The City of Peace
Baghdad is a city of lives interrupted, its history a story of loss, waiting, and resilience. In the days before the American invasion in March 2003, this capital scarred by war after war felt torn, aggrieved, and filled with longing for the greatness it once possessed and has never forgotten.
As we drove beneath a cloudless sky, the familiar voice of Abdel-Halim Hafez, one of Egypt’s legendary singers, rose from the car’s tinny speakers. Karim, my driver and friend, maneuvered his white Chevrolet along the avenues, as the city wavered between the anxious wait for American bombs and the fear of what Saddam would do to defend himself once they arrived. Knots of Baath Party militiamen manned sandbag emplacements, their nervous eyes shadowed by their berets or camouflage helmets or kaffiyehs of checkered reds and blacks. They stood in relief against the barricaded dun-colored utilitarian buildings constructed during the three decades of Saddam’s rule. Nearby, the Tigris River meandered, its muddy waters encircling overgrown reeds that had never grown so high in gracious times. Along its banks were mosques with their hourglass domes of turquoise and gold, bricks in shades of blue, tiles with calligraphic contours of black and white. The colors of the city were softened by the afternoon sun into the hues of an antique Persian carpet.
Through the car window, we could hear the call to prayer dividing the day, embracing the summons from other minarets and soothing the neighborhoods. Staccato bursts of horns—the refrain of Arab cities—enlivened subdued streets, accompanied by the clatter of battered wooden carts pulled by weary horses, two men atop each. Behind them were loads of anabib, the kerosene cylinders used in the stoves of Baghdadi kitchens. Some were blue, some yellow, some rusted into a monochromatic brown. The drivers banged screwdrivers on the cylinders to announce their arrival, as they have done for decades. Karim and I were headed for the Hawar Art Gallery, but on the way we meandered a bit.
I wanted to take a last, long look at Baghdad before the bombing began. We drove down colonnaded Rashid Street, a once grand boulevard named for the capital’s most illustrious ruler. It was now collapsed, colored in the grays of poverty, its arches sagging and its shutters hanging at the slack angles of neglect. We passed a bust of Baghdad’s founder, Abu Jaafar al-Mansur, in a dreary square of the neighborhood that takes his name. Its pedestal of tan brick was crumbled, its blue tiles fallen amid the plastic bags and cigarettes that littered the circle. The founder’s eyes glowered beneath his turban, staring out over a jumble of garages, a gas station, shops, and cars with cracked windshields.
Haggard already, the capital was immersed in uncertainty, awaiting another battle. Iraq had been waging wars for a generation, usually at Saddam’s instigation. There was shame, in many quarters, over what had been done to Kuwait and Iran in Saddam’s name. Iraq felt weary as the Americans prepared to invade; all the fighting over all the years had taken away much of the nation’s generosity and dignity and left brutality.
I had returned to Baghdad on March 11, 2003, five months after the opening of Abu Ghreib and just days before the bombing began. My previous itinerary had carried me through the bleak, post-9/11 Middle East. The American response to the destruction of that day—the martial rhetoric of the Bush administration, the dispatch of the U.S. military to Afghanistan, and the detention of prisoners at the military base in Guantánamo Bay—had evoked Arab anger as the lopsided conflict between Israel and the Palestinians accelerated further. Anyone who defied the Americans was admired. Osama bin Laden, whose venomous ideology actually alienates the vast majority of Arabs, had become an unlikely folk hero.
In Jordan and in Egypt, emotions were heating up, but Arab leaders had already thrown in the diplomatic towel. “To say that we can put off the war would be fooling ourselves,” said Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, a figure who then seemed as modest in ambition as his predecessors were larger than life. As he and his fellow leaders capitulated, their people grew angrier. At protests across the Middle East, nervously tolerated by the governments, chants denounced “American terrorism” in the same breath as “Israeli aggression.” At some demonstrations, Iraqi flags went up with Palestinian flags, as the two battlegrounds became conflated in Arab eyes. I remember the chants. “Wake up, Arabs, save your Palestinian and Iraqi brothers!” Or, more to the point, “There is no god but God and America is the enemy of God!” And then, an appeal that was at once clichéd and resonant, earnest and hollow: “Biruh, bidam, nafdeek, ya Baghdad,” marchers chanted outside Cairo University. “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Baghdad.”
