Here’s a taster of The Mosaic Rooms’ new book, Mogadishu - Lost Moderns, by Rashid Ali and Andrew Cross


Foreword, by Omar Al-Qattan

‘Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of their faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.’1 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, pp 30-31

The Mosaic Rooms are delighted to present Mogadishu - Lost Moderns, as part of Disappearing Cities of the Arab World, an ambitious cultural programme of exhibitions, talks and screening vcxzs, focused on the destruction of Arab urban life in the post-colonial age.

The city is the space where civic life becomes possible; where the tribal, ethnic or confessional divisions of the peoples who settle in it can potentially dissolve and mutate into unfamiliar forms of social order governed by new rules and customs. The city is also a centre of resistance to the invader and of rebellion against injustice. In it also lovers will meet anonymously, discovering new spaces in the imagination that would have been unthinkable in the countryside or desert, and developing new kinds of relationships. The city transforms our perceptions of childhood; our experiences of light and sound, of space and perspective, and of the past, present and future.

But cities are also great betrayers of their own inhabitants, repositories of vermin and dirt and pollution, as well as theatres of chaos, civil war and massacre. In the contemporary Arab world, cities have often been profoundly deceitful—promising lawfulness, peace, equality and freedom only to turn into prisons and traps for the unsuspecting citizen, who is often chased out from them or persecuted for the language he speaks or the God she worships (or indeed the one she repudiates).

Jaffa, Beirut, Lydd, Baghdad, Cairo, Aleppo, Homs, Tripoli (Libya and Lebanon), Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Mogadishu—these cities have, to varying degrees of course, undergone terrible destruction and violence in the post-colonial age, bearing witness to what can only be described as a failure of the civic project. Other cities are tragically promised similar fates…

Our programme explores the histories and consequences of this failure through art, architecture, literature, music and cinema. Far from a merely academic or nostalgic reflection on the processes that have led to this failure, we examine how the inhabitants of modern-day Arab cities have continued to resist the breakdown or destruction of their environments through civic projects or artistic expression—or simply through an improbable love affair!

The Programme opened in Spring 2013 with Dor Guez’s show 40 DAYS, focussed on the remaining Palestinian minority in the previously Palestiniancity of Lydd, almost completely depopulated in the 1948 war by the invading Israeli forces. Earlier in 2014, we featured two exhibitions on Baghdad, including a homage to its cultural hub at Al-Mutanabbi Street, which was devastated by a bomb in 2007. Spring 2014 hosted Mogadishu-Lost Moderns an exhibition looking at the past, present, and potential future of the Somali capital city.Other talks, lectures and readings within this programme will attempt to throw light on the continuing tragedies tearing apart the region’s societies where they are most intensely gathered: in the urban space.

This book accompanies The Mosaic Rooms’ current exhibition Mogadishu - Lost Moderns (on show until 26 April 2014). Find out about the exhibition here.

Buy the book in The Mosaic Rooms online bookshop here.

Q&A with photographer and filmmaker Andrew Cross, currently on show in The Mosaic Rooms’ exhibition Mogadishu – Lost Moderns (open until 26 April 2014)


Q1/ Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you work / your approach to photography?

Actually, this is not an easy question to answer. I came to photography both early and late!?! I grew up with my father being an avid ‘amateur’ photographer and although I had my own camera from a fairly young age, I did not establish my own photographic practice as such until after studying fine art painting and working for a number of years as a gallery curator.

I sometimes describe my approach as ‘looking around corners’. In other words, I do not look at things head-on as it were, but in a manner that suggests there is also something unseen out of view that might in fact be the true subject of the work. This I believe is very much how we experience architecture.


Q2/ These photographic works, specially commissioned by The Mosaic Rooms, were taken in the summer of 2013 during your trip to Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital city), with Somali-British architect Rashid Ali. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you faced whilst photographing there?

