Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The nakba of Baghdad

A city that once led the world is now in ruins, raising the question of whether Baghdad can rise again from the ashes, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Our city is called Baghdad,
Elegant and shrouded in beauty,
A heaven-sent bride,
The Tigris showers it with breezes and roses,
No city can match it in all of God’s land.”

The song came over the taxi’s sound system as we travelled along a dusty road in the Palestine Street district, once an affluent residential area of the Iraqi capital Baghdad and home to young professionals and established, well-to-do families.

“The good old good days are all gone. Today Baghdad is the city of suffering, death and decay,” the taxi driver said. He is a retired schoolteacher in his seventies who has turned his private car into a taxi as he struggles to make ends meet.

“Everything is like this neighbourhood, or like my car,” he said, pointing to a line of shabby houses and then to the car’s worn leather seats.

As Iraq plunges further into violence and mismanagement, and its plethora of sectarian, and party militias struggle to control the nation’s immense wealth, Baghdad, once a mighty symbol of the nation’s glorious past, has become the embodiment of the terrible decline since 2003, in the post-US invasion era.

Thirteen years after the US-led war, the Iraqi capital is still a violent city where suicide bombings and attacks rock its neighbourhoods on an almost daily basis. Lawlessness is widespread and killings, kidnappings and robberies are common, making Baghdad one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Because of shortages of electricity and clean water and a lack of basic services such as rubbish collection and sewerage, the city, once one of the greatest in the world, has become a miserable place for its nearly seven million inhabitants. For several years now, Baghdad has topped an international index of the world’s worst cities, based on studies of its overall quality of life, political, social, economic and environmental factors, and the state of personal safety, health, education, transport and other public services.

This year, with a crushing economic crisis triggered by low oil prices and salary cuts, the humanitarian crisis has hit celebrations for the holy month of Ramadan, during which Iraqi tradition dictates the hosting of large family meals. The onset of the harsh summer weather and the lack of electricity for air-conditioning and utilities will make fasting for millions of Baghdadis even more difficult. The escalating violence has also sparked fears of attacks against holy shrines and mosques where worshippers usually gather for Ramadan night prayers.

But for Baghdadis, violence and decay represent only their city’s present reality and not its glorious past. Founded in 762 CE by the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Jaffar Al-Mansour, Baghdad is situated on the River Tigris in the heart of present-day Iraq, some 90 km from the ruins of ancient Babylon and 30 km to the north of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, which came under Arab control in 637.

Books penned by great Muslim historians tell us that Baghdad was built on the site of ancient Sumerian ruins and probably Hellenistic and Roman settlements that benefited from the legendary fertile land of Mesopotamia. Thanks to detailed records of its four-year construction, we know a huge amount about Baghdad’s meticulous and inspired urban planning. Its building was both magnificently creative in its design and monumental in its construction.

Some 100,000 workers, in addition to thousands of architects, engineers, surveyors, carpenters and blacksmiths, were recruited to build the city. With its circular design, Al-Mansour’s Baghdad had a circumference of six kilometres and massive walls of mud-brick crowned with battlements.

The caliph’s palace was built in the city’s centre, surmounted by a green dome that could be seen for miles around. The walls commanded impressive views of a landscape of lush palm groves and fields along the Tigris.

Four straight roads ran to the city centre from symmetrically placed outer gates that opened onto different areas and neighbourhoods. Arcades of bazaars on side streets lined the four roads that led to residential areas for royalty and other dignitaries.

The Grand Mosque, adjoining the city’s royal palace, was originally made from sun-baked bricks set in mortar. It was reconstructed by Al-Mansour’s grandson, the legendary caliph Haroun Al-Rashid.

The origin of the name “Baghdad” is controversial. Some say it comes from the ancient languages once used in Babylon, or from Aramaic or Old Persian: bagh means orchard or garden, in this language, and dad means dear one, father or gift. By blending these together, the name of the city becomes “the garden (or the gift) of the dear father (or of God).” At least during one point in its earlier history, Baghdad was called “the City of Peace.”

At its peak, the city was the centre of Arab and Islamic culture. Early Muslim travellers wrote that they had never seen a city with so much splendour, more perfect in its circularity, more endowed with superior merits and possessing more spacious gates and more perfect defences than Baghdad.

By the time the caliph, Haroun Al-Rashid, assumed the throne in 786, Baghdad had reached its zenith. It was the largest city in the world outside of China, and with an estimated population of 1,200,000 people, it was one of the centres of world civilisation and the pinnacle of Islamic power.