Time and again, I am struck by how seldom I hear the word hurriya, “freedom,” in conversations about politics in the Arab world. It does appear, but often in translations or in self-conscious comparisons to the West, where the word is omnipresent. Much more common among Arabs is the word adil, “justice,” a concept that frames attitudes from Israel to Iraq. For those who feel they are always on the losing end, the idea of justice may assume supreme importance.
And justice, it seemed to many in the Middle East, was no longer being served by the Americans; this feeling was becoming more and more enflamed, even in places where U.S. citizens had once been welcomed. Well-to-do Jordanians spurned invitations to dinners attended by Americans. Cairo taxi drivers occasionally declined to pick up foreigners in expatriate enclaves. Americans would still be greeted when they entered a room, but they were no longer always offered the almost requisite coffee or tea. Among Egypt’s wealthier residents—a group long disposed favorably toward America—there was a resurgence of piety that some saw as a repudiation of the West and a visceral reclamation of Arab identity. Devotion had become a statement as political as it was religious.
And then there was Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, a former laundryman and part-time wedding singer in Egypt catapulted to fame all around the region in 2001 by his song “I Hate Israel.” Now he came out with another manifesto, “The Attack on Iraq,” a blend of anger, fear, and humor, wrapped up in the staccato vernacular of Cairo’s streets. It became an overnight pop sensation in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere. Hour after hour it played. Bootleg tapes poured into the market. The hit blared from taxis careening through downtown streets. Lines were quoted from memory.
Chechnya! Afghanistan! Palestine! Southern Lebanon! The Golan Heights!
And now Iraq, too? And now Iraq, too?
It’s too much for people! Shame on you!
Enough! Enough! Enough!
Against the cacophony of the Arab world, Baghdad seemed quiet, so hushed that it felt a little unreal. As America framed the war one way, the Arab world another, Iraq simply seemed to be trying to come to grips with its arrival.
There were hints of preparations, but the sense of crisis seemed strangely routine. Checkpoints set up on the modern, German-engineered highways were manned by torpid soldiers. Long lines formed outside some bakeries and gas stations. For the most part, though, the city went about its business as usual. Workers methodically splashed cement on brick, building a long-planned addition to the Information Ministry. A worker wielded a buffer, slowly shining the granite highlights of the ministry’s walls and windows. There was little anger; most fervency was manufactured, the tired climax of farcical, government-organized protests. Few were sincere in their defense of Saddam, who was loathed. Few objected to his demise; many hoped for it. But the feeling most prevalent was subdued anxiety. People were preparing—for war, so unpredictable, and for what they anticipated would be a long and bloody aftermath.
Late in the afternoon I arrived at the Hawar art gallery, a bucolic outpost of whitewashed stucco walls and a gate painted in a Mediterranean blue along a quiet street shaded by trees. A cool, gentle breeze blew off the Tigris River nearby, drifting over the stone patio as the artists gathered here paused to appreciate the fleeting tranquillity. Maher Samarai, speaking with the exuberance of a performer and the reflectiveness of an artist, pondered Baghdad on the eve of its reckoning. He was an Iraqi, he said; the city was his capital. He was a resident, he continued; it was his soul. He was a ceramist; it was the inspiration of his work. And then, suddenly, the gravity of the situation hit him, and his confident smile faded. As his city stood on the verge of war, he stared out at a towering palm tree that leaned over the gallery, waiting in silence before he could continue.
“For a week, I can’t sleep. Really,” Maher confessed, finally speaking again as he methodically thumbed his string of blue worry beads. “I worry about the bridges, the homes, the beautiful buildings, our artistic scene that we built after 1991 that is going to be smashed. A lot of artists have left for cities outside Baghdad, and there is no guarantee we will gather again.” His friends nodded in agreement, and Maher stopped once more, savoring the fleeting moment of nostalgia. “Our art is like a white dove, and the B-52s are about to come to make it black,” he said. “I hate the color black.”
I mentioned a line from George W. Bush’s speech a day earlier; on March 17, 2003, the president had declared to Iraqis: “The day of your liberation is near.” Maher, sipping sweet lemon tea, smirked again. He was garrulous, fifty years old, a father of three, his hair gray but still lush. His mustache was trimmed, carefully. “They’re going to burn the forest to kill the fox,” he said smiling. “That’s my idea.”
