Baghdad's forgotten glory
Abu-Samih stood in front of his postcard kiosk, watching pedestrians in Al- Rasheed Street. The street stretches through the heart of Baghdad, an area about to disappear from memory. Many of the offices are empty, and the famous cafés have closed down. As for the 1920s style buildings, their memory is long gone now. Abu-Samih spoke of the mass exodus of the 1980s.
"Many businessmen, lawyers and professionals lived and worked here. Intellectuals used to gather at the Al-Baraziliyya café, but many of the street's landmarks have now disappeared." This deterioration in the street's status coincided with the changes in Iraqi economy and politics and the shift of power after the fall of the monarchy in 1958 from merchants and land-owning families to the army and businessmen linked to the ruling Ba'ath Party.
Starting in the 1980s, and with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), living on Al-Rasheed Street was no longer a source of pride. Businessmen set up their shops in Al-Mansur, and later in Al-Arasat, on the other side of the Tigris to cater to the nouveaux riches who made their money by outsmarting UN sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1990.
As for Baghdad's rich teenagers, they don't like to walk in Al-Rasheed. Rather, they prefer to drive their sports cars down Al-Arasat and have pizza there. It is easy to find stores selling Pierre Cardin in Al-Arasat, a street where one might think that Iraq is hardly suffering from the sanctions that the government has blamed for malnutrition and for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Property prices in Al- Mansur and Al-Arasat rocketed last year. These two areas are clean, and they have wide, tree-lined streets, but they lack Al-Rasheed's solid identity and the history told in a recent book. Al- Rasheed goes to the original parts of Baghdad, built by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in 762 CE, and these have almost entirely disappeared by now. The street is next to Al-Bab Al-Sharqi (Eastern Gate), the old city gate. Al-Mustansiriyya College, established in the 13th century and once home to 80,000 manuscripts, is also nearby.
Khalil Pasha, Baghdad's last Ottoman governor, inaugurated the street in 1916. Twelve newspapers had their offices here as well, but they shut down when the Ba'ath took over in 1968 and started to control the media.
"Times have changed," Abu-Samih added. "You don't find that mix of people now in Al-Rasheed...It was once full of people coming from all the governorates to shop." Wars and civil disturbances have imposed limitations on internal movement in Iraq. The Kurds who have controlled the North since the end of the 1991 war never come. The mostly Shi'ite south is poverty-stricken. Customers have changed as well. Demand for postcards showing Iraq's glory and its ancient civilisations of Sumer and Assyria is down.
Abu-Samih sells cheap postcards showing the Lebanese singer Najwa Karam, or football stars such as David Beckham and Francesco Tuti. As for the old tourist postcards, they are yellow and have not been touched for years. "They were printed in Italy and were popular....Iraq was never a tourist mecca, like Turkey, but there was some movement and the hotels in Al-Rasheed were full."
Some landmarks are still there, such as the old Umm Kulthoum Café and the statue of the famous poet Ma'ruf Al-Rusafi. A small group still gathers on Fridays to listen to the traditional Iraqi maqam at the Baghdad Museum.
At the Umm Kulthoum Café, the crowd is usually made up of old geezers sipping their tea and listening to the Egyptian diva's immortal songs on an old stereo. Zayid, a die-hard Umm Kalthoum fan, bought the café from its original owners and renovated it. "Tastes change," he said, "but we must preserve all that is authentic, especially Al-Rasheed Street. I didn't buy this cafe for commercial reasons. There haven't been many who have made any profit here since the collapse of the Iraqi Dinar."
Sunday, February 23, 2003. elaph.com