For a multitude of reasons, many far to complex to explain here, my visit to Mogadishu was both intense and profound. What has to be recognised is that this was the first time I have been to Africa and certainly the first time I’ve visited what might be described as a ‘conflict-zone’. Not that these facts themselves were necessarily the most challenging aspects of my trip. Firstly I was made to feel very welcome and was looked after well by Rashid and his generous friends in Mogadishu. This was a very different way of working for me. I usually work alone often in remote locations and after considerable research and planning. To some extent I was working ‘blind’ and having to respond very quickly to what was in front of me. This was hard work in itself but very exciting. I was working perhaps much more in the manner of a ‘photo-journalist’, something I wouldn’t usually consider myself. This was very satisfying. Also I generally don’t ‘do people’ (and deal more with their traces). In Mogadishu, even though we were visiting sites mostly cordoned off from the general public, I did not have the luxury of being able to leave people out of the images. I am now so pleased this was something I had no choice but to confront.

Otherwise, my programme was very limited on a number of counts. Access to sites was limited, my ‘security’ was not always available, and I physically could not be out in the sun for more than 2-3 hours max. I therefore had to work very fast and was in the hotel for the rest of the time. Fortunately, not only could I relax watching the Tour de France but I was able to shoot video from my hotel room window, something that allowed yet another way of observing the city. Despite the frenetic nature of life on Mogadishu’s streets the ‘slow’ contemplative nature of these films is very much ‘my thing’..!


Q3/ What do you hope these photographs will tell us about Mogadishu?

My visit to Mogadishu confirmed for me the social potential of architecture and I hope my pictures help people recognise this potential in the context of situations like Mogadishu today. I would like to refer to a quote by Nietzsche I recently came across. “Of what use, then, is the monumentalistic conception of the past, to the man of the present? He learns from it that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again.”

To find out more, join Andrew Cross in conversation with Michaela Crimmin and Eugenie Dolberg, at As Seen from Here (26 March, 7pm at The Mosaic Rooms),

Guest Blogger: Ammar Haj Ahmad

#3 A Jigsaw Puzzle in Abu Nuwas’ Hands

by Ammar Haj Ahmad


Before the invention of the CD:

It is the second week of February and Valentine’s Day. In my hometown, people used to have different ways of dealing with this occasion. Some of them thought it was just a pretentious way to imitate western society, and others tried to find red clothes in their wardrobe to have ready to wear on the day. Some cassette shops, before the CD was invented, used to play love songs very loudly; most were really cheesy, but I liked them. And of course some people thought that the celebration of Valentine’s Day was completely forbidden and haram. What was really interesting and funny at the same time is that lots of young ‘lovers’ used to give what we, individually, thought of as the most unique present, but unfortunately was the most clichéd: a cassette of songs, which were the same on all the cassettes gifted on Valentine’s Day, as if Cupid’s bow and arrow were replaced that week by a sack like Santa’s, dropping hundreds of copies of the same cassette all over town.


The songs were: ‘Lady’ by Kenny Rogers and his shining armour, ‘Please Forgive Me’ by Bryan Adams, even if no problem existed between the couple to make the giver beg for forgiveness, and by the same singer ‘Everything I Do, I Do It for You,’ and the ‘everything’ the guy does is to walk less than 1km to stand on the veranda of his lover risking the parents’ or the neighbours’ reaction, or in front of the school so he can say ‘hi’. You would also find on the cassette ‘Careless Whispers’ by George Michael, though I have no idea where on earth someone can whisper in the ear of their lover in my hometown. But the best one among them all was ‘Last Christmas’ also by George Michael, although it was February and Christmas was so far away. Above all, I always appreciated what most of my people used to say: ‘We don’t need Valentine’s Day, love should be there all the time, not on a specific day only.’ And yes, love was there always… at weddings and funerals, through success and failure, fights and peace. I don’t remember a day when my mother didn’t share some of our meal with our neighbours, and they, of course, used to do the same. Love was always there, Valentine’s Day or not.


