Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

City born of a dream

Across Baghdad are broken memories and roots of endurance, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti

Always before sundown prayers, thousands of worshippers flock into mosques with domes and golden minarets, some with ancient timepieces. The clock chimes in the Kilani mausoleum, close to a great white dome, said to be the largest in the world. The architect of this dome was Sinan Pasha, a man who built splendid Ottoman palaces and mosques. The clock chimes and my heart skips a beat. One day has passed without war, or nearly without war. The day is not over yet. The night is still to come, and one's mind clings to Baghdad as if in a dream. The memory of one tormented night is still alive -- the night in which the city was attacked with 2,000 planes.

Even the giant trees in Al-Waziriya, the trunks of which show the etched names of generations of the students of the Baghdad and Al-Mustansiriya universities, look sad. The leaves are yellowing and the branches have sagged, as if finally pierced with the arrows of love that young people of many generations have engraved. One doesn't sleep in Baghdad. One stays fitfully awake, half alert. Sleep leads to dreams. And death in the shadow of the occupation is easier than dreaming. Yesterday is always better than tomorrow. No one knows who's going to disappear when. No one knows who is going to die tomorrow or flee the country. War leaves its morbid imprint on everything. At Café Shahbandar, there is always a friend missing, then another. Death is everywhere, but Baghdad, like a phoenix, is determined to live on. On Fridays, one runs into friends on Al-Mutanabbi Street and in the Saray market. People discuss the latest news. They debate what they've seen on television. Then they stop by for coffee at one of the nearby coffee houses. It's all survival now, sheer tenacity perhaps. Call it what you may. In the outside world, life itself is cloned. Here we're happy to get a book photocopied, to share it, to stay in touch.

A Turkish saying, "no one loves you like a mother, and no city is as beautiful as Baghdad." Baghdad remains proud despite the pain. Its palm trees are like no other, even when they are thirsty and poisoned by the weapons used in two wars. The palms sink their roots deep in the ground, clinging for life. They stand like candles ready to be lit, willing to brighten the nights of endless mayhem. On Tahrir Square in the heart of Baghdad, statues and murals are everywhere; the best works of Faiq Hassan, Jawad Salim and Khaled Rahhal. Turn left and walk to Abu Nawwas Street, and don't forget to pause at the end of Rashid Street. At the corner, Jakmakji music wafts in the air, like a never-dying memory, someone is playing it today, just as someone was playing it before the chaos started. The lyrics are familiar. "Baghdad, you're the only city for me, cannot live without the mother of all Iraq."

Cross the street to the old house that everyone calls the "Iraqi house", owned by Amal Al-Khodeiri, a vision of the past, a typical Baghdad house with the unmistakable stamp of the city's architecture. A courtyard and a hidden garden, wooden pillars and jasmine, rebuilt many times more than once. The house was destroyed in 1991, in the same strike that brought down the nearby Jumhuriya Bridge. Amal rebuilt the house and threw a party on the same day that the bridge was rebuilt. Then the house was once again hit in 2003. That time, looters came and took the contents away, handicraft and family heirlooms. Then it was burnt. Flames consumed most of the house, but didn't consume its name and memory. Amid the charred ruins, you still can read the first name of the owner at the gate.

A few steps away, you see the Abu Nawwas Statue, miraculously surviving, with the poet still holding a glass of wine, as if in a toast for survival. It is hard to go into Abu Nawwas Street, now blocked by concrete and barbed wire. Street urchins, who have increased in number since the occupation, lean against the barricades. Most of the trees have been cut down since the occupation. Gone are the promenades which once lined the street. The area was once close to the presidential complex. Now it is too close to the so-called Green Zone. You can only walk in the lanes of memory, and listen to Scheherazade. Not the Scheherazade of Arabian Nights, but its bronze namesake, created by the artist Mohamed Ghani Hekmat. In another part of Baghdad, we used to have a statue of the poet Al-Mutanabbi. It's gone now, perhaps melted and sold for scrap, along with many others.

The oldest university in the world still stands. In every corner of Mustansiriya, the past resonates with dreams. Abbasid students once came here to seek knowledge and success. On the banks of the nearby river, one can see the remains of the Abbasid Palace that Al-Rashid is said to have built for his sister Al-Abbasah, to wean her from the love of a poet with no future. Every corner of that palace is about love, defeated yet unrepentant. The only book that survived the Hulagu onslaught is being kept in the Kilani mausoleum; witness, perhaps, that the past cannot be totally erased. In his novel, Land of Blackness, Abdul-Rahman Munif says he drank Baghdad's love with the milk of his mother. Even amid Baghdad's charred ruins, the city's destiny is still intertwined with ours, in an eternal bond of love and remembrance.

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