Coverage of the war in Iraq, now in its fifth year, always runs the risk of reader fatigue. Daily headlines swim in the wake of militaries and militias. But with “Anguish in the Ruins of Mutanabi Street,” Sudarsan Raghavan manages to connect the reader to lives in the midst of the maelstrom by focusing on a place relatively free of sectarianism, large enough to encompass Sunni literature and Shiite posters. He lets us see a piece of Iraq’s possible future laid waste.

Raghavan follows his earlier coverage of the bombing, managing not only to bring Iraqi individuals to life, but to transform a street of booksellers and newsstands into a character in its own right. Elegant, ghastly imagery describes shops “hollowed like skulls” and human remains labeled with pink stationery bearing the names of the lost.

What we appreciated most in this story was Raghavan’s eye for the telling detail—whether the book with crisp, white pages on a pile of bricks, or the bookseller with “cropped hair and thick forearms”—and his ability to capture the mourning for a street that was Baghdad’s literary heart. A narrative arc that more completely united the disparate images of the story might have made the piece stronger. But his description of a father holding a piece of burned leather from his son’s shoe (he calls out “I bought it for you”) while searchers dig to find a body tells a story of loss that goes beyond the books and posters of Mutanabi Street to a language of grief that is both specific and universal.

Read “Anguish in the Ruins of Mutanabi Street,” by Sudarsan Raghavan

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