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Bohemia in Baghdad

1.

The scene at the deserted National Library in Baghdad looks almost too staged to be true. Ignoring the occasional tock-tock-tock of nearby gunplay, a tethered donkey lunches on flowers in the garden. A statue of Saddam is still standing out front, but someone has looped a noose around its neck. A hot gust of wind sends singed catalog cards scudding across the tiled terrace of the four-story building, along with curls of half-melted microfiche that turn out to be pages from The New York Times of November 1979. Through smashed windows one can see blackened corridors and heaps of sooty debris. On the iron grill of the entrance, locked now to the pillagers who stripped the library clean before torching it, hangs this neatly lettered cardboard sign:

A library has the sanctity of a hospital andthe holiness of a house of God. Behave here as you would there.

The sign appears to be the only intact article of literature left, out of a collection of one million volumes, twenty million periodicals, and many original manuscripts.

Not far from the library, beyond the still warily shuttered old bazaar district, books mingle with other stolen goods—watches, shoes of various sizes—along the trampled and trash-strewn sidewalks of Liberation Square. Such impromptu souks have become Baghdad’s main places of business. The books here, stripped of title pages bearing telltale library stamps, are absurdly cheap.

Few Baghdadis now notice it, but the square is named for the Liberty Monument. The huge, curving panel of creamy travertine, studded with fourteen giant bronze reliefs representing man’s struggle for freedom, was erected to celebrate the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. It is one of the earliest and best of the city’s many grandiose public artworks. Its creator, Jawad Salim, is considered the progenitor of the rich tradition of modernism in Iraqi painting and sculpture. It was his optimistic generation that built Iraq’s reputation, among Arab countries, for intellectual rigor, quality, and innovation: in the 1960s it was said that books were written in Cairo and printed in Beirut, but read in Baghdad.

Salim died in 1961 at the age of forty-one, and so was spared the subsequent agonies suffered by artistically minded Iraqis—for some, imprisonment and execution, for others the slow poison of co-optation by the regime or the tragedy of exile. Yet there is a hint of foreboding, as well as a typically Iraqi sense of mythical rootedness, in this passage he once wrote:

Through everything, the artist in Mesopotamia has always managed to express himself. Even under the patronage of the cruel Assyrian state, where the true artist spoke through the drama of the wounded beast.

He was referring to the most enduring of Mesopotamian images, that of a lion savaging its prey. It can be seen in the famous pouncing sphinx that guards the gate of Babylon, fifty miles south of Baghdad, or in the spectacular hunting scenes from the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud, now displayed at the British Museum. And although the victims are unseen, the image is also implicit in many of the monuments that Saddam commissioned. In the multiple statues of him casually pumping shotgun blasts into the air, for instance, or in the giant crossed swords that arch over Baghdad’s parade ground, clasped by massive hands molded from the dictator’s own: from its wrists dangle giant nets filled with the captured helmets of slain enemy soldiers. It is said that the original plans called for Iranian skulls, not helmets.

Festivals to mark the spring equinox are another holdover from ancient Mesopotamia. On this occasion, which they call Newroz, the Kurds of northern Iraq light fires to commemorate the mythical slaying of a blood-drinking tyrant by a blacksmith named Kawa. Similarly, Iraq’s dwindling minority of Assyrian Christians celebrates the first of April with drinking and revelry. For this one day, tradition has it, their kings relinquished power, permitting all manner of forbidden things.

The nationwide looting that followed the collapse of Saddam’s regime bore a touch of this carnival spirit. There were more somber tones, too, evoking a history that is less mythical. During the dark age between the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258 and Iraq’s nineteenth-century revival, nomads thrived at the expense of settled folk, plundering the river valleys so often that urban civilization barely survived. In the spring of 1941, in the midst of a brief revolt against the British-imposed monarchy, Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community was subjected to a farhud, or lapse of law and order, in effect a pogrom that left several hundred Jews dead and prompted thousands more to leave.

There was a similar licensing of chaos during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The emirate’s museums were systematically ransacked, its libraries burned. An Iraqi expert on building stones told me that during the six-month occupation he found himself assigned the puzzling task of listing all the types of marble used in the emir’s palaces. The puzzle was resolved when all the rare varieties that Saddam did not yet own were stripped and shipped to Baghdad.

In a sense, the pillage that accompanied the Anglo-American invasion represented Saddam’s last act of leadership. The people were following his own predatory example. It helped, of course, that he had recently thrown open his dungeons. Along with the thousands of petty political prisoners, check bouncers, and pilferers came hardened criminals, tribesmen bent on reigniting vendettas, and psychopaths. A judge in Karbala told me that the worst single incident of the war in the city was the slaying of four men inside a pharmacy. The culprit, a known serial killer just out of Abu Ghraib prison, opened fire when he was denied the drugs he craved.

