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Al-Mutanabbi Street: Wartime Literature in the Archives

In midst of war, finding solace seems to be a seemingly impossible task. My father was 34 when he worked as an interpreter for the US Army, trapped in the confines of a nation ravaged by severe conflict. He was away from his family, his wife, his daughter, and all that was familiar or safe. He was no longer merely an Iraqi man—a description that was now met with reactions of either pity or hatred. He shared details of the earlier years of his life sparingly with my sister and I, but perhaps because we asked sparingly. For many like my father, it was hard to find solace, but despite the odds, and despite all the hindrances, a sanctuary emerged in an unexpected place: literature.

People shopping at outdoor market with various tables and stands of books
Outdoor book stand located in Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street, a popular destination for writers, readers, and tourists.

Al-Mutanabbi Street is home to numerous bookshops and stands and is a historic artifact of Baghdad, having been a prime meeting place for intellectual circles in the country since 1932. The street has endured periods of censorship, dictatorship, and war, yet Al-Mutanabbi Street has persisted and been rebuilt time and time again. In the whirlwinds of violence, the street still stood, providing comfort for those who needed to turn their thoughts to places that existed outside of the purgatory of war.

My father and various soldiers he had befriended frequented these shops. The books he read, such as Faulker’s The Sound and The Fury, had little do with his life, and perhaps that was the point. During times of war, it can be easy to lose sight of the experiences that make one human. It is necessary to remind oneself of all the attributes of their personality so as to not lose them, something that may happen when one is made to feel like a pawn or a tool by political and societal forces greater than them.

Literature during wartime has long been a common bestowal, with special editions of certain novels being produced specifically for soldiers. These novels were distributed to improve morale, to entertain the soldiers, and even to spread certain political agendas, such as American ideals. In fact, the Council on Books in Wartime, an American nonprofit composed of booksellers, librarians, publishers, and authors, specialized in the distribution of novels as “tools of war,” hoping to psychologically strengthen soldiers by reinforcing the need to subdue the enemy and remain eager to defend.                 

A first edition copy of Ethan Frome, found in Memorial Library’s Special Collections, happens to be one of these wartime literary pieces. My first objective was to look for discrepancies within the first edition I now had access to and the copy I had read for my AP Literature class in high school. In the library I found the novel’s appearance was inconspicuous, consisting of an original crimson cover that was embossed with nothing but a gold title. The pages lacked garnishes or illustrations and were simply composed of text printed on yellowing yet sturdy pages. Instead of finding any profound discovery regarding a change in word or structure, I was instead led into a vast series of questions after having discovered multiple stamps placed within the pages of the book. Every stamp stated the same words boldly in red ink, “Des Livres Pour Les Soldats, or in English, “Books For Soldiers.”

Stamp placed on the title page of a first edition copy of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

The first-edition novel contained a small sticker labeling the bookstore from which it originated: Brentano’s, located on 37 Av. de l'Opéra in Paris, where it remains to this day. Brentano’s was an American bookstore chain, and its Paris location opened in 1887, closing only during the German occupation of France and being one of the first stores to reopen after the Liberation of Paris. Despite political tensions and challenges, Brentano’s remained, just as Al-Mutanabbi Street did. Brentano’s soon became a hub for American literature in France and was a critical proponent in the distribution of lesser-known works by American authors. Brentano’s was eventually bought by Macmillan, the publishing company of the first-edition Wharton novel I had paged through in Special Collections. It is unclear whether Brentano’s provided the book for a wartime literary movement or if it was brought into possession by the bookstore after it had already been used by a soldier (or stamped as such). Nonetheless, this exact novel comes from a place of great political contention and at a physical intersection of many clashing cultures. The choice to use an American novel from a French bookstore might allude to connections that stemmed from both the US and France siding against a common enemy. The novel may have been a piece of war ordnance from World War I or II.

Brentano’s bookstore at its current Paris location in the modern day.  *English translation of awning: American bookstore - Stationery.

The story of Ethan Frome, however, is not one that is likely to lift spirits for the soldiers of these time periods. Ethan Frome tells the tragically grim narrative of a man’s inescapable and burdensome situation. The protagonist, Ethan, yearns for more within his life, but his attempts to disregard morality and foolishly chase after self-fulfillment ultimately result in his demise. Ethan Frome previously dreamt of leaving his rural, lifeless hometown in pursuit of knowledge of the sciences but was hindered by economic constraints and his role as a caregiver to his ill wife. Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel has long been a literary staple in many English classrooms across the world for its clear usage of symbolism. As many know, the broken pickle dish within the story was never truly just a pickle dish, but a symbol of a disintegrated marriage and Ethan’s affair with his wife’s cousin, as they had both broken the dish. I could not understand why a soldier, dealing with one of the most alienating and appalling experiences of the human experience, would want to indulge in a story about the morose nature of fate. Not only did my discovery of the stamps make me question the historical significance of the wartime supplements, but it made me question the way the audience can alter an interpretation of a text.

While a World War II soldier may not be faced with the same circumstances as the titular character of Ethan Frome, it is perhaps Frome’s sense of loneliness stemming from his unshakeable responsibility that one may identify with. Perhaps it is the depth of his love for Mattie that readers may see themselves in. In a traditional classroom, Frome’s flaws and mistakes are brought to the foreground, but it is the complexity and weakness of his character that may have made the story appealing to a soldier. However, the novel seems to resist becoming a lesson, and perhaps that is the point, instead acting as an account of vulnerability and pain.

The connection that happens between the reader and text is one that cannot always be explained. Despite the novel not being specifically formulated to be read during hardships, comfort could still be found in its complex story, which was perhaps understood by those who decided to stamp it for “Les Soldats. Archives can reveal historical information not only about the creator of a text but about the text’s audience as well. Reading literature is both a social and personal endeavor, and archival research is the embodiment of this duality. A text can be identical but mean something entirely different to two different readers. Regardless of an author’s intentions, their works inevitably grow to become larger than them and subsist beyond their intentions and existence.

Literature can withstand war, disaster, and can continue to speak to audiences long after the author is able to point readers toward a “correct” interpretation. Centers of literature can act as places of peace even during unrest, as demonstrated by the persistence of Brentano’s and Al-Mutanabbi Street. Being able to experience a novel that someone did a century ago is both a unifying and isolating experience, as one grapples with their own biases and experiences and how it affects what they have read. While you may not be able to replicate the exact feelings a soldier, or someone like my father, may have felt while reading a novel, it can unveil pieces of their perspective, transforming the book into something new.



About the author: Sarah Jasim is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin–Madison majoring in English. She is an aspiring writer and has had works published in the Wisconsin Union’s Illumination Journal. When not writing, Sarah spends her time antiquing, reviewing movies, and trying new coffee shops.

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