Bohemia in Baghdad


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.


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.

Ghadire is one of the regulars at the Hiwar Gallery, a pleasant villa in the north of the city whose garden is an oasis for Baghdad’s youthful refusés. Despite the looting of the College of Arts across the street and the loud gun battle that raged nearby during one of my visits there (it turned out that American troops were chasing thieves out of the abandoned Turkish consulate), the gallery is thriving as never before. It is not just that the paintings on display are impressively accomplished and selling well. The social interplay is absorbing.

In one corner of the garden sits a pair of portly gentlemen, professors from the College of Arts. Someone whispers that they have come to sniff the wind. They want to see if they, as members of the ousted establishment who were obliged to join the Baath and inform on their colleagues, are still accepted. Most of the visitors to the gallery ignore them, so the professors are happy to tell a stranger how, despite the siege of the past decade, Iraqi artists have retained their cutting edge. “Our art institutions are destroyed, yes,” says Dr. Fadhel Hamid, with a tap to the forehead. “But the creative minds are still here.”

The group is joined by a well-known actor, Haitham Abdelrazzaq, looking the part in a Jack Nicholson jacket and shades. He tells of how friends abroad asked him why he didn’t leave, and how he answered that oppression is the same in every Arab country, differing merely in degree. Here, he says, we managed to express ourselves through allegory and symbolism. He describes a play he directed, where there was a prison on the stage, and the world outside the prison turned out to be the same as the inside. And now, he says, after so many years of siege we have so much stored up, so many stories to tell.

It all sounds convincing, but at the other end of the garden, whisperers say Abdelrazzaq used to be great, yet lately went commercial. Here the crowd is younger, more bohemian, and happily frank about the awfulness of the old regime. “It was a tunnel of horrors,” says a short-story writer whose publishing house was closed by the Baath. The only works worth reading in the past ten years, he says, were smuggled from abroad or circulated by photocopy among intimates. All the great poets were in exile. All except two, that is, but Raad Abdel Qadir died suddenly in January, and Mahmoud al-Buraykan was killed last year, apparently by thieves breaking into his house. The old party hacks—“little Saddams”—who headed the state’s large arts bureaucracy systematically stifled fresh talent. “Imagine, the man in charge of cinema and theater used to wear a gun in a holster!”

The animated group chattering at the table next door turn out to be actors, diehard members of an informal theater troupe called Najeen, meaning Survivors. In the past, the gun-toting Baathist theater supremo prevented them from performing even such classics as Hamlet. (Too many dead kings?) But from the moment the fighting stopped they have been rehearsing a play. It’s a sort of hybrid, someone explains, salvaged from bits of Henry Miller, Antigone, Camus’s Caligula, and Iraqi folklore. The play promises to be interesting, if only because the Survivors have commandeered the Rasheed Theater for a one-day performance. This was the main venue for state-backed “arts” productions, but it was badly damaged by both American bombs and subsequent looting.

The setting is indeed dramatic. The Rasheed, an ugly modern structure, stands right next to the Ministry of Information, one of the most viciously pummeled targets of the war. The front wall of the foyer has been blown out, the interior trashed. The spectators filing in crunch their way over broken glass through the scorched fecal stench left by looters, descending into a space so dark we must feel our way to the seats.

The play is disjointed and skittish, but fast-paced and charged with emotion from the first minute. A borrowed generator puts out barely enough power to light the stage. Out of the gloom emerges a scene of devastation. One group of actors is searching with flashlights through a great pile of celluloid—a symbol of lost memory, perhaps, and an evocation of the destruction of the national cinema archive, which happened to be housed in the Rasheed’s burned-out upper floor. Characters around the margins of the stage include a ranting looter dressed in rags, a guitar player, silent dancers on a scaffold, Scheherazade, a painter slowly filling a canvas with color, a dazedly bereaved mother, and a poet.

The central characters are a soldier who, tired of war, rips off his uniform, and a tyrant who paces up and down among the audience. At one point the soldier pauses with a revelation. “You are not the nation!” he shouts at the tyrant, repeating the words over and over. “I am the nation, and you are the tyrant!” The audience erupts with applause. There is more cheering later, when one of the flashlight searchers asks, “What is war?” “War?” reply the others, repeating the word more and more vehemently until they are simply barking at each other like a pack of dogs. At another point they all sing, in gingerly enunciated but defiant English, the Beatles song “Nowhere Man.” When the soldier dies, the tyrant stomps onto the stage. “You are all guilty,” he accuses the audience. He glances at the dead soldier and sniffs, “You, maybe a little less guilty …no, more guilty.” With that, he hoists the body onto a film-set dolly and wheels him away.

As the play closes, the actors themselves break into whoops and yells for the sheer joy of having pulled it off. Mobbed backstage by admirers and Baghdad’s inevitable contingent of foreign reporters, the tyrant excitedly explains that the whole point of the play is to say, “We are free. We have always been free and will always be free.”

And to the Americans,” he adds, “we say thank you and go home.”


With its anxious daytime throngs and eerie nighttime emptiness, Baghdad remains a dazed city. The armed American presence adds a particular note of unreality. The giant hulking vehicles, coils of concertina wire, and sweating, gear-laden troops patrolling in combat formation all have an embarrassed air, as if they would really rather be in black-and-white, not color.

