Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2003
Issue No. 634
Baghdad Supplement
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Remembrance of things past

On the City of Peace, Baghdad

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The Arch of Ctesiphon, Baghdad; Prince Faisal proclaimed King of Iraq, 23 August 1921; Khaled Al-Jader, Coffeeshop
"BAGHDAD is an ancient city, and although it has never ceased to be the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and the pivot of the Qurayshite, Hashimite Imams' claims, most of its traces have gone, leaving only a famous name. In comparison with its former state, before misfortune struck it and the eyes of adversity turned towards it, it is like an effaced ruin, a remain washed out; or the statue of a ghost. It has no beauty that attracts the eye, or calls him who is restless to depart to neglect his business and to gaze. None but the Tigris which runs between its eastern and its western parts like a mirror shining between two frames, or like a string of pearls between two breasts. The city drinks from it and does not thirst, and looks into a polished mirror that does not tarnish. And the beauty of its women, wrought between its waters and its air, is celebrated and talked of through the lands, so that if God does not give protection, there are the dangers of love's seductions.

As to its people, you scarce can find among them any who do no affect humility, but who yet are vain and proud. Strangers they despise, and they show scorn and disdain to their inferiors, while the stories and news of other men they belittle. Each conceives, in belief and thought, that the whole world is but trivial in comparison with his land, and over the face of the world they find no noble place of living save their own. It is as if they are persuaded that God has no lands or people save theirs. They trail their skirts trippingly and with insolence, turning not, in deference to God, from that which He disapproves, deeming that the highest glory consists in trailing one's mantle, and knowing not that the garment, in accordance with tradition, shall go to the flames. Their business they contract with borrowed gold, but none among them 'give any loan to God' [Qur'an II, 246]. ... You can hardly gain the better of the leading men of its inhabitants by honest truthfulness, and there is not one of its weighers and measurers to whom does not apply the 'Woe to the defaulters' of the Sura of the Defaulters [Qur'an LXXXIII]. They feel no shame in this... The stranger with them is without fellowship, his expenses are doubled, and he will find amongst them none who do not practise hypocrisy with him or make merry with him only for some profit or benefit. It is as if they are forced to this false form of friendship as a condition of gaining peace and agreement in their lives together. The ill-conduct of the people of this town is stronger than the character of its air and water, and detracts from the probity of its traditions and its reports.

I beg the pardon of God for them all save their tradition-bearing faqihs and recollective preachers, for there is no doubt that in the way of preaching and reminding, in persistent admonishment and making to understand, in the assiduous giving of fearful warnings and cautions, they are in a position to claim God's compassion such as will unload these people of many sins, pull the train of pardon over their sinful steps, and prevent the severest disaster from falling upon their houses. But with such men they are beating steel when cold, and seeking to make ice gush water. ...

As we have said, this city has two parts, an eastern and a western, and the Tigris passes between them. Its western part is wholly overcome by ruin. It was the first part to be populated, and the eastern part was but recently inhabited. Nevertheless, despite the ruins, it contains seventeen quarters, each quarter being a separate town. Each has two or three baths, and in eight of them is a congregational mosque where the Friday prayers are said. The largest of these quarters is Al-Qurayah, where we lodged in a part called Al-Murabba' on the banks of the Tigris and near to the bridge. This bridge had been carried away by the river in its flood, and the people had turned to crossing by boats. These boats were beyond count; the people, men, and women, who night and day continuously cross in recreation are likewise numberless. Ordinarily, and because of the many people, the river had two bridges, one near the palaces of the Caliph, and the other above it. The crossings in the boats are now ceaseless.

Then comes Al-Karkh, a noted city, then that of Bab Al-Basra, which also is a city and has in it the mosque of Al-Mansur -- may God hold him in His favour. It is a large mosque, anciently built, and embellished. Next is Al-Shari', also a city. These are the four largest quarters. Between the Al-Shari' and Bab Al-Basra quarters is the Suq Al-Maristan, which itself is a small city and contains the famous Baghdad Hospital. It is on the Tigris, and every Monday and Thursday physicians visit it to examine the state of the sick, and to prescribe for them what they might need. At their disposal are persons who undertake the preparation of the foods and medicines. The hospital is a large palace, with chambers and closets and all the appurtenances of a royal dwellings. Water comes into it from the Tigris. ...

