Books are an ocean of knowledge, books are a companion for life. A famous quote by Charles William Eliot says —
Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.
Al-Mutanabbi Street lies at the heart of old Baghdad, between al-Rasheed Street, Baghdad’s other major artery, and the Eastern bank of the Tigris River. It was founded in the 10th century when Baghdad evolved during the Abbasid period as the largest city.. At the time it carried an Aramaic name, Darb Zakha (Zakha alley), and housed shops, outdoor stalls of scribes, booksellers, and stationery vendors as it does today.
The street’s name change to Jāddat Ali Basha (Ali Basha’s Avenue) when the Ottomans occupied the area and housed the military headquarters there. When the country came under the British rule, the street bore the name of Souq al-Saray (al-Saray Market), which is still the name of a famous adjacent stationary market today.
The current name was acquired in the 1930s when King Faisal, the first king of Iraq, decided to choose more culturally and historically laden names for the major streets in Iraq. The old street acquired the famous Abbasid poet’s name, which it still bears today: al-Mutanabbi.
During the weekends, especially on Fridays, Mutanabbi street throbs with pedestrians, including women and children.
Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University says that when the Abbassid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the 8th century, the district surrounding Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops.
The old Arabic proverb “Egyptians write, Lebanese publish, Iraqis read” was especially true until the end of the 1980s, when literacy rates were higher than in some American states. Iraq’s public education system was the pride of the Arab world.
Poets and book readers throng Mutanabbi, a narrow pedestrian street lined with bookstores, publishing and printing houses and even street vendors selling books on everything from the Marxist Soviet Union to cooking. The books are in the Arabic language. You can hardly find a few books in English. Traditional teashops are also there and on side streets. Name the book you’re looking for and it’s said that you will find it in one of the tens of bookstores lining this famous cultural avenue in the heart of Baghdad.
There is an Ottoman castle on Mutanabbi Street. The Ottoman Castle of Baghdad was built in the nineteenth century. The castle is known as “Qishla,” meaning fortified site, or more accurately, a military defense building. Having been half destroyed, the Iraqi government has progressed with the structure’s restoration. The initial planning concept incorporated the restoration of the clock tower, now visible from many points within the old city. Later restoration efforts in the surrounding area included its gardens, antique markets, and significant cultural events.
Mutanabbi Street has always been a hotbed of dissent. Under the long leadership of Saddam Hussein, anti-government cells published and sold illegal copies of their tracts here under fake names.
Shabandar Cafe was opened in 1917, at the beginning of the British occupation of Baghdad. From British rule to modern-day Iraq, The cafe has lived through the birth of a nation, the toppling of its monarchy, decades of domination by Saddam Hussein, the drama of the US-led invasion and the bloody chaos that followed.
College Street is an eminent center of Kolkata’s literary crowd. Its name derives from the presence of many colleges and educational institutions, including Presidency University (established in 1817), the University of Calcutta (established in 1857), Medical College & Hospital (established in 1857), Sanskrit College (established in 1824). This book market is regarded as the Mecca of students who are either in search of a lost edition of an academic bestseller or want a new book that has just released. It’s hard to come out of the market empty-handed.
The College Street is most famous for its small and big bookstores, which gives it the nickname বই পাড়া (Boi Para) or “Neighbourhood of Books”. The street is also dotted with countless very small book kiosks which sell new and old books. An article in the journal Smithsonian described College Street as:
…a half-mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over onto the pavement, carrying first editions, pamphlets, paperbacks in every Indian language, with more than a fair smattering of books in and out of print from France, Germany, Russia and England.
According to Wikipedia, it is the largest second-hand book market in the world and the largest book market in India and collectively boasts of a collection of almost any title ever sold at Kolkata.
In 2007, College Street featured among the famous landmarks of India which have made it to Time Magazine’s “Best of Asia” list. The magazine has mentioned:
Thriving beside the rusted tram tracks of College Street in north Kolkata is the boi para, or “neighborhood of books,” offering the largest mass of secondhand volumes in Asia. Generations of Kolkata’s famous writers and revolutionaries have come of age amid its chaos.
The Indian Coffee House, popularly known as Coffee House, on the College Street is a favourite hang-out place among the students, youth, scholars, editors, artists, and writers. It has been the rendezvous place of many illustrious and notable personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen, and the list goes on. Many talented geniuses have penned down pieces of lyrics, poems, story scripts or exchanged brimming ideas related to the world of art and culture in this cafeteria.
In 1883, the first session of the Indian National Conference was held at the prestigious Albert Hall of College Street that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. College Street has been the hub of Political meetings since 1930s and is witness to many historical political congregations led by iconic Indian leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. College Street has also witnessed the beginning of the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal.
Although far apart, Mutanabbi Street and College Street have striking similarities — some crowd bookstalls on the street, some discuss idealism, some dream revolution; others watch poets reciting to their friends as they sip tea in a coffeehouse.