To be on stage drunk on cranberry juice and a poem:


The wheels of the rehearsals began to spin in Fez, Morocco. It was ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ a play scheduled to be performed in Toronto in the summer of that year. Tim Supple, the director of the play, asked me to play Abu Nuwas, the poet famous for the ribald humour of his Mojoniyyat or “Obscene Poems”. I was terrified as Abu Nuwas is without a doubt one of the hardest characters to play on stage in a six-hour long show. Abu Nuwas was one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable poets of his time, in Iraq and ‘Bilad al-Sham’ (the Levant). He was known as the poet who took the Bedouin cloak off the Arabic poem and replaced it with an urban style. He always enjoyed shocking his society under the Abbasid caliphate, by writing openly about cultural and religious taboos.


I went to Tim after the rehearsal that day and asked him to give me a different role. I was so serious, which drove him to say one sentence only: ‘If you don’t trust yourself, trust me!’ Working on Abu Nuwas and getting to know him better was such a fascinating process, especially when listening to the great Lebanese singer Fairouz singing with her captivating voice one of his beautiful poems:


The lover is burdened with love

But singing makes him feel light


He is right to cry

For his love is dead serious


Yet you laugh playfully

While he cries his eyes out


You wonder at my sickness?!

It is my good health that is surprising!


For every time one reason for my sorrow is allayed

You replace it with another!


When he speaks about love, the smooth rhythm of his short poems suggests he took a sip of his wine before effortlessly writing each verse. With Harun Al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Abu Nuwas was like the fool in Shakespeare’s plays – the smart one, and the one who, regardless of the eminence of the ruler, tells it to him like it is. Abu Nuwas was the voice of the people outside the gates of the palace. Even Al-Ma’moun had no tolerance for him and imprisoned him a few times. In love, Abu Nuwas was the same; he spoke clearly and openly of all the feelings he endured, without placing any boundaries or limits on their expression, unafraid of the opinion of society or rulers.


Each day, during the rehearsals, and although the bottle of wine was filled with cranberry juice, the experience of playing this great poet was pure joy.




So, in that week in February, I didn’t want to give her a cassette with the throaty voice of Bryan Adams on it, or ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie with his existential question: ‘Is it me, you’re looking for?’ which goes beyond Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’. I wanted to give her something different, something that suited what I think Valentine’s Day is all about, to tell her that I’m the one and only for her, as she is for me. My hometown was one of two cities in Syria where girls and boys were allowed to study together. I went to our school early on that day many years ago, and rushed to her classroom with a plastic bag filled with beautiful white jasmines I had stolen the day before from the garden surrounding the neighbourhood’s Ba’ath party office. I put all the jasmines in her desk with a poem by Abu Nuwas in which he says:


Tell the one with the seductive glance

Yet surly face


The one whose beauty turns

Our hearts necks!


A single word of greeting

Appeases us


So for the sake of Christ’s soul

And in the name of the Cross


Stop for a second if you pass by

And greet us, O my love!


I was so excited thinking of the expression on her face when she found her present. But she didn’t show up, and I waited until nobody in her class was left in school. I couldn’t wait until the next day, but as soon as she saw me, she came over with a grin on her face, stretching out her arm and giving me back the poem, saying: ‘Ammar, Abu Nuwas wrote this poem to a boy, not a girl! Thanks anyway!’ She said that with complete confidence, leaving me drowning in a vast sea of frustration.


Around fifteen years later, this story made me laugh before going on stage in Toronto for the premier of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, because I didn’t know at the time of that unforgettable Valentine’s Day that Abu Nuwas, besides writing about his love of women, hunting, drinking and knowledge, also wrote about his love of young boys. Taha Hussein, one of the most influential 20th century Egyptian writers, tells us that men’s love of boys was not expressed in Arabic poetry before the Abbasid era, so even in this Abu Nuwas was original.


Q&A with Ilan Pappé, Israeli historian, socialist activist and author


© Photo: Paula Geraghty

Q1/ You are currently launching your new title: 'The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge', can you briefly summarise what this title examines and tell us how you came to write this book? 