Another quarter is that called Al-Attabiya, where are made the clothes from which it takes its names, they being of silk and cotton in various colours. Then comes Al-Haribiyya, which is the highest (on the river bank) and beyond which is nothing but the villages outside Baghdad.

To the east of the town, on an eminence outside it, is a large quarter beside the quarter of Al-Rusafa, where, on the bank, was the famous Bab Al-Taq. In this quarter is a shrine, superbly built, with a white dome rising into the air, containing the tomb of the imam Abu Hanifa -- may God hold him in his favour, by which name the quarter is known. Near this quarter is the tomb of the imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal -- may God hold him in His favour -- and also in this part is the tomb of Abu Bakr Al-Shibli -- may God's mercy rest upon his soul -- and that of Al-Husayn Ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj. In Baghdad many are the tombs of pious men -- may God hold them all in His favour.

In the western part of the city are the orchards and walled in gardens whence are brought fruits to the eastern part. This today is the home of the Caliph, and that is honour and circumstance enough for it. The Caliph's palaces lie at its periphery and comprise a quarter or more of it, for all the Abbasids live in sumptuous confinement in those palaces, neither going forth nor being seen, and having a settled stipend. ... [The Caliph] appears little before the public, being busy with his affairs concerning the palaces, their guardianship, the responsibility of their locks, and their inspection night and day....

The eastern part of the city has magnificent markets, is arranged on the grand scale and enfolds a population that none could count save God Most High, who computes all things. It has three congregational mosques, in all of which the Friday prayers are said. The Caliph's mosque, which adjoins the palace, is vast and has large water containers and many and excellent conveniences for the ritual ablutions and cleansing....

The baths in the city cannot be counted, but one of the town's sheikhs told us that, in the eastern and western parts together, there are about two thousand. Most of them are faced with bitumen, so that the beholder might conceive them to be of black, polished marble; and almost all the baths of these parts are of this type because of the large amount of bitumen they have... The ordinary mosques in both the eastern and the western parts cannot be estimated, much less counted. The colleges are about thirty, and all in the eastern part; and there is not one of them that does not outdo the finest palace. The greatest and most famous of them is the Nizamiya, which was built by Nizam Al-Mulk and restored in 504 AH. These colleges have large endowments and tied properties that give sustenance to the faqihs who teach in them, and are dispensed on the scholars....

To be short, the state of this city is greater than can be described. But ah, what is she to what she was! Today we may apply to her the saying of the lover: You are not you, and the houses are not those I knew."

Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, 1184

Bab Al-Taq

ABUL-WAFA' Ibn 'Aqil said: "An important personage from Tariq Hurasan once asked me about Baghdad and what I remembered of it. I answered him as follows:

"I will not describe to you what you might find hard to believe. I will simply give you a description of my own quarter, which is but one of 10, each the size of a Syrian town, namely Bab Al-Taq.

"As for its streets, there is one which closely follows the Tigris. On one of its sides, it has palaces overlooking the river, and disposed in such fashion as to spread all the way from the bridge to the beginning of the Zahir Garden. This garden, which belongs to the king, is about 200 gharibs [70 acres] in size. On the other side of the street are the mosques of the owners of these palaces, and the dwellings of their soldiers, in between which they have their stables.

"Close to this street, on the right of it, at the bridge, is Souq Yahya which unites the palaces of the wazirs and the amirs close to the river bank; such as Dar Sadi, Dar Al-Rabib, Dar Ibn Al-Awhad, and Qasr Al-Waff whose mounts consumed a daily measure of fodder amounting to 1,000 nose-bags. Then, at the end of this souq, there is Dar Farag (where) the dwellings of pious men and (their) superiors (are located).

"On the other side -- that is, the other side of Souq Yahya -- are the tall shops and roads prosperous with flour merchants, bakers and sweet-meat makers. Then, the last of the riverside palaces is that of Mu'izz Al-dawla, the dyke of which is 100 brick-lengths wide. It had a wonderful balcony.

"Such is the aspect of Bab Al-Taq on the bank of the Tigris. As for the various parts of its interior, there is, at first, the great space which is the Bridge Square. This square is divided into two large streets, one of which is for the shoemakers. Then there is Souq Al-Tayr, a market where all kinds of flowers may be found, and on the sides of which are the elegant shops of the money-changers and the sellers of taylasans and rich apparel. Then there is Souq Al-Ma'kul, (Souq) Al-Habbazin, (Souq) Al-Qassabin and Souq Al-Saga unequaled for the beauty of its architecture: tall buildings with beams of teakwood supporting overhanging rooms.

