Baghdad, Iraq

Baghdad became a UNESCO City of Literature in December 2015, on the same day as Ulyanovsk (Russia), Baghdad (Iraq), Tartu (Estonia), Lviv (Ukraine), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Barcelona (Spain), Nottingham (UK), Óbidos (Portugal) and Montevideo (Uruguay) joined the Creative Cities Network.

These all join the eleven existing UNESCO Cities of Literature – Edinburgh (UK), Melbourne (Australia), Iowa City (USA), Dublin (Ireland), Reykjavik (Iceland), Norwich (UK), Krakow (Poland), Dunedin (New Zealand), Prague (Czech Republic), Heidelberg (Germany) and Granada (Spain) – to bring the total amount of Cities of Literature in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network to twenty.

To receive a permanent UNESCO City of Literature designation cities must apply to UNESCO and meet exacting criteria. They must show that they have outstanding literary heritage, a vibrant contemporary scene, and importantly, that they are a city where their sector works collaboratively to grow and develop through their chosen artform, via capital development and cultural engagement programmes.

1. Baghdad in Numbers

Baghdad is home to several theatres and museums, a national library, a national library for children and more than thirty other spaces for lectures, conferences, conventions and symposia.

2. Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom

Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, was established in Baghdad by Harun al-Raschid in the 8th century CE and contained both manuscripts and printed books in a variety of languages including Arabic, Syriac, Farsi and Greek. It continued to develop as an important centre for writing, creativity and translation until the city was invaded by the Mongols in 1258 when it was destroyed. In the middle of the ninth century it contained the largest book collection in the world.

3. United Nations Arabic Language Day

In 2010, Arabic was nominated as one of the United Nations Languages to be annually celebrated. Baghdad organized the national conference the world’s first Arabic Language Day on 18 December 2010, as well as the first International Conference on Translations.

4. Abu Al Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi

The 10th century Iraqi poet Abu Al Tayeb Al Mutanabbi is widely recognised as one of the greater Arabic poets of all time.

5. Nazik Al-Malaika

Born in Baghdad on 23 August 1923, Nazik Al-Malaika (1923–2007) was a female Iraqi poet who made her name as the first Arabic poet to use free verse. Baghdad celebrates her legacy through the Nazik al-Malaika Award for women writers, which the city hosted in 2010.

6. Free verse in the 1940s

Free Verse began to develop in Iraqi poetry in the 1940s, after over 1000 years of metrical verse which followed strict rules (known as a’muudi) drawn up by Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi in the eighth century. You can read Iraqi free verse in translation in the Poetry’s Foundation’s pamphlet.

7. Baghdad’s Three Poets

Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863–1936), Ma’ruf bin Abdul Ghani al Rusafi (1875–1945) and Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri (1899–1997) are the three wise men of Iraqi modern poetry. Their influence on Iraqi literature in the twentieth century was huge; Al-Jawahiri has elected head of the Iraqi writers’ union, al-Rusafi championed freedom of speech and was known as the ‘poet of freedom’, and al-Zahawi and al-Zahawi was a vocal supporter of women’s rights and education.

8. The Children’s Culture House

The Children’s Culture House is a state-owned institution located in Baghdad established in 1969 to promote literature written for children. It organizes festivals, events, creative writing workshops, and conferences.

9. The Iraqi House of Poetry

The Iraqi House of Poetry continues to support the development of young writing in Baghdad and across Iraq by running poetry competitions and offering other opportunities for young writers.

10. Baghdad and Book Wings

Run by Iowa City’s University of Iowa, Book Wings is ‘a collaborative exchange and performance initiative designed to bring together writers, actors, directors, and new media professionals from the United States and partner countries in a virtual environment.’ In 2014 Iowa partnered with Baghdad to produce and showcase new prose works by Iraqi and US writers including Amir Al-Azraki, Ammar Ali, Sarem Dakhel, Catherine Filloux, David Kranes, Heather Raffo and Hassab Allah Yahya.