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.
In junior high school, I used to skip the classes of one boring teacher to wander in Baghdad’s old streets. I was not alone in committing this “crime against our country,” as the principal of our school called it when he chastised us the next day. We were skipping school to go to the movies, he said, while Iraqi men were dying on the front with Iran. Little did he know that we were acquainting ourselves with our city and its history without lethargic and dogmatic mediation. My accomplice, a classmate, was obsessed with Baghdad’s history and had devoured his father’s collection of history books. We used to take the bus from our school in al-A’zamiyah to the heart of old Baghdad. We wandered in Suq al-Saray, a crowded marketplace, sifting through used books and hunting for rare ones. We would pass by the famous store of al-Haydari and eat kahi, a delicious Baghdadi pastry with cream and syrup. We would sit at one of the old cafes on al-Rashid Street and sip cardamom tea, braving suspicious looks from the cafe’s more regular and older customers. He was the perfect guide, not just because of his vast knowledge of every coup, cabinet and uprising but because I had no qualms about telling him to shut up when he went over the word limit I had randomly set, or expounded on what I deemed uninteresting! There were many times when I wanted to have the city speak on its own.
In later, less innocent years, when the Iran-Iraq war began to haunt our youth, I would walk alone in al-Karrada, starting from Kahramana Square with its beautiful statue and fountains, making my way to Abu Nuwas Street, named for the great ninth-century poet, to meet my boon companions at one of its many bars. The dark and dreary bars on Abu Nuwas were our haven, and we remained true to the poet’s spirit and his songs in praise of wine: disillusionment with the here and now, but gaiety, lightheartedness and hedonism to combat its ephemera.
The dissident contemporary Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawwab was our guide on our way back home at night. His fiery and banned poems were smuggled into Iraq on cassettes by exiles and circulated secretly among friends. Some of those friends stayed in Iraq and withered under sanctions and now another war; many ended up in various exiles, from Brazil to Australia.
A tear always wells up in my eyes whenever I listen to the traditional Baghdadi maqamat we used to sing together–a deep sorrow aged to perfection, echoing Mesopotamia’s painful history of floods, famines and the fire of unrequited love. Arab friends always ask me about the secret of that excessive sadness of Iraqi songs. Now they know and will have to cry alone.
Having always been fascinated with birds, I liked to go to Suq al-Ghazl, where birds and other animals of all kinds were sold on Fridays. I also liked to sit on our roof and watch as the pigeons kept by our neighbor’s son would take their usual flight in the afternoon in Baghdad’s sky. At times they would dodge, and compete with, the kites flown by kids. Sometimes I could spot a flock of birds flying high above en route to their breeding grounds in the north. Perhaps I remember this now because of what I read a few days before the invasion. Reuters reported that these annual migration routes might be disrupted when the war erupted. It is between mid-March and mid-April that one finds the greatest number of birds in Iraq. Since many of these birds cannot make it to their breeding grounds in one flight, they stop and “refuel” on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, and in the southern marshes (drained by Saddam).
Every year around this time I would look for the one or two white storks that used to nest on the dome of the old church in Bab al-Muazzam. I wonder if they have made it to Baghdad this year. I doubt it. I had clipped that Reuters article from al-Hayat and left it lying around. When I read the article again on the second day of the war, B-52 bombers were taking off from Fairford Airbase in England and heading toward the skies over Baghdad. Someone on Fox News described them as “beautiful birds.” Rumsfeld was speaking of “the humanity” which went into the making of these weapons.
If they don’t perish, the storks will try to return next year. Perhaps many Baghdadis who have been forced to seek refuge away from Baghdad are now wondering: How long will it be before the skies are clear? How long must they continue to recite the lines written by a fellow Baghdadi, Muzaffar al-Nawwab:
I have accepted that my fate
Be like that of a bird
And endured everything
Or having my heart
Be caged in the Sultan’s palace
But O dear God
Even birds have homes to return to
Whereas I fly across this homeland
From sea to sea
Jail after jail after jail
And one jailer hugging another!
