseller, followed reports of the bombing and was disturbed by the lack of response to this violent attack on culture. He gradually gathered broadside printers, book artists, poets, writers, and printers to respond through their art to the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street as a show of support to the Iraqi people as witnesses to the devastation and to all people of all cultures against an attack on freedom of speech. Originally a group of 130 artists, representing the number of people who were killed and injured in 2007, that has doubled to 260, would show work in exhibitions that would travel around the globe and be donated to the Iraq National Library.
In Malden, Stigliano, 56, a college art teacher for 25 years, talked about being invited to participate in this exhibition and how it drew her interest.
“My daughter was a Middle Eastern Studies major at UMass, Amherst, studying Arabic and Turkish and now she’s working in Cairo, [Egypt], teaching in a school, so, I wanted to learn more about the Middle East. This would be a way to connect with her in some respect or at least to value what it was she was learning.” She added, “My great uncle, my father’s uncle, was a Jesuit missionary in Baghdad, Iraq. He was a family legend who taught in the city for many years in the ’50s and ’60s.”
She was also influenced by Nousa and Amira, two sisters from Morocco, who owned and cooked at their restaurant, Moroccan Hospitality, when it was located on Salem Street in Malden. There, with her family she learned about a new cuisine and culture. “We really liked to go there. There’s quite a large Moroccan population in Malden.” She began to see that people from other parts of the world were more like her than not. “They were not ‘them,’ they were really ‘us.’” “They were educated, interesting, gracious and very good cooks.” She learned about Moroccan tea from them and created an edition of prints of her daughter, Angela, serving mint tea and dressed in classic Moroccan attire, called “Moroccan Tea,” and presented one to the sisters.
Another print of “Moroccan Tea” was given to Souad Akib, President of the American Association for Arab Women who Stigliano had met previously at a Window Arts Malden event. Akib, also a Malden resident, agreed to write a letter for Stephanie to the Somerville Arts Council in support of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here exhibit that would be shown at the Cambridge Cultural Council gallery.
Stigliano describes her piece, Looking Backward shown in the Cambridge gallery and displayed on the cover of the July/August 2013 issue of Art New England. “It’s an altered book full of postcards that I stitched together so when the book opens the postcards explode. It looks like it’s flying apart and there are things coming out of the book like feathers, stamps and torn paper.”
“To honor those people who died for free speech I approached it on a very personal level. I used old postcards from my family and printed over them and stitched them together and made them in this piece that looked like an exploding bomb, but, they were based on something that was like a family history.” Her artist’s statement in part reads, “In the aftermath of violence, one does not immediately note all that is lost. Over time, as pieces of life are reassembled, little by little, one notices more that is missing. Sometimes pieces fit together, sometimes not. Regardless of how we feel, time passes…
These postcards are relics representing now lost, forgotten connections; a handwritten message sent and received. I am here and saying hello to you over there. In a civilized world, we trust in this connection. When major written works are lost, even minor ones take on greater significance.”
“By showing the work it’s spreading the awareness and there are a lot of people out there, people from the Middle East who are very moved by this project. People who support the Middle East Muslims who live here and feel marginalized. Just to see some beautiful artwork made by a contemporary American that values the history of the Middle East and an important figure like al-Mutanabbi. It really validates them. The project is not overtly political but, I think, that when any timely comment on a violent act that happens here or somewhere else in the public sphere you’re verging on political because you’re outside your comfort zone. It’s important to spread the knowledge and heighten awareness of things that happen like this as they continue to unfold in Nigeria, Paris or Pakistan, wherever there’s violence infringing on freedom of speech.”
After the exhibit, Beau Beausoleil asked Stigliano to become one of the now six coordinators in the United States, the East Coast Coordinator for the exhibition, “Absence and Presence: A Printmaking Response to the Bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street where she would gather artist colleagues, friends and her students to participate.
“The process of printmaking as multiples makes art more affordable and easier to get out into the world, it sends out a message to more people. The magic of it is all these different voices giving a poetic response, a visual response to this idea and most people, myself included, really struggled with it because most of the people I asked to participate are not political artists or they don’t consider themselves political artists.
“People really wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “They were honored to be a part of it and I think it really changed the way they looked at their own work. It was helpful to them to do something meaningful in the political sphere without it being propaganda.”
She talked about her process in creating art for the show. “It was hard. I didn’t know what to do but then I was thinking about how I loved reading as a child and how my children did also, it was really important. When my daughter read to my son when they were sitting on the couch and that was so heartwarming to see them sharing an experience and the older one teaching the younger one. I had my friend’s daughter sit on the couch and one read to the other. I did some drawings from that. I did that as a positive image and then I printed in the opposite as a negative image and had them side by side, as if, here is what you hope for and here’s what will happen if there aren’t any books; if we don’t encourage reading, education, literacy, access to books.”
Stigliano reflects on the experience: “Because of this project I feel more connected to places and people far away, that they’re not that different from us. They might speak a different language, they might have a different culture, but, at heart they value the same things we do and to bridge that gap, that perception, of what the other person is and to find out, they are us and we are really just human beings and we share the same planet. We might have a different religion, they might wear different clothes, they might eat different food but they still value education, family as the things that are important.”
The artist concludes: “It’s something that I wouldn’t have known anything about and now I feel connected to faraway places and faraway people.”