Israel is the only state in the world that is still obliged to brand itself domestically and internationally as a valid entity and which strives to convince itself and others that its narrative of how and why it was born is the only possible and truthful version of events.  This branding effort appears in the work of scholars as well as that of filmmakers. The narrative thus is presented as both a scientific truth and as a fictional plot. The book follows this branding through the efforts in the 1990s,  inside the state, to challenge its validity and morality and examines the failure of this challenge in recent years and describes its move to the outside world.

The book was written out of my ongoing interest in two themes: the history of Israel and Palestine on the one hand, and the relationship between power and knowledge on the other. The need of Israelis to prove their valid claims through scientific research as well as movie plots is a fascinating case in the history of knowledge production in the Western world. Focusing on this aspect also explains where today is the main struggle against Israel and Zionism: in the field of narration, historiography and moral debates. While Israel had the upper hand militarily and maybe diplomatically, in this area it is losing the moral ground rapidly and ominously for the Jewish State.


Q2/ How does this title differ/or build upon your other work or other books on this subject?  

I was involved directly in the challenge I describe above both in books I have written such as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and have also written about my particular part of the struggle in Out of the Frame.  It is time now to take stock and view the process so far.

Q3/ Can you tell us a bit about the process you went through when writing this title?

I have been working for five years on this book, but the main push came when Israel began the campaign Brand Israel in 2005. Suddenly I understood what I was looking for. Only when I finished the book, I realized how topical it became when the government of Israel declared that the campaign of ‘delegitimisation’ of the state is more dangerous to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat.

The book also became a tribute to Edward Said who wrote in 1982 that the Palestinians have a permission to narrate their own version in their liberation struggle for their rights and self-determination. The ‘permission’ had been taken and the results can be seen vividly today.

Q4/ Has the novel had the kind of response that you expected it to have? 

Too early to judge. But you can see the beginnings of reactions in my facebook pages here.

Join Ilan Pappé at The Mosaic Rooms 7pm, 26 February 2014, for the launch of 'The Idea of Israel: A history of power and knowledge'. Find out more here.

Guest Blogger: Ammar Haj Ahmad

#2 The Expired Time Machine

by Ammar Haj Ahmad


Tiny house, Big Home

When you’re the youngest child in a big family, you do everything to get the attention that you think you need, from absolutely everybody. You cry easily if you don’t have your own glass of tea when the whole family are having theirs. I call it a ‘glass’ because that’s how we drink tea in Syria, in tiny beautiful glasses in which we pour the tea from a giant stainless-steel pot. You try your best to get involved and have an opinion on everything. You also want to learn about all the football players in the World Cup, so you can loudly recite their names like a live commentator while your older brothers are watching the match, so that they in turn can be amazed by your talent! You play, for no apparent reason, the role of the lonely child, sitting apart in the room next door, waiting for someone to call you over, even if it takes ages for the call to come! And that is exactly how I was.

But in spite of all the family activities into which I tried to poke my nose, there was one thing, only one, in which I could not participate until I became 11 years old. Before that age, I would only be allowed to listen with a vivid desire to one day be allowed to partake of this activity, for it was a terrific thing for a family, full of music, words, speech, performance, reading, reciting, gathering, tenderness, love, beauty, laughter, competing voices, soulful throats AND tea.  It was the “poetry competition” game, in which only classical Arabic poetry was admissible! These were the rules: one member of the family begins with a verse of a poem.; the rest of the family then need to find another verse which begins with the last letter with which the previous verse ended. And for a big working-class family, it was easy for us to form at least two or three teams. It didn’t cost anything and all you needed was a good knowledge of poetry and a sense of its musicality. It was a cheap yet incredibly rich game. The rounds went on for hours and there I sat listening to hundreds of beautiful verses of poetry, heavy lines describing wisdom, courageous words on generosity, and so many poems on unconditional, crazy love. Of course it is a technical game in a way as well, for you have to be able to remember as many verses as possible so you can readily find a verse that begins with the appropriate letter. And I always wanted to be a contender but my sources in those very early years were limited to what I heard from the family during the game, and it is of course a sort of nonsense to repeat literally what others are saying.


