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In images that typify one aspect of the US-led occupation of Iraq, a boy whose expression speaks sadness looks at an occupation soldier (left) as another soldier hides behind a column and waits to carry out his next attack
By Sinan Antoon
How unfair of you
To be gone for so long!
What am I to say
To those who ask about you?
So goes a traditional Iraqi song I found myself humming as I looked at the old palm tree. The neighbors' palm tree reminded me of the twelve years that had distanced me from it and from Baghdad. The light wind incited its fronds to waive and inquire ever so gently: Where have you been and why are you back now? Do you still remember the long hours you spent looking at me? I still remember the glitter in your eyes as you watched me bathe under the rain. And I remember how you used to watch that deaf old man who used to climb me to trim my leaves and plant the new seeds every year. I know very well that the sweetness of what trickled down from me is still in your tongue's memory after all these years. Don't be afraid. I know why you left and why you are back.
Everything seemed broken and sad except the palm tree. Still soaring high above all that is transient. Perhaps because it is more accepting of the logic of these seasons, no matter how absurd, and of the inevitability of their rhythm, no matter how cruel. Perhaps because it has acquired all the wisdom of the aging soil that has witnessed much death and many a war. But, then again, perhaps my dialogue with the palm tree is no more than an escape from the hell I saw in Baghdad? Or merely another snare weaved by language, memory and nostalgia?
I have no god to run to! Will you be my silent and enchanting god? I asked.
Not all palm tress in Iraq are like the neighbors' palm tree. Iraqis and palm trees: Who resembles whom? Some have been charred so that their fronds are blackened or have become ashes. Some bent or hunched, but still trying to rise up and stand. Some are broken and embracing the earth. Some abandoned and left dying of thirst on sidewalks. Some are beheaded or are about to be so. Many still carrying their burdens and a remainder of dreams that others want to snatch away, even when they are about to dry.
Thirty million palm trees stand on Iraq's soil together with 26 million Iraqis. Each dreaming of a safe spot in that vast orchard. What an orchard? Burdened with taxes of history and geography!
Kahramana Square was one of my favorite spaces in Baghdad. Kahramana was the ingenuous slave girl who outwits Ali Baba's 40 thieves and convinces them to hide in jars, then proceeds to pour boiling oil on them. Inspired by her story in the Arabian Nights, the famous Iraqi sculptor Mohamed Ghani captured the moment very well, but in a less violent manner. His Kahramana pours water instead, and the 40 jars are fountains with water gushing upward from each one to the next. The square is between Al- Karrada and the now very famous Al-Firdaws Square (where the symbolic toppling took place).
Every time I walked by it I'd look and marvel at the simple, yet exceptionally beautiful, structure and, after crossing the street, used to savour the scent of the two or three apricot trees that lined the right-hand side of the beginning of Al- Karrada Street.
This past July I walked by Kahramana Square many times and even stood in that very spot, searching, but to no avail. The trees were there, but the scent was no more. All I could smell was the stench of uncollected garbage. There was a reminder of the past, one too distant for my memory; a poster on the wall was trying to convince Iraqis of the merits of monarchy as "the surest path to democracy". Farther down, someone had scribbled: "US army go home."
Kahramana looked tired and thirsty. The fountains were silent and she was pouring nothingness into the forty jars. Was she sad that the thieves had escaped from the jars and were all over the city, multiplying and crowding the sidewalks? A few miles away, close to Al-Tahrir Square, they were bold enough to establish what people called Souq Al-Haramiya (The Thieves' Market) where all kinds of looted paraphernalia could be bought. I'd wanted to go and see for myself, but was advised not to. "If you don't have a gun yourself, what you buy might be retrieved by someone else before you leave the other end of the market." In the daytime, the sidewalks of Al-Karrada were crowded with commodities brought from neighbouring countries. Most of them were beyond the means of average Baghdadis, but the spectacle is all that counts. The procedures at the border were a farce. An Iraqi man in slippers and a pair of pajamas stood outside his office (to escape the heat). An American soldier looked at our passports and handed them to this fellow who stamped them. That was it. One could almost bring an elephant in! No wonder Al-Qa'eda is now wandering around Iraq slaughtering Iraqis left and right. Aside from toppling Saddam -- an unavoidable by-product rather than the actual objective of the war -- the introduction of Al- Qa'eda to the daily lives of Iraqis is the major achievement of American occupation. Iraqis are just unfortunate to have to start with the disadvantages of the pax Americana. Starbucks, McDonald's and the rest will follow very soon.
One could also see the war merchants enjoying life in the few open restaurants, brandishing their expensive Thuraya phones and talking business by the mouthful.
