MUTANABBI STREET, BAGHDAD
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. For many Iraqis, this street — named after Abu al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, a 10th century poet from the Abbasid Caliphate period, who was regarded as one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language — offers a glimpse of hope that Iraq is still home to the Arab intellect.
This ancient street is referred to as the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community as it has been a refuge for writers of all faiths since at least the 10th century. The national library is about a mile away from Mutanabbi Street. Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University says that when the Abbaasid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the 8th century, the district surrounding Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops. There is an old Arab saying:
Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.
Poets, writers, intellectuals, painters and musicians converge on Mutanabbi Street’s smoke-filled traditional coffee shops to display their assets. Street is full of books and behind this counters is shops — with stationery, books, stuffs for office, dried fruits and also cafes.
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. After Hussein’s fall more than a decade ago, dissidents gathered in Mutanabbi Street as successive administrations rose and fell.
COLLEGE STREET, KOLKATA
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), University of Calcutta (established in 1857), Medical College & Hospital (established in 1857), Sanskrit College (established in 1824).
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 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 places 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 1930’s 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!