"Then there is (Souq) Al-Warraqin a large one which is also the meeting place of learned men and poets; then Souq Al-Rusafa vast and all- inclusive; then Sari' Al-Turab, Qasr Al-Mahdi, the Rusafa Mosque, Darb Al-Rum, Shari' Abdel-Samad, and the wonderful water fountains on the road to the mosque with their many caretakers.

"Comparable to this on the west bank is Al-Karh, on the shore of which are palaces, in orderly disposition, all with water-wheels, gardens, and balconies facing (those across the Tigris). A khaytiyya-vessel, in good trim, awaits the lord of the palace, in front of it, with beautiful finery and marvelous woodwork. And the ducks playfully swim together on the wharf of the riverside palace. Many a time would the singing voices of this quarter mix with the sound of its waterwheels, the quacking of its ducks, the clamor of its soldiers and servants, while the Tigris gently streamed along between the two rows of its riverside palaces. And many a time did I sail along in a sumayuriyya-vessel, hearing these melodious sounds all the way from the head of the bridge at Bab Al-Taq down to Bab Al-Maratib.

"The riverside palaces used to have doors leading to their thoroughfares, and in front of each door there were saddled mounts kept in readiness for travel on land, just as in front of their balconies, a Khaytiyya- or zabzab- vessel was to be found for travel on water.

"The inhabitants appeared to be in a state of continual celebration, not lacking in occasions for the circumcision of an infant boy, or the marrying of a woman. And on Saturdays, there were the assemblies for the modulated recitations of the Qur'an from the pulpits, fencing and wrestling shows, and boat racing.

"Among the most beautiful palaces on the west side was Dar Al-Fahriyya, and on the east side, Dar Al-Mamlaka. For the 'Izziya Palace, there was no better counterpart than ... and Dar Ildarak and the Harim Al-Tahiri with its riverside palaces, its encircling wall and its iron gate, and also the Palace of the Prince Hassan b. Ishaq b. Al-Muqtadir who was offered the caliphate and refused it.

"Behind the Harim is Shari' Dar Al-Raqiq, a large quarter with many wonderful dwellings; then Darb Sulayman, the Maristan Hospital and its wondrous souq; then the riverside Palace of the Syndicate.

"I used to hear from the old men that there were 500 masfara-vessels, beautifully adorned, sailed only by the most elegant of merchants, military officers and feudal lords -- the man, his servant and the sailors all in beautiful costumes.

"Then there is Bab Al-Basra with its long streets.

"On the east side, there is the Zahir, a vast garden of datepalms and flowers. Behind it are three quarters: Souq Al-Silah, the Muharrim, and Souq Al-Dabba. The buildings stretch all the way to Nahr Mu'alla. There is also Dar Al-Khilafa, and its wonderful tag (palace), a town in itself. There is also Bab Al-Maratib, an exclusive quarter for persons of eminence and government officials; then also Bab Al-Azag and the Ma'muniyya.

"On the west side, are Qasr 'Isa, Qasr Al-Ma'mun, the Tuta, and others.

"The Karkh has a number of wondrous dwellings of beautiful architecture. In it are Darb Al-Za'faran, where the wonderful palaces are located, Darb Riyah, Shari' Ibn Abi 'Awf, and Bab Muhawwal. There used to be, within Sur Al-Halawiyyin, a library containing 12,000 volumes.

"In the marketplaces of the Karkh and Bab Al-Taq, the perfumers did not mix with the merchants of greasy, and other offensive odors; nor did the merchants of new articles mix with those of used articles. Some roads were the exclusive residence places of persons of dignity: Darb Al-Za'faran in the Karkh used to be inhabited, not by craftsmen, but rather by the merchants of dry goods and perfumes; and Darb Sulayman, in the Rusafa used to be exclusively for qadis, shuhud-notaries and elegant merchants."

Ibn 'Aqil, Kitab Al-Funun (11th century)

The Fall of Baghdad (1258)

"THEN came the year 656 [1258], in which the Tatars captured Baghdad and killed most of its people, including the caliph, and the dominion [dawla] of the sons of 'Abbas ended there.

