It is agonizingly difficult to write about one’s hometown as it drowns in flames and suffocates with smoke. After tons of bombs and thousands of liberatory missiles, many of Baghdad’s own inhabitants have pillaged it under the voyeuristic eyes of its latest invaders. This is by no means the first time Baghdad has fallen so violently, but its fall had always happened “before” and “back then.” One needed to plow through the many volumes of its history and poetry, or listen to elders, to learn more about those past falls. This time, however, it is in the painful present tense. A soft click on the remote control was all I needed here in Cairo to get variations on one theme: The fall and destruction of Baghdad is live!
As if trying to enter through one of its remaining gates, I start to approach Baghdad, or rather the many Baghdads I have carried with me for years, by measuring the extent to which its present reality betrays all of the enchanting and idealized signifiers that have represented it. Or those that have tried to capture some of its magic. For now it betrays, or is forced to betray, all of those accolades (Abode of Peace, for instance) bestowed upon it by its many rulers, chroniclers and lovers. Whichever way I choose to approach my native city, I must tread softly and warily, for its streets are still littered with bodies, books and blood. Even the safe, labyrinthine streets of my memory are not free from the ghosts of war, but at least they cannot be destroyed, looted or pillaged.
Built in 762 CE as the capital of the burgeoning empire of the Abbassids, Baghdad was repeatedly conquered and sacked by would-be emperors, some local, many foreign. The ritual of imperial ascent dictates trampling on the symbols of a glory as it is being at once eclipsed and emulated. And so the city was conquered, sacked and rebuilt time and again. Baghdad’s rulers also wreaked havoc on distant lands. Yet most of its caliphs and sultans were also patrons of art and knowledge, connoisseurs and sometimes composers of the most beautiful poetry to have survived in the collective memory of Arabs. Now its ironic fate is to be subjugated by a new emperor who has yet to master his mother tongue. While he needs no lessons in the geostrategic importance of Baghdad, it’s safe to say that Bush is less aware than any of the city’s past conquerors of the precious symbolism and rich history of his booty.
Baghdad was once known as the enchanting “mother of the world.” So sophisticated and elegant was it in its golden age that a verb (yatabaghdadu) was derived from its name to describe how people used to emulate and imitate the highly coveted styles and ways of Baghdad’s elites. Thousands of invisible umbilical cords still bind her to her children. With every bomb, missile and fire that erupted in March and April, I felt the pain of those cords being violently severed in my heart. Now, alas, even some of those who are still in its womb are unleashing decades of pain, violence and war upon its body and scarring its memory and their own collective history in a masochistic and matricidal orgy.
I grew up in the Baghdad of the 1970s and ’80s. Its many faces, like its history, were already being appropriated and changed by Saddam and his regime to make it his Baghdad. Saddam’s desire to inscribe his name and face onto its history and streets was insatiable. He fancied himself the descendant and natural heir to the likes of Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the city’s founder, and Harun al-Rashid, its most illustrious ruler. I witnessed his murals, monuments, statues and sayings deface Baghdad like rampant scars. By the time I left the city in 1991, it had almost become a permanent exhibition of his likeness. But for those who knew it well and looked hard enough, there were always spaces to which one could escape and converse with the city, and steal a few kisses away from his oppressive gaze, at least until the early 1980s.