The billion-siphoning fat cats, however, would be too huge, too amorphous and transnational for Kahramana's traditional jars. Bechtel's offices were less than half a mile away on the second floor of Ishtar Hotel (It used to be the Ishtar Sheraton, but was de-Sheratonised after the sanctions -- 1990-2003 -- did their job to Iraq's economy and infrastructure). After filming all day long, we used to check our e-mail at the Ishtar. In addition to journalists and Iraqis writing to their relatives abroad, there were sometimes businessmen shouting on phones, or writing e- mails. We would then walk back to our tiny hotel, sometimes past the curfew. The streets were eerily empty and dark. No cars dared drive after the curfew. A stray dog, oblivious to occupation (or liberation) would sometimes accompany us on our way back. At times the wind would carry a page from a newspaper, or a plastic bag, but always with the stench of uncollected garbage. Passing by Kahramana I would ask her in silence, how many thousands of her species would it take to outwit these multinational hyenas sinking their claws into Iraq's future? She never answered.
Wrinkles. Time and tyranny had conspired to draw wrinkles everywhere. I saw them crawling everywhere. On the skin of the streets and the sidewalks. On the walls and ceilings in our house. On the mirror in the bathroom. On the calendar crucified in the living room. On the windows which were shaken by that humane war. On the faces of neighbours and relatives. Punctuating their sighs and tears. They were everywhere, except on children's faces, where smiles were sailing . . . against the wind!
The Union of Iraqi Writers was another stop for the mayhem. The internal Mongol, created by Saddam, his violence and wars, and nurtured by Uncle Sam's sanctions, left his traces here as well. The air-conditioners were stolen, records were scattered and most of the artwork was looted. But there is hope in the newly elected committee of the union, which had already started an ambitious weekly programme of readings and activities (conducted at noon for security reasons).
Al-Jawahiri, who died in the exile he so eloquently sang of, returned at last to reclaim his place. A picture showing his vigour, despite the white hair, crowned the entrance to the main hall. He once wrote: To those who protest my premature hoariness, I say: This is dust from my battles! This spot used to be reserved exclusively for Saddam, but his statues and murals are all gone now. I wonder if he's spending his time committing another crime against literature.
Were he alive today what would Al-Jawahiri say? That is the question that crossed my mind as I walked under his image. He surely would've roared in anger and pain as he saw his Iraq finish the cycle it had begun when Al-Jawahiri opened his eyes unto this world. What an absurd cycle whose dreams, nightmares and blood are all be found in his poetry. From a bloodied embryo at the beginning of the last century to a nation-state trying to escape the claws of colonialism and faltering as it tries to draw its own features; monarchy, coups, the republican period and a series of wars and this latest of calamities. And now, once again, Iraq is an embryo drenched in blood, carrying its old and new chains, reeling under a new occupation.
What Al-Jawahiri said half a century ago rings true today as if the ink has not yet dried:
I see a horizon, lit with blood
And a starless sky
A generation goes and another comes
And a fire blazes!
Al-Jawahiri, who was forced to flee Iraq in 1980 and was stripped of his Iraqi passport later, returned at last. The first Al-Jawahiri festival was inaugurated on the 26th of July 2003. It will be an annual tradition. There are also two statues of the poet and a street bearing his name.
I used to skip classes and wander around Baghdad with my high school friend in old Baghdad. We would start from Baab Al- Mu'azzam and end up in Al-Tahrir (Liberation) Square, checking out the bookshops there. The only time I saw Al-Rasheed Street empty was back in 1977. The regime was conducting a census and all citizens were told to stay home. The TV showed images of an empty Baghdad. It looked very sad and beautiful. This last July, after three wars and a population that has doubled, like its calamities, one can see Al-Rasheed Street empty almost everyday. After five or six in the evening, traffic ebbs and pedestrians disappear. People hide in their homes. Too much killing and rape. Only the wind can afford to wander around, carrying the stench and smoke from burning piles of uncollected garbage. I'd wanted our documentary film to include scenes of Al-Rasheed as it is now. Our driver grumbled, as usual, when we asked to go to an iffy area in terms of security. "Yesterday they stopped a car here, stole everything and killed the driver." He succumbed, but only after much haggling. We started from the statue of Al-Rusafi, the famous poet, and ended up at the end of the street, near Al-Tahrir Square right before sunset. I asked him to park so I could take a photograph of the famous Chaqmaqchi Records. It looked like it'd been closed for months, or maybe years. Everything was shut. The driver urged me to hurry up. "We need to get out of here!"
I turned to the Liberty Monument and tried to focus the camera. I heard a roaring noise from the left. I hurried and took the picture. When I looked up there were two armoured vehicles approaching. They passed us by and headed south towards Abu Nuwas Street. I looked at the digital screen to check the picture I'd just taken. Liberation monument looked a bit foggy and distant.
Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi poet and novelist. He returned to Iraq in July 2003 with InCounter Productions, a collective of artists and activists, to film a documentary about post-Saddam Iraq entitled About Baghdad .