When this year began, the Tatar armies had already attacked Baghdad, under the two amirs who commanded the troops of the sultan of the Tatars, Hulegu Khan. To them came the auxiliaries of the lord of Mosul, to help them against the Baghdadis, with provisions and gifts and offerings from him. He did all this because he feared for himself from the Tatars and wished to ingratiate himself with them, may God condemn them. Baghdad was defended, and mangonels and onagers were set up, with other instruments of defence, which however, cannot avert any part of God's decree. As the Prophet said, "Caution does not avail against fate" and as God said, "When God's term comes it cannot be deferred" [Qur'an, Ixxi, 4] and also: "God does not change what is in a people until they change what is in themselves, when God wishes evil for a people, they cannot avert it, and they have no other protector" [Qur'an, xiii, II].

The Tatars surrounded the seat of the caliphate and rained arrows on it from every side until a slave-girl was hit while she was playing before the caliph and amusing him. She was one of his concubines, a mulatta called 'Urfa, and an arrow came through one of the windows and killed her while she was dancing before the caliph. The caliph was alarmed and very frightened. The arrow which had hit her was brought to him, and on it was written. "When God wishes to accomplish His decree, he deprives men of reason of their reason." After this the caliph ordered increased precautions, and the defences of the seat of the caliphate were multiplied.

The arrival of Hulegu Khan at Baghdad with all his troops, numbering nearly 200,000 fighting men, occurred on 12 Muharram of this year [January 19, 1258] ... he came to Baghdad with his numerous infidel, profligate, tyrannical, brutal armies of men, who believed neither in God nor in the Last Day, and invested Baghdad on the western and eastern sides. The armies of Baghdad were very few and utterly wretched, not reaching 10,000 horsemen. They and the rest of the army had all been deprived of their fiefs [iqta'] so that many of them were begging in the markets and by the gates of the mosques. Poets were reciting elegies on them and mourning for Islam and its people. All this was due to the opinions of the vizier Ibn Al-'Alqami the Shi'ite, because in the previous year, when heavy fighting took place between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, Karkh and the Shi'ite quarter were looted, and even the houses of the vizier's kinsmen were looted. He was filled with spite because of this, and this was what spurred him to bring down on Islam and its people the most appalling calamity that has been recorded from the building of Baghdad until this time. That is why he was the first to go out to the Tatars. He went with his family and his companions and his servants and his suite and met Sultan Hulegu Khan, may God curse him, and then returned and advised the caliph to go out to him and be received by him in audience and to make peace on the basis of half the land tax of Iraq for them and half for the caliph. The caliph had to go with 700 riders, including the qadis, the jurists, the Sufis, the chief amirs, and the notables. When they came near the camp of Sultan Hulegu Khan, all but 17 of them were removed from the sight of the caliph; they were taken off their horses and robbed and killed to the very last man. The caliph and the others were saved. The caliph was then brought before Hulegu, who asked him many things. It is said that the caliph's speech was confused because of his terror at the disdain and arrogance which he experienced. Then he returned to Baghdad in the company of Khoja Nasireddin Al-Tusi, the Vizier Ibn Al-'Alqami, and others, the caliph being under guard and sequestration, and they brought great quantities of gold and jewels and gold and silver objects and precious stones and other valuables from the seat of the caliphate. But this clique of Shi'ites and other hypocrites advised Hulegu not to make peace with the caliph. The vizier said, "If peace is made on equal shares, it will not last more than a year or two, and then things will be as they were before." And they made the killing of the caliph seem good to him so that when the caliph returned to Sultan Hulegu he gave orders to kill him...

They [the Tatars] came down upon the city and killed all they could, men, women and children, the old, the middle-aged, and the young. Many of the people went into wells, latrines, and sewers and hid there for many days without emerging. Most of the people gathered in the caravanserais and locked themselves in. The Tatars opened the gates by either breaking or burning them. When they entered, the people in them fled upstairs and the Tatars killed them on the roofs until blood poured from the gutters into the street; "We belong to God and to God we return" [Qur'an, ii, 156]. The same happened in the mosques and cathedral mosques and dervish convents. No one escaped them except for the Jewish and Christian dhimmis, those who found shelter with them or in the house of the Vizier Ibn Al-'Alqami the Shi'ite, and a group of merchants who had obtained safe-conduct from them, having paid great sums of money to preserve themselves and their property. And Baghdad, which had been the most civilised of all cities, became a ruin with only a few inhabitants, and they were in fear and hunger and wretchedness and insignificance."

Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wa Al-Nihaya, 14th century.

Coffeehouses of Baghdad

THE first coffeehouse known to have opened in Baghdad was the Gavalazada Café during the time of governor Gavala Sinan Pasha. It was located in Khan Al- Kamrak on the road leading to the Sa'atiyya (watchmakers) Market, just behind the Mustansiriya School.

Later on, the Hassan Pasha Café opened near Al-Wazir Mosque on the River Tigris, not far from the bridge on the al-Rusafa side of Al-Mamoun Street. The owner employed smartly dressed, good-looking young men to serve Arab coffee and narjila as the customers chatted, sipping their drinks from elegant copperware and listening to folk music.

Another popular coffeehouse on the River Tigris in al-Rusafa was the Al- Shatt Café. This occupied a prime location at the end of Al-Kamrak Market, near the intersection of Al-Sawaal and Al-Nahr Streets. This particular establishment had a distinctive musical tradition, for it featured performances by well-known singers such as Ahmed Zeidan and Rashid Al-Kundarji.

Al-Shatt Café had two floors, each containing a coffeehouse owned and operated separately. The ground-floor café was owned by Hajj Ali. The top floor was owned by Hassan Safw, and it featured two daily performances of dancing, one in the late afternoon and another at night. Dancers such as Tabara, Farida, and Rahalu made their names performing in this venue. The ground- floor café, that owned by Hajj Ali, doubled as an important trading centre. Its location and pleasant view of the River Tigris made it a convenient gathering place for traders, and merchants dealing in grain, leather and wool would assemble there to negotiate their transactions over coffee. The place soon became a magnet for all the wheelers and dealers of Baghdad.

Lower-class coffeehouses spread throughout Baghdad under Ottoman and British rule, as a result of economic hardship, political oppression and social problems. Iraqis sought refuge from their daily troubles in the calming ambiance of the coffeehouse. An Iraqi saying of the time declares that, "coffee and a smoke will make you cope." A certain Baghdadi writer lamented that "Baghdad became one big coffeehouse in the Ottoman era, for the unemployed had time on their hands and nothing to do."

Coffeehouses also played a major role in formulating public opinion and in spreading new ideas, and they were surpassed only by mosques and churches as places where national, cultural and social identity was moulded. To this day, coffeehouses have a tradition of public debate that transcends class and social boundaries.

A working-class coffeehouse I remember was in al-Uwayna, where we used to spend the feast. We had a great time in al-Uwayna. The place itself was slushy, with water oozing off the muddy ground. The air was stale and tepid. But none of this mattered. We were dazzled by the many opportunities for fun the place offered. There were swings tied by ropes to palm trunks, and carousels to ride, as well as a throng of food merchants hawking delicious drinks and sweets.

In front of Al-Uwayna Elementary School there was a coffeehouse where fencing games and cockfights were held. How impressive the fencers were, with their nimble movements and precise alertness. And how sad it was for the defeated cock, cowering in the corner or hiding under the seats, humiliated and bleeding.

As I grew into late childhood, my brother Ibrahim started taking me to the Salihiya coffeehouses on special occasions. He would take me by the hand, and we would walk the entire distance from Debotna to Arbakhana Avenue and Maud Bridge, and from there we would venture into the Al-Karkh section of Baghdad.

As we approached Al-Salihiya Street, I would be overjoyed at the sight of working-class cafés dotting the right side of the unpaved street, never bothered by the dust that flew up each time a coach passed. I still remember the sweet scent issuing from the orchards on the left side of the street.

I would strive, hopping in short steps, to keep up with my older brother, who favoured a coffeehouse located where the Iraqi Museum is now. Ibrahim would sit next to the professional storyteller and get into discussions about the well-known crooner Mohamed Al- Qubbanji and the different keys of his songs (Al-Lami, Al-Banjka, Al-Rast, Al-Qatar, Al-Ibrahimi, Al-Bahirzawi). Ibrahim and his friends would go on about the virtuosity and patriotism of Al-Qubanji, who wrote and sang political lyrics about independence and freedom.