There’s a line from history that nearly everyone in Baghdad remembers: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” The speaker was Major General Sir Stanley Maude, the British commander who in 1917 entered the capital to end Ottoman rule. (He died in Iraq eight months later of cholera and was buried in Baghdad.) Although Iraqis tend to forget his name and often reduce his remark to a simpler phrase—“We came as liberators, not as conquerors”—the idea has proved memorable. So has the aftermath, a legacy that Iraqis ruefully note. The British remained in Iraq and in control of its oil for decades. “Exactly the same sentence,” Maher said to me, his voice rising as he compared Maude’s words to Bush’s. “It’s a flashback to when Iraqis were still without shoes, without clothes, and the oil went directly to other people’s pockets. You can’t trust the Westerners.”
As the afternoon wore on, cigarettes burning idly and dark tea sweetened amply, the bravado became apparent that is so much a part of Iraqi national character. There was talk of the surging Tigris and its ferocity. For Egypt, with its reputation for humor and revelry, the Nile was its good fortune. The river brought life when the waters surged over the banks, leaving millennia of rich silt that enabled people to impose a verdant farmland on the desert. The Tigris—reckless, unpredictable, and given to temper—destroyed when it flooded. It left hard personalities in its wake, they told me, and it delivered Iraqis their well-deserved reputation for toughness.
Yet beneath the artists’ moments of swagger was fear for Baghdad’s fate—fear of the destruction of an American-led attack, of the lawlessness and looting that almost everyone expected, of the destiny of the capital. A friend of Maher’s, a woman artist sitting nearby, set down a clip for an AK-47 rifle on the table in front of him, then left the gallery without saying a word. “I borrowed the gun from a friend of mine,” he said, in answer to his friends’ stares. “I worry about thieves. I just bought a new car and a new computer and they’re expensive. If I have to fight for my house, I will.”
As the hours passed, the painters, sculptors, and ceramists at the gallery indulged in hanin—nostalgia—as they gazed out at the city’s concrete overpasses and martial boulevards, past Saddam City, the teeming Shiite Muslim slum. They spoke of the past, invoking the names of history, the names of memory: the caliph Haroun al-Rashid, the poet Mutanabi, and the tenth-century philosopher al-Hallaj, whose ecstatic utterances of divine love were not always well received. (“I am the truth,” al-Hallaj once said, a pledge to God read as blasphemy that got him dismembered and his body burned.) Baghdad, to the artists on the eve of war, retained the greatness of those names. It still rivaled Damascus and Cairo, as it had when it was truly the seat of the Arab world.
Rome can still see its past, the magnificence of its ancient empire gracing the modern cityscape. Paris and London, storied cities reinventing themselves as they age across centuries, live in their histories, which surround them. Baghdad, its ancient grandeur utterly destroyed, cannot see its past, its glory. It can only remember. Baghdad’s is a culture of memory; the city draws strength and pride from the myths to which it continually returns. But the curse of recalling is the reminder of what has been lost.
All cities are shrouded in legend, some fabulous, others more pedestrian. The tales of the founding of Baghdad in the eighth century revolve around the conqueror Abu Jaafar Mansur, second caliph of the Abbasid Empire. The Christian monks who served him lunch at their monastery not far from the future Baghdad told him of a prophecy that a great city would be founded nearby by someone with the name Miqlas. “By God, I am that man!” one historian quoted Mansur as shouting. The caliph insisted that he, as a boy, had been nicknamed Miqlas.
After spending the “sweetest, most gentle night on earth” at the site, he awoke to see its perfection. Here, the Tigris River watered lush fields, and canals stitched the rich countryside. Along with the nearby Euphrates, the Tigris promised revenues for Mansur’s empire, which already stretched from North Africa to Central Asia. In 762, Mansur himself laid the first bricks for his capital, inaugurating a project that took four more years to complete, a truly imperial undertaking. Craftsmen, architects, and laborers were drafted from across the empire; 100,000 were always on hand.
Towns in Iraq were stripped of material. From famous ruins in ancient Babylon and the Persian city of Ctesiphon came quotas of bricks. Wasit, to the south, surrendered five wrought-iron gates that, according to tradition, were built by demons under the sway of King Solomon. Kufa gave another gate, as did the city’s imperial predecessor, Damascus. They would all adorn the fabled Round City, a perfectly circular capital that served as Mansur’s residence and the nexus of his Islamic empire. It was protected by brick walls, insulated by a deep moat, and fortified by an inner wall ninety feet high. Roads radiated from the four gates: the Khorasan Gate opened to the frontier of China, others to Mecca and its pilgrims, west to Damascus, and south to Basra.