A few weeks ago, I felt a pang of pain as I watched an American tank crawling across the al-Jumhuriya bridge in the heart of Baghdad, a bridge I’ve crossed hundreds of times. I used to linger a bit halfway through, especially when walking alone, and look down at the river. The Tigris splits Baghdad into two sections: al-Karkh on the western bank and al-Rusafah to the east. I would recite Ali Ibn al-Jahm’s famous line about the enchanting, almond-shaped eyes of Baghdadi women who used to cross from one bank to the other back in the ninth century. On a lucky day, I hoped that I would encounter a descendant or two of those women. The moonlike faces celebrated in thousands of verses are now hiding in houses on both banks. Voyeuristic satellites hover above and scrutinize every inch of the city’s body.
It was impossible, whenever I crossed any bridge over the Tigris, not to remember the great poem al-Jawahiri wrote on Baghdad from his Prague exile in the early 1960s. Born in 1899, al-Jawahiri grew up in Najaf, but like many of his peers, he fell in love with Baghdad and claimed it as his home, and as his muse. His Baghdad was umm al-basatin (the mother of orchards). He saluted its banks and embraced them from his exile. He reminisced about the boats meandering through the Tigris and wished that their sails be his shroud the day he was laid to rest. Alas, al-Jawahiri died in exile and was buried in Damascus in 1997. Today many parts of the mother of orchards have been demolished by American bombs.
In hoping to be buried in Baghdad, al-Jawahiri was probably echoing one of his literary ancestors, the great eleventh-century poet al-Maarri. Abu Lala al-Maarri left his hometown in Syria and came to Baghdad, but was disappointed at the cold reception and departed vowing never to return. However, as soon as he left, he could not contain his desire to return:
Were it my choice I would have died among you
But, alas, that is beyond my reach
Give me one last drink from the Tigris
If I could, I would drink the whole river
In 1991, the United States bombed the bridge about which I am writing, slicing it in the middle. The justification back then, as it is for other destructive blows now, was that it was part of the command-and-control network. The next morning I rushed there on my bike to see the ruins for myself. Hundreds of Baghdadis came and looked in solemn silence. Unable to link Baghdad’s two banks, the bridge resembled a broken smile. My best friend and I used to roam Baghdad surveying the daily destruction and checking on friends and relatives to see if they had been consigned to that dubious category of “collateral damage.” The bombing had severed all communications in the first week of the war, and the phones were dead. The tank spits its fire toward a row of houses on the eastern bank and blazes go up. The correspondent announces that Apaches are hovering over Baghdad for the first time. Alas, this is a familiar species of bird in our part of the world. They come to make sure that Baghdad’s residents are to join Palestinians as recipients of the latest forms of lethal liberation.
Rivers of blood flow along the Tigris as America tattoos its imperial insignia onto the bodies of Iraqi children and stamps their future with its corporate logos (to “safeguard” it). There is an abyss in and around Iraq, and it widens by the moment. But one must look for, and cling to, a bridge. And so I try. A few bridges north of al-Jumhuriya bridge lies Jisr al-Shuhada (Martyrs’ Bridge). Throngs of Iraqis burst into the streets in January 1948 to express their anger and rejection of the Portsmouth treaty, signed between the despicable Iraqi government of the time and Britain. Some were killed by the regime’s bullets on that bridge. Al-Jawahiri commemorated that uprising with one of his most powerful poems. It was an elegy for his brother, Jafar, who died in his arms. Many Iraqis know the poem’s opening lines by heart. Like many of al-Jawahiri’s poems, this one has a few prophetic lines: “I see a horizon lit with blood/And many a starless night/A generation comes and another goes/And the fire keeps burning.”
Baghdadis and Iraqis have indeed lost too much, but not their collective memory. The tanks will have to go soon, and so will the generals, the soldiers and their Iraqi informants. I can already hear the chants of the demonstrators and read the signs. The clock is already ticking, and the message is so simple even Bush can understand it: Leave!
In the Thousand and One Nights, that great work eternally synonymous with Baghdad, when morning comes, Sheherazade, the mother of all narrators, must embrace silence and leave her readers to wonder about where the narrative will go next. It is mourning time for me, and Baghdad is now enveloped in a long, cruel and starless night. She will wake up once more and will try to forget, as she has done in the past. Meanwhile, I will tend to her scars, ward off future nightmares and shower her with kisses and love from afar.