By the time I joined my brothers in the Sa'atiyya Market, I had had a glimpse of the Tuggar (merchants) Café on the right side of Al-Samaw'al Street. This café was popular among bankers, and merchants of fabric, carpets, antiques, grain, dates, leather and wool, as well as farmers and estate agents. In a sense, it served as a bourse of sorts. Currency speculation and speculation on gold and silver took place there, for this café was close to all the major markets and surrounded by commercial complexes. At that time, the Jewish community had a firm grip over commerce and the market in general.

As I stepped gingerly into early manhood, I used to walk with a group of friends down Al-Rasheed Street to Al- Muazzam Gate to watch football matches on Al-Kashshafa Square. The journey back home was also on foot, as transportation was scarce -- or beyond our means -- at the time. As soon as we approached the Haydarkhana Mosque, the Arif Agha Café would come into sight. This was the hangout of the well- known patriotic poet Marouf Al-Rusafi. The nearby Hassan Ajami Café was where the great poet Mohamed Mahdi Al-Jawahiri used to sit with the literary luminaries of the time.

A few steps to the right, you would find Zahawi Café, which survives to this day and is named after the poet and philosopher Jamil Sidqi Al-Zahawi. I still remember how Al-Zahawi, then a venerable old man, would insist on paying the bill of every friend who would sit anywhere close to him. His pockets were always filled with coins, always available to pay for other people's drinks. This is mainly how he spent the 13 Dinars of pension he received for a lifetime of dedication to science, poetry and literature.

In the late 1940s, I used to go to the Zahawi Café with a group of friends, mostly intellectual and artistic types. The coffeehouse was a cultural hub, with young and old intellectuals engaging in heated debate. Poets, journalists and writers would sit in one corner. Painters and sculptors, poets and singers would also be there. Their calm composure impressed me, so did the smoothness with which they exchanged ideas and articulated their thoughts.

One should also mention the Abu Ali Café, popular in the mid-thirties, that was located near the East Gate. Its wooden benches were separated from the waterfront by a dirt street barely one metre wide. This street is now called Abu Nuwwas. Among the clientele of this particular café were the veteran journalist Ibrahim Salih Shukr, the nationalist agitator Yunis Al-Sabawi, and Abdel-Qader Ismail, Hussein Jamil, Abdel-Qader Al-Mumayyaz, Mohamed Al- Toreihi, Yusuf Rojeib and Khalaf Shawqi Al-Dawoudi.

My friend Mohamed Al-Toreihi once told me a story about the Abu Ali Café. When Arshad Al-Imari was governor of Baghdad, he ordered the owner of this coffeehouse to replace the old-style wooden benches with Paris-style metal ones, presumably to encourage the course of modernity. Abu Ali did just that, and lost his clientele, the latter moving on to another Baghdad coffeehouse that had conventional wooden furniture.

In the early 1940s, many coffeehouse establishments appeared on Abu Nuwwas Street. The most popular was Balqis Café, a first-floor affair with a view of the Tigris. Successful young men, intellectuals, officers, students, writers, poets and artists went there to sip their tea and milk from modern ceramic cups. My friends never dared to climb its steps, being unable to pay the 20p it charged for a drink. Instead, we patronised the neighbouring Café Yasin. The owner, Yasin, was a jovial fellow with traditional Baghdad demeanour and an ever-present smile. He was particularly attentive to the needs of students, often hushing the other customers so that they could revise their classes in peace. Every so often, he would serve us free drinks.

By the late 1930s, coffeehouses had sprouted everywhere along Al-Sadoun Street, where the leafy branches of the surrounding gardens provided a natural canopy for the tables on the pavements. These cafés were mostly country-style affairs, and their clientele were mostly estate agents, engineers and architects, as the Battallin and East Karadah districts were witnessing intensive development at that time. Music lovers, horse breeders and bird enthusiasts also frequented the place to smoke a narjila, or to play a game of dominos or trick- truck.

One of my favourite haunts was the Majid Café near Al-Nasr Square. I would go there to meet the late Hajj Nazim, Hajj Mahdi, Hajj Ibrahim, Hajj Mahdi Abul-Taman, Hajj Mahmoud Wannas, Hajj Wishwash and Al-Mimar Al-Difaie. Proceeding from there down Al-Rasheed Street, toward the Sayyid Sultan Ali Mosque, one would come to the Mulla Hamadi Café, situated opposite Cinema Al-Zawra. A few steps further on was the Brazilian Café, an elegant affair emitting a delicious scent of strong coffee onto the pavement outside. Its clientele was young, ambitious and going places: officers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, teachers, writers, poets and artists.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ibrahim Arab Café became one of Baghdad's most popular haunts. It was situated in Al-Karantina, near the premises of the Al-Yawm newspaper. College students found the location convenient, for it was close to the Engineering College, the Higher Teaching Institute, the Queen Alya College, the Law School, the Medical School and the Pharmacology College. Students used the facility as a reading room as they crammed for their term and final exams. The establishment also served as an assembly point during student protests.