High Marks for a Love Poem

It is the time where I have to fill my soul and mind with poetry, love and DRAMA. I am a student in the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, the old city with its incomparable ancient smell and brilliant beauty. It was only recently that I had taken part for the last time in the family poetry competition. And in the library of the Institute, the words of a beautiful piece of writing just landed in my hands. And I read:

To your eyes, your two planets That pour light into my own;
To the two dry springs that, like destiny
Never quench the thirst of the lost;

To your eyes, a heart sings out
That same heart that never stops bleeding;

Oh how the tongue that calls out for you
Wishes that its call should melt on its palate!

And I continued reading until the end! Here was a poem by Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab, entitled Whims, where he merges the classical way of writing poetry with modern free verse.

Al-Sayyab was one of the pioneers of Arabic modernism, alongside Nazek Al-Malaekah, Shazel Taqa and Abdul Wahab Al-Bayyati. Not only did he change the rules of classical Iraqi poetry, but of the entire Arab world. Al-Sayyab died in his thirties in bed, after experiencing a long illness, poverty and many one-sided-love affairs, which pushed him cruelly to his own solitude, and to his paper and pen. To quench the drought in his life, and allay his frustration at the lack of love and money, his poems are like strangled cries, to other countries and other people, filled with pain and despair.

When I read this poem, I decided to perform it in my elocution exam, for which I eventually got a high mark!


A Bow and Arrow with an Inaccurate Aim!

The curve of Regent Street in London is, for me, one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture I have ever seen. As you stand in the middle of it, you don’t know that it is going to open up to the beautiful Cupid with his bow and arrow standing on one leg in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Looking up at this curve, you feel the timelessness of people’s movement, and you might for a second experience it as a river that has been turned upside down, the sky as its water. You experience for a second the contradiction between being surrounded by thousands of people, shops, flowers, buses black cabs, weirdos with cartoon-character costumes etc… and the fact that you are alone, where nostalgia unfolds its pages of longing, and walks shoulder to shoulder and step by step alongside you and all your memories, the memories of the footballers and the World Cup, the verses of poetry with the voices of the family members and the “poetry competitions”, the tea, the skill of pretending to be upset for no apparent reason the unconditional motherly love, Damascus and acting schools and my moments of failure, love and its betrayals when we become so clumsy if we’re happy and unbearable divas if we’re not. And of course this all leads to the lines of Al-Sayyab, knocking on the door of my longing to join me on my walk here in Regent Street:

A rupture already? 
Before we have even finished our glasses?

Did you break them,
Before we even got drunk?

A rupture already, when Spring’s dew
Is still falling on a greenish summer?

A rupture? Will you prevent the eye
From looking when a light shimmers?

And do you plan to stop the reflection of my imagination,
Rising from the river, from flowing?[i]

I was standing there in front of Cupid, tourists taking pictures in his presence. I was staring at his arrow, which never worked with many people, people like Van Gogh or Sarah Kane! Here I was again, the child with the same voice and his own glass of tea, blaming Cupid and his mother Venus, that they never visited Al-Sayyab during his short life. And thinking to myself: will my family, with our growing number of nephews and nieces (and there are many of them), ever gather again to play that game? This time, I will have my own tea glass and I will read to them not only one verse of Al-Sayyab’s poem but all of it!

Don’t miss ‘Poetry from Iraq' (7pm, 20 February at The Mosaic Rooms) an evening of discussions, readings and screenings, chaired by Ammar Haj Ahmad.

[i] Both quotations are from Ahwa’ (Whims) by Bader Shaker Al-Sayyab

Guest Blogger: Ammar Haj Ahmad



by Ammar Haj Ahmad

It was the summer of 1998. I was excitedly packing my bag to go to Homs, travelling from my home town by the Euphrates river. The river is also known as Furat in Arabic and the adjective Furati is ascribed to every one who lives by or drinks from the waters of al-Furat in Syria and Iraq. I could not wait to meet Lara in the students’ poetry competition in Homs. Lara was 18 and I was 16. I had met her earlier that year in Aleppo where I attended another competition and three days was enough for me to know that I had found the love of my life. Of course, why not think that way? For me at that time everything outside my tiny hometown was international and mysterious…and to meet a girl from a different city and to fall in love was a triumph!

