Poetry students pay homage to victims of Mutanabbi Street Bombings

May 27, 2008 — by Lyka Sethi

When the students of Judith Sutton’s poetry classes think of the conflict in Iraq, they no longer envision bloody bomb blasts and violent terrorist plots; they have come to see the strong cultural background that lies beneath the blanket of oppression and violence taking place in this rich, historical country.

Fourteen students from Sutton’s intermediate classes presented their pieces of poetry as a homage to the Mutanabbi Street Bombings in the Little Theater during April, National Poetry Month, but the project had begun several months earlier.

In December 2007, the students began working on a project that taught them about the Mutanabbi Street bombings, which took place early last year in Baghdad. The street, named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi, served as the heart of intellectualism in Baghdad before being brutally bombed by a Sunni Muslim terrorist. The bombing left 30 people dead and at least 65 wounded. The Iraqis lost their refuge, a place for the fair exchange of ideas, where they could go to escape the terrors that continue to surround them to this day.

“We needed to show the importance of learning, and that the destruction of books means the deterioration of civilization,” said Sutton. “Writing is the center of all great civilizations. It grows where civilization does, and if you stop that growth, you stop the growth of civilization.”

The students in all three levels of poetry were startled by the fact that comforts that are at an arm’s length to them every day were taken away from the people of Baghdad at the blink of an eye.

“Ms. Sutton introduced us to the issue through an article, and our assignment was to express how we felt about it through poetry,” said junior Mara Couch. “Our goal was to spread knowledge of the situation throughout the school.”

The students took a field trip to Villa Montalvo to learn more about the Iraqi culture with the help of in-residence artist Michael Rakowitz. Rakowitz started an ongoing project called “Enemy Kitchen,” for which he invites groups of people to prepare traditional meals to expose them more to Iraqi culture.

“We cooked dishes, looked at Iraqi modern art and saw a temporary model of a tiny Iraqi home built by guest artist Wafaa Bilal on the front lawn of Montalvo,” said Couch. “It helped to inspire us.”

After they got a taste of Iraqi culture and learned about the Mutanabbi Street bombings, the students drew from their knowledge to write personal poems reflecting the bigger picture.

“My goal was to give each poet the opportunity to address a global issue with their personal take on it,” said Sutton. “It’s what great poets do. [The students] didn’t take a political or anti-war viewpoint; rather, they looked at the cultural impact—how the incidents affected the people. We were all very involved in the learning process, and I believe that it changed the students as people.”

Junior Raphael Kung felt that although the issue highlighted the terrorists’ lack of respect for culture, this type of neglect could be connected to America as well.

“The terrorists want to erase the past to create a sort of totalitarian control in Iraq, and they use violence to do this,” said Kung. “And we Americans look down on what was done in Mutanabbi, but everywhere else similar things are happening. Even in America, people are forgetting old values. Culture is changing.”

The students’ different views of the incidents in Iraq showed through in their poems, which were performed as part of their overall presentation. Many English teachers took time out of class to bring their students to the presentations. About three-fourths of the student body was able to watch the panel, and on Sunday, April 20, a public presentation by professional artists and twenty students was held at the Saratoga Public Library.

The leader of the Mutanabbi Street Coalition, (group of artists who perform panels all over the nation), poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil, was in attendance. Beausoleil even took junior Adela Chang’s poem, “Storefront,” to recite at a gathering in Newport Beach. Additionally, the Pleasanton Arts and Poetry Festival awarded it First Place at their 7th annual festival.

The poems were also on display for six weeks at the Saratoga Public Library and the Great Overland Book Company in San Francisco. In the fall, Foothill Press plans to publish the students’ poems, and, hopefully, sections from the panel.

Overall, the assignment was a chance for the students to “peek into the lives of [the Iraqi people] and see that just like us, they write poetry and create art and have a unique set of values,” according to Couch.

She added, “Not everyone [who watched the performance] got something out of it, but a few people I spoke to did, and as long as someone was impacted, we definitely achieved our goal.”