This is not to absolve the occupying powers of responsibility for the mayhem. In city after city, advancing US and British forces quickly secured such places as power stations and oil installations, leaving banks, ministries, and cultural institutions to the mercy of looters. As a result, every single museum in the country was plundered or vandalized, from the great National Museum in the capital, to the city’s Modern Art Museum and manuscript collection, to the provincial museums of Mosul, Tikrit, Babylon, Nasiriya, and Kufa. Along with its national film and theater archives, Iraq lost hundreds of local registries of property titles, births, and education. Most of the country’s university faculties were thoroughly ransacked.

The scale and seeming purposefulness of the sabotage has been the source of countless rumors. Iran’s slick, twenty-four-hour Arabic-language news station—the only television available for weeks after the war—helped popularize one in particular. “The Christian right wing which controls Washington seeks to wipe out Eastern civilization,” declared one commentator, adding that this evil intent was “based on the ideology of Francis Fukuyama that says ancient cultures have no value because America’s superior culture has replaced them.”

The vaunted accuracy of American bombing did not help the invader’s reputation. When bombs strayed into civilian neighborhoods, it was assumed that these were deliberate targets. Leaving aside such “mistakes,” the bombs also happened to destroy many of Baghdad’s modern architectural showpieces. “Even Saddam’s palaces, they were the property of the people, not of Saddam,” complained a political scientist at Baghdad University.

Yet the loss must still be placed in the context of a land that has probably been ravaged more often by war than any other on earth. One of the world’s oldest bodies of literature is the series of Sumerian laments for the destruction of the cities of Eridu, Nippur, Ur, Turin, Sumer, and Unug. Since its founding by the Caliph al-Mansour in 762 AD, Baghdad has itself been conquered by foreign armies no fewer than fifteen times, and razed to the ground more than once. Considering its fabled wealth and glory in medieval Islam, the city has markedly fewer historic monuments than, say, Cairo, Damascus, or Istanbul.

Saddam Hussein set out self-consciously to correct this lack of grandeur. With his instinct for the historical gesture, his craving for recognition, and, following the oil boom of the 1970s, the money to match, he spent lavishly as a patron of the arts. Even now the concrete shells of two huge mosque projects, each of which was to be larger even than the Great Haram of Mecca, bulge above Baghdad’s western suburbs. But his ruinous wars against weak neighbors and superpowers alike, combined with vicious repression at home, whittled away the undeniable early achievements of Baathist rule.

Iraq has been in steep decline for twenty years. The loss into exile of three million people, among them many of the country’s most gifted, has arguably been far more destructive than recent wartime damage. The reduction of the entire middle class to deep poverty, one result of the international sanctions imposed since 1990, compounded the misery. The sanctions—or, as Iraqis say, the siege—had the further effect of sealing them off from advances elsewhere in the world, and even from the hope of catching up.

In the past decade a kind of rottenness set in. When I saw Baghdad in 1990, with its neat, palm-lined boulevards, it looked not unlike Kuwait or Riyadh. A decade later the city looked more like Khartoum or Kinshasa, a place of brownouts, grasping bureaucrats, and leaky drains, its broken streets packed with the aimless unemployed.

2.

I have to say I’m really shocked,” says Fakhri Karim. Amid the sartorial gloom of Baghdad, his white linen suit stamps him as a returning exile. “It’s far worse than I expected. Saddam dragged this place fifty years backward. And it’s not just the shabbiness. The people too seem somehow degraded.”

I find Karim on a noisy street corner outside the hotel where he is staying, looking bemused and slightly uneasy. A former Communist, he fled the country three decades ago. He runs a publishing house in Damascus that has long been a haven for Iraq’s exiled intellectuals. Now on the fringe of the furious politicking among Baghdad’s myriad new parties, he has not been encouraged. Between fundamentalists intent on seizing power and Baathists determined to keep their clammy grip, and amid tensions between the “insiders” and those coming from abroad, there seems little room for dreamy liberals of the old school.

Naseer Ghadire, a young writer who has never left Iraq, tends to agree. Intense, thin, and with a passion for French philosophy and the Beatles, Ghadire spent six years at a Shiite religious seminary and three in prison before deciding Nietzsche was right about God. “No one wants to admit it,” he says. “But the fact is that the only ones who really fought Saddam were either religious people or a handful of atheist intellectuals. The rest all felt that whatever his faults, he represented them, he expressed their nature.”

Ghadire’s own loathing for the fallen regime is unquestionable. And yet he says that just before the war, he confessed to himself that he had no desire to be “liberated.” “It would mean I would have nothing to define myself against, nothing to fight against. I would have to be responsible, to think of living a ‘normal’ life.” And besides, he adds, the sight of American soldiers slaps him like an insult.

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