I arrived in Homs with my ripped “Adibas” bag, a rubbish copy of Adidas…that black Adibas bag was the same one I used when I went fishing, played basketball and most importantly when my friends and I went camping 100 or so feet away from our neighborhood.

I fetched the keys from the reception of the campus and I ran to my room, or rather our room, as we were three students from different cities in the same space. I put on some cheap deodorant, stowed my bag away, and walked quickly, each step the size of three. I looked for new comers to the competition. Some I knew, others were unknown to me. I still remember my outfit, how could I forget it?! We used to think that we were the best writers in the whole world: all the guys had the same Che-Guevara-Bonnet without a star, and a long scarf around the neck, hoping to grow a beard soon and have a pipe and the girls, all of them, didn’t like make up and loved to look sad!

“Lara is not coming” one of the ‘future-poets’ told me, without looking into my eyes, as if he wanted to exploit the moment for poetic purposes. I tried to digest or at least understand this brief piece of news that my friend had poured into me like boiling oil. It was only for a short time, a glimpse, before a girl broke the moment running in to tell us that Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayyati, the great Iraqi poet, was going to give us a two-part lecture on how to refine and polish our writing.

“This is absolutely insane! The timing is unbelievable!” I thought as not only had I never dreamt of meeting the great man in person, but the last letter I had sent to Lara was not actually a letter but a poem that Al-Bayyati had written to a girl also named Lara, which expressed my feelings towards ‘my’ Lara. At that moment one decision remained flapping its wings around my head: whether or not to travel back to my hometown, as I was simply terrified. But also how to find Lara and ask her where she was? I had no cellphone or phone-booth to call her from. Me, the sixteen-year old, Adibas poet! During this moment (which at the time I experienced as pure suffering) a fragment of Al-Bayyati’s poem burst through my head like an arrow:

I am exiled to my memory,
Imprisoned in my own words
I wander aimlessly under the rain and shout: Lara!
And the terrified wind responds: “Lara!”

In the Al-Hambra Palace,
In the rooms of the King’s fair harem,
I hear an Oriental ‘oud and the crying of a gazelle.

Awed, I approach the Arabic letters plaited with a thousand flowers.
I hear moaning,
Lara, is under the seven moons and the shining light,
She invites me to bring my face closer to hers. I cry feverishly
But a hand stretches out and throws me into a well of darkness,
Leaving behind on the carpet my harp and a ray of light from a dead morning…) 

“She did not leave her address” the manager of the theatre said,
Speaking tortuously.

As a sixteen year old it was fascinating for me to grasp this specific understanding of love, the ‘Furati’ one, where love is a tsunami that threatens to completely destroy life or create paradise and turn everything into utter happiness. In this vision, emotions are described openly and courageously, embracing the vulnerability of the Furati Lover.

Al-Bayyati was one of four Iraqi poets, along with Nazek Almlaekah, Bader Shaker Al-Sayyab and Shazel Taqah, whose work challenged the rules of the classical Arabic poem to create free verse inspired by the measures and music of images, rather than the conventional metres of classical Arabic poetry (known as bouhour). This approach creates imagery without boundaries or borders and gives the poet a stellar canvas to paint on with a brush made out of a planet or two!

In this poem, I am born then I am burned, dedicated to Lara, Al-Bayyati does exactly that, through the repetitive engine of words like crying, looking, suffering, dying, begging, losing, running without direction. He allows his vulnerability to be exposed in front of the lover, escaping the traditional image of the man, replacing strength with courage. By allowing his soul to speak freely, he paints the true colours of the human spirit.

Did I have similar feelings towards ‘my’ Lara? Did I feel the same rushing to Homs to see her, and then deciding just as quickly to go back to my hometown because I wanted to escape the tragedy of her failure to show up?

