by Eileen Doughty
An email from a local gallery/library space dropped into my inbox Wednesday. The subject line was "Conversations About Iraq: A Public Art Project by Jeremy Deller". Hmmm, another talking heads event, sitting at little tables looking at slides, I assumed. Skimming down the email, the words "Al-Mutanabbi Street" jolted me. To most Americans they would mean very little, but to me they sum up my emotions about our war in Iraq. They also brought me back to an art quilt I made in 2007.
In March 2007, the booksellers street, al-Mutanabbi (or al-Mutanabi) was bombed by Iraqis. I read an eye-witness account describing flaming pages from books floating above the buildings. Baghdad was once the literary center of the Muslim world, and this street was the very heart of that long tradition, "the nexus of Baghdadi cultural and intellectual life". The explosion killed many people and destroyed shops and businesses. This would not have happened if our war in Iraq had not gone so awry. Even worse, to me, was that it symbolized a sort of suicidal destruction of the love and respect for knowledge and learning; and symbolized the loss of the future for Iraqi children. I could not get that scene out of my mind. The quilt I made is shown with this blog entry.
I read that email again, carefully this time. The event was not some dry academic talk, but was to take place on the National Mall near the Smithsonian Castle. It is touring much of the U.S.; at each city they set up in a public place and invite dialogue about Iraq. One of the participants is Iraqi and experienced much of the war first-hand; another is an American Army reservist who served a tour in Baghdad. With them is a bombed-out car (see photo above and below) from al-Mutanabi Street, transported on a flatbed trailer. Washington, D.C. was to be their first stop, and they were there only one day - the day after I received the email notice - before driving to the next city on their tour.
So Thursday, March 26, I scratched everything else off my calendar and took the Metro downtown. I did not go to the Smithsonian station, but instead planned it so I would walk around the White House. It was a lovely day, with the magnolias starting to bloom and the old elms starting to set their seeds. The Obamas' new vegetable garden and a beehive had been added since my last visit. So beautiful, peaceful, and dignified. (see photo)
It was less than a mile to the designated spot on the mall. About a block away I saw the event's small pop-up tent, and then the mangled, rusty remnants of the car. It had been raining earlier and threatened to start again momentarily, so there were not a lot of people about, just a few hardy tourists, lunchtime joggers, and a school tour group or two. I walked into the tent and introduced myself to the young man who turned out to be the reservist, Jonathan Harvey. I explained that I had a piece of art inspired by al-Mutanabi street with me, that I wanted to show them. As I unrolled my quilt (it is only 22 x 17 inches), his eyes got bigger, and he called for Esam Pasha to come over. As I explained what the quilt meant to me, my feelings about that bombing spilled out and I started to cry.
I have had one other experience with my emotions being almost literally stitched into a quilt: the one I made the day after September 11, 2001. Something about describing these quilts brings up the powerful emotions and thoughts that caused me to make them in the first place, and I find it difficult not to get choked up when showing them to someone. After a few minutes I got control of my voice again. Esam asked me a few questions about the quilt, such as where I got the words for the shops (thank goodness he confirmed that I wrote the Arabic properly). A reporter from the Washington Post, who had been standing nearby, introduced himself and I agreed to be interviewed. (My interview is on page 2 of the article.) A photographer took several pictures of the quilt, and they thanked me for bringing it - it was just the sort of thing they hoped would happen.
The reporter and I then went over to the destroyed car. He asked me what I was thinking. "I hope no one was in it," I said, and he assured me that was the case. Somehow it left me cold - an almost unrecognizable piece of metal, impersonal. It is outside my experience to truly appreciate emotionally, even though I do intellectually.
I saw a group of middle schoolers with a few adult chaperones approach up the walk, no doubt between stops on a tour, no time to waste. Esam walked alongside them, pointing out the car, trying to converse with them. Most averted their eyes. One boy said, "I'll give you three dollars for that car." Oh, to be young and oblivious.
Sometimes, it seems, our quilts take us on adventures that don't end with the last stitch. My feelings about what has happened in Iraq, and the tragedies that have befallen all the generations of Iraqis but mostly the youngest, will continue to be as raw as my quilt's unbound and unraveling edges.
P.S. I read in the last month or so, that al-Mutanabi street is starting to recover. One of the surviving members of a key bookstore there has reopened and is doing well. May it never again be such a terrible sight. -- Eileen Doughty