One particularly interesting establishment was the Bird Café, where bird lovers exchanged stories about bird hunting and breeding and debated the finer points of birdcage design. They even organised contests, judging the beauty of their birds and the quality of their singing, pursuing these with the level of earnestness common among horse breeders.

Lower-class coffeehouses peppered the East Karadah neighbourhood. The Salloum Café was in the Saba' Kusur area, the laywi Al-Shukr Café at a riverside spot near the end of Abu Nuwwas Street and serving as a resting point for grain and dates dealers, as well as fishermen. The Hussein Al-Hamad Café did roaring business in the late thirties, as it was close to the Umm Al-Ana bus terminal close to the end of East Karadah Street. This last coffeehouse still retains its location, name and traditions to this day. The waiters and clientele have changed, but the narjilas, straw carpets, chairs, and old-fashioned service is still the same as ever.

Extracted from Baghdad, Sira wa Madina, Naji Jawad, Beirut: Al-Mu'asasah Al-Arabiya lil-Dirasat wa Al-Nashr, 2000.

Ottoman Baghdad

BAGHDAD BRIDGES : In the Ottoman period, Baghdad had no well-furnished bridges to speak of. The people of the city had great difficulty crossing from one side of the Tigris River to the other in the flood season, and the only means available was a round boat or a skiff.

During the rule of provincial governor Mustafa Asim Pasha, in 1889 a bridge was erected at the Qarara crossing, composed of a series of wooden rafts.

In 1897, the Khirr Bridge was inaugurated in the presence of provincial governor Ata Pasha, as well as Field Marshal Rajab Pasha and high state officials, both military and civilian. The bridge was called the Hamidi Bridge, but people continued to call it the Khirr Bridge. It still exists today and is passable.

There were two bridges in Baghdad, one in A'zamiyya and one in Baghdad, called the A'zamiyya Bridge and the Baghdad Bridge, respectively. Both were made from wooden planks put together in the form of rafts and bound with heavy chains. The bridges spanned the Tigris from the east and west banks, and underneath the Baghdad Bridge there was a spacious area for coffee shops, food vendors and cigarette peddlers.

During the floods, the Baghdad Bridge was impassable, and when it once again became usable, a great celebration would be held. The city's residents would parade in the streets playing the mizmar and beating drums, joyful that the bridge was once again usable. The Baghdad Bridge remained thus until the rule of the young provincial governor Namiq Pasha. By that time it had gone to ruin and could not be crossed. When Namiq Pasha saw it, he thought it unsuitable for Baghdad and ordered that a modern bridge be built. The vocational school built it in 1902, and it was quite splendid. It boasted modern cafes, the most lovely sight on the Tigris. It is said, though I cannot verify it, that the governor of Baghdad, Namiq Pasha, was informed of his dismissal from the governorship of Baghdad the day he was to inaugurate the bridge and cross it according to the usual ceremonies. The judge of Baghdad inaugurated the bridge in the governor's stead, himself performing the ceremonies. In 1916, during World War I, the bridge was moved towards Sulayman Bey. When the Ottomans withdrew from Baghdad, it was set on fire, and it continued to burn all day and night.

THE POST AND TELEGRAPH: The postal service in Baghdad was conducted in the post office, or bostakhana. It was not well organised. Many times I would see a postman come out of the large gate mounted on his steed, carrying a whip and waving it in the air, while before him a number of horses carried the mail. As he rode out, he would call out in a loud voice letting people know the mail had arrived.

When people heard this, they would gather in the courtyard of the post office, itself in the square and now a part of Hassan Ibn Thabit Street. After people had gathered, such as merchants and others expecting correspondence, the official responsible for distributing letters would come out and call out the addresses written on the letters, giving them to their addressees. If the letters were not collected, the postman, or bostachi, would distribute them to their owners. The man who delivered a letter to its addressee would take 10 paras for each letter as a tip.