That meeting with Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayyati took place just a few months before he passed away. I learned a lot from him, especially how to write freely, yet with authenticity. I never told him about Lara. The overwhelmed, scared, weak and insecure teenager inside me kept everything to himself.

It is almost sixteen years since this story took place.

I never heard from Lara after that.

And now while I’m here in London, nearly half of Homs has been destroyed.

Only the poem is alive and dynamic, like water.

Ammar Haj Ahmad is a Syrian actor and poet based in London.

©Ammar Haj Ahmad and A.M. Qattan Foundation, 2014

The Mosaic Rooms’ Valentines Day Supper Club With Lamees Ibrahim - Menu


Q&A with Amir Mousawi, Director of AMBS architects

Amir Mousawi will be in conversation with Marcos De Andres and Edwin Heathcote at The Mosaic Rooms on Thursday 6 February, 7pm. They will discuss the importance of the designs for the New Baghdad Library, the challenges facing them, as well as the implications of the building in establishing a new platform for Iraq’s cultural future. More information.


Q1/ Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work at AMBS architects?

AMBS Architects was founded in 1996 by my father Ali Mousawi and 2006 was joined by Marcos De Andres and myself. Working together has  allowed us to take on more ambitious, high profile projects like the Baghdad Library and the project management of the Basra Sports City. We now have a great team of 60 employees in London, Baghdad and Basra. We are involved in every stage of the architectural process, guiding and overseeing the design teams from initial conception to design completion and project management.

Before this I worked as a project architect in northern Iraq, before setting up a London-based design practice with Marcos De Andres. Marcos studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture and has previously worked with Fosters and Partners, Make and Californian practice Morphosis, while Ali has over forty years of architecture, consultancy and planning experience in Iraq and the UK. So our approach combines our expertise in technology and understanding of the importance of cultural heritage.

Q2/ AMBS architects are currently designing the first public library to be constructed in Baghdad since the 1970, can you briefly tell us about this project?

The design was shaped by questioning role of the public library today and what it could mean for somewhere like Baghdad. The Library is organised to encourage and empower intellectual and creative exchange. The library will be very modern; it won’t simply be a place to find books, but a freely accessible place of knowledge. It will be a social place where young people can come together and share ideas with one another and the rest of the world through digital technology, the internet and social media as well as giving access to a collection of over three million books along with rare manuscripts and periodicals.

Functionality, intuitive organisation, and rational user-friendly design were all key concepts that shaped the building from the inside out. We aimed to create a visibly energy efficient building so that the structure will educate visitors, through the integration of solar panels into the roof, and subtly through the building’s mass, form and orientation. This is part of our wider commitment to minimising environmental impact, optimising energy efficiency, and working towards a truly sustainable future where Iraq’s economy is not solely dependent on oil. The practical and cultural importance of light is demonstrated through an encrypted message in the design of the roof that forms the word ‘read’ written in Arabic calligraphy, which is documented as the first word spoken from God to the prophet in the Qur’an.


Q3/ Can you explain why the library project is so important/significant for Baghdad?

There is a vacuum of knowledge in Iraq; years of embargo and occupation have done a lot of damage to the knowledge infrastructure, so it’s important to everyone that the library project materialises – it’s important to build. Iraq desperately needs it. The country has been kept isolated from the world and from modern technology. For Iraq’s younger generations, who have been surrounded by violence, there has few opportunities for work or further education. Our vision is to bring hope back to the young people, to build them a new cultural centre where they can express their talent and ideas. It’s time Baghdad, and Iraq, had new public institutions that reflect the ambitions of its’ people.

I DARE YOU is my hymn to each and every page, person, symbol, codex, mural, tapestry, scroll, carving and oral account throughout history that has been banned, shamed, destroyed or subverted. Each collaged image is a surviving piece of a work or a culture or a tradition whose destruction was attempted or achieved. Somehow, always, these pieces survive or are remade.

The cities and dates spoken in the film are sites at which books were burned or otherwise destroyed throughout known history. I wanted to not only link them, but to point out that these attempts are not ends. That such targeted works and ideas do in fact continue on, even if they take different forms.