What makes the picture doubly uneasy is the Iraqis’ own conflicted feelings. It is hardly possible for them to like America when they consider Washington’s record of first supporting Saddam, then punishing his people with sanctions, then bombing the place to get rid of him. Yet neither do they have much liking for anyone else—none of the neighbors, and certainly not fellow Arabs who defended Saddam in the name of Arab honor. The Americans are an obvious affront to national pride, and perhaps even more acutely to religious pride. But they are also the only guarantee of security just now, and of the return to normality that is inherent in the promise to rejoin the wider world.

The ambivalence cuts across ethnic divisions. Kurds regard the two Bushes as national heroes, yet they fear that America may again betray them as it has several times in living memory. Christians yearn for Western protection, yet worry that the end of Baathist secularism may have uncorked the wicked genie of political Islam. The Shiite clergy, despite schisms over their proper role in politics, deliver a surprisingly uniform message. America has served its only purpose by getting rid of Saddam. Its army is here at our sufferance, and sooner or later we will make them leave.

My driver, Haidar, is a Shiite, but, in the tradition of the Baghdad-born, not especially religious. Before the war he was painfully reticent about politics, but this has given way to a cathartic gush of detail about the beastliness of Saddam’s clan. Like many of his generation, he charges them with stealing half his life—the twelve years he spent as a draftee fighting useless, dirty wars, and the ten years since, stuck in poverty. The first sight of American tanks was the happiest moment he can recall. And yet Haidar complains bitterly about the postwar mess. “If they can bring 10,000 tanks, why can’t they bring a single generator? Let them take our oil. Just let us live like normal people in other countries.”

Firdaus Square, the Baghdad traffic circle made famous by the telegenic toppling of a Saddam statue, has become a shambolic open-air parliament where pamphleteers and soap-box orators compete for attention. Today, the biggest crowd clusters around a stout, bearded fellow who is shouting that the Americans are infidels. They steal the country’s oil while leaving Muslim Iraqis to suffer mile-long queues for gasoline. Someone starts a chant, “Sunni and Shiite are brothers, this country is not for sale!” The crowd takes it up with vigor and much punching of fists. Traffic has already slowed when into the jam plows a convoy of Humvees. The soldiers manning turret-mounted machine guns look increasingly nervous as the vehicles find themselves blocked behind a long line of cars. The protesters now have a focus for their anger, and the shouting redoubles. I am beginning to calculate the fastest way to get out of range.

But suddenly there is a sound at a different pitch, a shrill cry from the back of a Humvee. “C’mon guys, let’s move it along here!” Heads swivel, and hundreds of eyes seek the source of this recognizably female voice. She is, by some freak of fate, the closest thing in the US Army to Marilyn Monroe, fresh-faced, with blond curls tumbling from an oversized Kevlar helmet. A hush passes through the crowd, followed by a spontaneous, deep-throated roar of approval worthy of the corniest of Italian movies. The soldier, unable to contain a huge and even prettier smile, gives an apologetic wave of her assault rifle, and then the traffic suddenly eases and the convoy speeds off.

Iraqis, cut off from the world for so long, are not used to foreigners in their midst. Frequently, strangers approach, assuming that I, as a foreigner, can get them medical care, or a job, or justice for some slight, or tell them what America is planning to do with their country. In an alleyway in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, on the way to meet a prominent radical mullah, I brush past some teenage boys. “Is he a Communist?” I overhear one of them whisper to a friend, pointing at me. My suspicion is that it would not be wise to be a Communist here.

After three decades of Gestapo-style rule, it is not surprising that Iraqis should find the new order confusing. The Americans, trying to run the place while pretending not to, seem equally at sea.

The press communiqués put out by ORHA, America’s Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, have the tone of a publicity agent’s handout. Every little step, such as paying doctors an emergency $20 wage, is declared a historic leap toward democracy. On the ground it is hard to see much improvement. The phones are still broken, power still sporadic, money scarce, prices soaring, shortages everywhere, and security largely absent. Iraqis observe, by way of contrast, that during the Gulf War of 1991, when bomb damage was far more extensive, there was hardly a pause in the payment of state salaries.

To some extent, the US administrators are damned both ways. Too much interference and they are accused of imperialism. Too little and they are blamed for chaos. Yet there are undoubtedly self-inflicted obstacles. Washington’s vindictive attitude toward international NGOs and UN agencies delayed the arrival of their trusted and tested services for weeks. The isolation of the American officials, still sequestered behind elaborate security measures, does not help. Pentagon-flavored Beltway talk is hard enough for Americans to understand. Transposed to Baghdad it is simply baffling. Some directives cause confusion. Rules against carrying guns are a good idea, but millions of them circulate in a country where they are seen as symbols of manliness, where ordinary people have every reason to fear for their safety, and where there is no agency where they can be legally registered. Trying to thin the long lines at gas stations by alternating daily between odd and even license plates sounds clever, but it costs barely a dollar to buy a spare plate.

The bafflement is also true about the larger picture. By and large, Iraqis still do not really understand why America sent its army halfway around the world to “save” them. The claims about chemical weapons never convinced them. Many shared American dislike of Saddam, but they are far more acutely aware of America’s past backing for the Baath Party, and of its catastrophic abandonment of the 1991 uprising. Abdel Aziz Baqer al-Sadr, a Shiite leader, puts the feeling simply: “It is natural to have doubts when someone claims to do something for your benefit.”

Perhaps this explains one of the most striking things about post-liberation Iraq, which is the general lack of happiness. People are too scarred by the past and too wary of the future to believe that their long nightmare may have ended.