The telegraph office was in the telegraphkhana. In 1911, foundations for the new post and telegraph office were laid in the square across from what is today the Central Preparatory School for Boys. The office was completed in 1913 and inaugurated in the presence of Governor Hussein Jalal Bey and prominent officials. It is still standing and is called the Central Post Office.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF WORLD WAR I: Baghdad was living in peace and prosperity, when, on August 13, 1914, while people were safely bowing in prayer and holding to their fast, the Ottoman government surprised them by sounding the alarm and announcing the start of the world war, known among the citizens of Baghdad as al-safarbar.

On the walls we saw signs painted with a broad brush: "safar barlak war" or "wan". And underneath this phrase was the image of an intertwining sword and a rifle, and below them a picture of a cannon. The people of Baghdad soon changed the world "safar barlak" to "safar alak", in reference to the defeat. That inauspicious campaign was still firm in the minds of the Iraqis, and particularly the people of Baghdad, for they had lost more than 20,000 soldiers led by Hussameddin Pasha at Ardrum when they were fighting Russia, the soldiers having fallen victim to disease and the bitter cold. This great disaster left a trace of grief in all the homes of Baghdad.

THE FLOODING OF BAGHDAD: In the rule of Governor Jawid Pasha when the war was at full tilt, on October 15, 1914, the Tigris rose dramatically and water covered the streets of Baghdad as it had never done before. Baghdad was on the verge of completely flooding, and in the middle of the night a huge clamour went up as people woke their brothers, sons and compatriots to fight the water inundating their houses.

The flood occurred at the city's eastern gate, and it caused great distress, occurring at the same time as the British occupation of Basra. The cause of the flood was Izzat Al-Farisi, head of the Baghdad municipality, who had ordered the old dyke that had acted as a barrier to the water to be raised. When this dyke was raised, a huge wave of water churned into the district of Bab Al-Shaykh, flooding some of the homes surrounding the Mosque of Al-Sheikh Abdel-Qadir Al-Gaylani.

The water poured into shops opposite the Mosque of Al-Sheikh Omar Al-Suhrawardi, covering the tombs and some other homes. Every time people tried to create a dam, they failed. They started to erect dykes in alleys and roads, but in a flash the water had entered the Al-Izza district, pouring into Al-Fadl Market. At that point, the wails, screams, and cries went up again.

I saw the late Sheikh Said Al-Naqshbandi, brother of Sheikh Abdel-Wahhab, standing among a throng of women and children urging them to gather earth and put it on the dyke that had been erected. I remember that he gave an extemporary speech, which I cannot exactly remember, and he wept and made the people weep while he carried earth for the dyke in his jubba.

When people saw him carrying dirt, they worked furiously on the dyke. Drums were beating, screams were heard, and moaning and wailing were at their peak, but all to no avail. As God said in the Qur'an, "There is no defense today from God's will." The water swept away the dyke, and it rushed along to stop behind what is today the Fadl Primary School. If the Tigris waters had not eventually abated, the situation would have been very dangerous. People whose homes had been flooded left most of their belongings in their homes and went wherever God willed. Some took refuge in mosques, others went towards Al-Karkh, while others went to their relatives who lived far from the danger. I saw furniture in heaps in the water, as people had left it behind.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF JIHAD: After Basra fell to the British, the Islamic scholars in Istanbul issued a fatwa to all the Islamic countries and to the mosques of Baghdad in 1914. The fatwa spoke of the imminent danger to the Islamic nations, calling for jihad and raising the alarm in the face of the enemy.

A number of people answered the call to jihad for the sake of God and Islam in the wake of the fatwa. Among them, I remember Al-Sayed Abdel-Karim Aal, Al-Sayed Haydar and a group of his followers, among them Al-Hajj Sulayman Abul-Timn and Al-Hajj Dawoud Abul-Timn, and other respectable figures.

THE FIRST ENGLISH PLANE OVER BAGHDAD: On a Wednesday in 1915, the people of Baghdad saw the first English plane hovering in the Baghdad sky, and they were possessed by fear and terror. It became the subject of every tongue, but the plane did nothing to disturb the peace.

Excerpts from Baghdad Al-Qadima (Old Baghdad) by Abdel-Karim Al-'Allaf Baghdad: Matba'at Al-Ma'arif, 1960.


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