So, destroy this book. Drown it. Question its legitimacy, relevancy, need. Strike a match and light this book aflame.

[Made for the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project by Stephanie Sauer]

Q&A with Beau Beausoleil, poet, bookseller and founder of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project


Q1/ Can you briefly tell us how the Al-Mutanabbi Street project came about and what its purpose is?


On 5 March 2007 a car bomb was exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, Iraq, the street of booksellers and the center of the city’s literary community. In one moment of the history of this busy street of shops, outdoor bookstalls and cafes, more than 30 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded.

In San Francisco, I read about the explosion in my morning newspaper. I was shocked that a community focused on the printed page, and the sharing of knowledge had been so mercilessly attacked. As a poet and bookseller I recognized immediately that if I were an Iraqi my bookshop would have been on this street and as a poet this would have been my cultural community that was attacked. The enforced governmental/media “distance” between myself and the Iraqi people suddenly dropped away.

My protest began with a call to poets, printers, writers and artists who value freedom of expression in the printed page. This grew into the Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadside Project and in a few months we had 43 broadsides and held our first exhibit and readings.

After some thought I decided to continue the project past 2008 and sought out a co-coordinator in the UK. I found a superb one in Sarah Bodman (in September of 2008), a professor at the Centre for Fine Print Research, UWE Bristol. Our goal was 130 letterpress printed broadsides created by writers and artists; 130 to mark the dead and wounded and to raise awareness of, and discussion about, what was lost on the street that day.

Artists, writers and staff at institutions have joined in around the world, organizing events and exhibitions of broadsides, and artists’ books with readings, talks and panel discussion events that have raised over five thousand pounds for Medecins Sans Frontieres.

In 2010 I proposed an artists’ book call as a response to the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street and Sarah Bodman joined me once again as co-coordinator. For the next three years we worked towards finding 260 book artists to produce 3 books each dedicated to al-Mutanabbi Street. We achieved our goal of 260 book artists in June of 2013.

An anthology of writing, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here , has been recently published (2012) by PM Press in the US, and a complete set of 130 broadsides was welcomed by the Director of the Baghdad National Library, Dr. Saad Eskander, and is now part of their permanent collection.


Sarah Bodman and the artists, printers, and writers, that have joined the project from the UK have been one of the main reasons that the project has expanded its reach into Europe and the Middle East.

Q2/ The project has been going since 2007, can you describe any highlights/turning points?


One of the highlights has simply been the response that we have had from artists in over 20 different countries who have contributed work in response to the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street. Between the writers in our anthology, the letterpress printers in our broadside project, the book artists in our artists’ book project, and now the printmakers in our printmaking project, we have a total of about 500 writers and artists participating in our project. The publication of our anthology, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Herein 2012 was an exceptional moment.  


Another highlight is the support and encouragement of Dr. Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraq National Library in Baghdad. Last year the National Library welcomed a complete set of our broadsides into the permanent collection of the Library.


The joint exhibit Threads of Light  // Al Mutanabbi Starts Here at the Mosaic Rooms marks another important milestone in the history of our project since this is the first time that we have exhibited with an Iraqi artist, the incomparable, Hanoos Hanoos.  



Also our upcoming exhibit at the American University in Cairo (opening 5 March, 2014) is important in that this will be our first exhibit in the Middle East. I hope there are more to follow.

Q3/ What are your plans/hopes for the future of the project?

I hope the project will earn the respect and trust of the cultural community of Iraq, and in other countries in the MENA region. I hope the time comes when the artists and writers of our project can work freely with writers and artists in the Middle East and North Africa. I hope our project will inspire exhibit goers in the West to see that the values of al-Mutanabbi Street are echoed in our own lives and that there is a way for all of us to stand on this small street together.

Don’t miss the Al-Mutanabbi Street Project Panel Discussion at The Mosaic Rooms 7pm, 22 January 2014. Find out more here.

Contemporary Culture
from the Arab World


view archive


Learning & Engagement


Guest Blogger