Arising from the palace, known as the Golden Gate, was the fabled green dome, visible from the river to the city’s outskirts. The figure of a warrior horseman stood atop it—a fitting symbol of an empire that came together and was preserved by Mansur’s sword. Medinat al-Salam, Mansur called his capital. The City of Peace.
The founder lived for thirteen years here, passing away in 775 on the road to Mecca. According to his orders, one hundred graves were to be dug to confuse his enemies. His death preceded his city’s glory: Baghdad would soon spread far beyond the shadow of Mansur’s green dome, growing to ten times the size of Constantinople, one of its few imperial peers. Based on the number of its bathhouses, some estimates claimed that 1.5 million people lived in the city, with at least 2 million in its heyday. Another estimate, not altogether sober, boasted of 96 million residents.
Perhaps the number was no more than 300,000, but no city in Europe could claim a fraction of that population or match Baghdad’s array of hospitals, places of worship, museums, libraries, law schools, racetracks, zoos, public baths, or asylums for the insane. In the words of one contemporary historian, “I have seen the great cities . . . but I have never seen a city of greater height, more perfect circularity, more endowed with superior merits or possessions, more spacious gates . . . than Zawra, that is to say the city of Abu Jaafar al-Mansur.” To him, the city was faultless: “It is as though it is poured into a mold and cast.”
Not a trace of Mansur’s original city remains; of medieval Baghdad, there is a crumbling minaret here, a collapsed wall on the old city’s outskirts, but no more. What makes the city’s memory tangible is its reputation. Its cultural legacy was indisputably one of the great flowerings of human achievement in history. In the West, the names of the geniuses behind the city’s golden age mean little, but in Baghdad, in the Arab world, the names of those times remain heroic, even fabled. Their mere mention evokes two centuries of intellectual splendor, drenched in confidence. The ancients studied in places like Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, founded by al-Ma’mun, the great-grandson of Baghdad’s builder. Not a simple library, it was a true marketplace of ideas, a pristine place of scholarship whose translators of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy created an intellectual heritage that was not Islamic but universal. That it was written in Arabic was incidental. As one modern historian put it, “Baghdad became the intellectual battlefield upon which Roman law, Greek medicine and philosophy, Indian mysticism, Persian subtlety and the Semitic genius for religion could meet on common ground.”
In Baghdad, hanin crosses eras. There’s the hanin of history, and there’s the hanin of memory. In the narratives of hanin of memory now familiar in Baghdad, the 1970s rival the era of the Abbasids as a time to recall with longing. Five-star hotels had begun to open, and restaurants did brisk business in a city that celebrated its libertine nightlife. Baghdad, in the eyes of many of its residents, was no different from any other Oz-like capital on the Persian Gulf, endowed with limitless oil and springing brashly from the desert with little logic; only this Oz had far more history than most. The newly resurgent Baghdad, modern and vital, drew Arab writers fleeing the anarchy of Lebanon’s civil war. Egyptian intellectuals still recall the free plane tickets and ample Johnnie Walker Black that awaited them on sponsored trips to the Iraqi capital. The ferment of those years gave rise to the saying that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.”
Viewed through the lens of the wars that followed, the 1970s in the city have taken on a somewhat illusory glow of heroic progress and material comfort. Yet the economic gains at the time were real, and Iraq’s living conditions neared those in Europe’s more modest countries. Income from oil—Iraq has the world’s second-largest reserves—skyrocketed. In 1968, oil revenues totaled $476 million. By 1980, they had reached $26 billion. That newfound wealth radiated Iraqi culture, influence, and power across the region. Baghdad rippled with optimism and confidence, and the country prospered. Food was subsidized, wages were hiked, and land was redistributed.
Money poured into health, housing, and education. Massive campaigns were launched to eradicate illiteracy. Free education, from kindergarten to university, was bestowed by law. Women’s rights—from equal pay to an at least formal ban on discrimination—were ratified in Iraq’s legal code. While crushing economic and social disparities persisted—and political repression deepened, especially against Shiite religious activists—most see the 1970s as a comparative golden age.
Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Anthony Shadid