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…

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