It had expanded far beyond Al-Mansour’s original round city and was now a vast unplanned metropolis spreading for miles on both sides of the Tigris. It was also the capital of an Islamic empire that stretched from India to North Africa.

Baghdad also gained a reputation as a beacon of learning and as one of the most cultured places known to history. It was Al-Rashid’s son Al-Mamoun who established the “Dar Al-Hikma”, or House of Wisdom, a translation house in Baghdad that translated books from ancient civilisations, such as those of ancient Greece, Persia and India into Arabic.

The books covered materials in philosophy, medicine, science, astrology and literature. Later on, in 11th-century Andalusia in Spain, these Arabic translations were translated into Latin and circulated all over Christian Europe.

One of the greatest books in Arabic associated with Baghdad is The Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, a collection of Indian, Persian and Arabic legends, stories and folk tales, much of it composed in Baghdad. The book has had an immense influence on world literature and has inspired writers from many nations. Images of pleasure and romance have long associated the Arabian Nights and Baghdad with tolerance and cultural diversity.

A thousand years ago, Baghdad was far ahead of the then Western world. While Europe festered in the Dark Ages, the great city was at the heart of a vibrant and diverse civilisation. But, as has often happened in history, with the rise and fall of great empires, p.the city’s fortunes took a bad turn some four hundred years later.

CENTURIES OF TURMOIL: Baghdad’s decline started with the Mongol invasion of the city in the 13th century. In 1258, a Mongol army led by Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked the city, destroying much of its infrastructure, and ordered the execution of the last Abbasid caliph, Al-Musta’sim.

Though Baghdad survived the devastation, the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate was an event that rocked the Muslim world, the repercussions of which were felt over centuries. For the next seven centuries, Baghdad itself lived under the rule of foreign invaders and fell into further decline. In 1534, it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, though it did see some revival in the latter part of the 18th century under reformist Ottoman valies, or governors.

Baghdad remained under Ottoman rule until the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq in 1921 under British colonial rule, following Britain’s occupation of Iraq in the First World War. For more than 30 years under the monarchy, Baghdad attempted to rise up after centuries of foreign occupation to become a dynamic metropolis marked by diversity, tolerance and trade.

The Iraqi capital became one of the Middle East’s wealthiest and intellectually most distinguished cities in the first half of the 20th century, along with Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul and Tehran. However, a series of uprisings and coups in Iraq over more than five decades culminated in former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party taking power in a coup in 1968, radically altering Iraq’s political and social structures and destroying the country’s chances to turn into a modern democracy.

During Saddam’s rule, even as the country was held back by despotism and convulsed by wars, a projected reorganisation and renewal of Baghdad, including huge buildings, palaces, infrastructure and monuments, was carried out, part of his vision for a grandiose pan-Arab capital in Iraq.

But the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 and Saddam’s ouster signalled the beginning of a new period for Baghdad, which is still being recorded not with ink but, unfortunately, once again with blood and tears. Shortly after the fall of the Saddam regime, the city plunged into turbulence, and since then it has been mired in sectarian killings and bombings that have made it one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

For the last 13 years, Baghdad residents have woken up every day wondering if this might be their last. Baghdad is overrun by security forces and militias, and there are blast walls and roadblocks everywhere. Security checkpoints and the dense urban population often cause terrible traffic bottlenecks.

In February this year the authorities started building a three-metre-high security wall and trench defences around Baghdad in an effort to thwart the terrorist attacks. Many Iraqis fear that the 100-km security barricade, which includes the wall and the trench, around the sprawling city will eventually turn into a new physical barrier that will further set back the city’s cultural and religious diversity.

In the midst of the political upheaval that followed the US-led invasion the city has witnessed dramatic changes in its identity. The fabled diversity once reflected in the Arab, Muslim, Christian, Kurdish, Turkomen and Mandean populations of Baghdad is no longer seen. Since 2003, the city’s population has nearly doubled to some seven million, largely due to internal displacement and migration from Shia towns and rural areas in the south.

The huge number of mostly poor Shias seeking jobs and opportunities in the capital has enormously influenced the city’s politics and its cultural and economic infrastructure. Large numbers of Christians have either left the city or emigrated abroad, due either to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in the country or increasing intolerance against non-Muslims.

Many of these Christians and others who have left come from the city’s middle class, and their disappearance will deprive Baghdad of its economic and social elites and technocrats. In a sense, the city today has already largely lost its historical tapestry of different sects, faiths and ethnicities. As sectarianism has flourished and nationhood has diminished, the future of Baghdad as a city of diversity is uncertain.

Like other Iraqi cities, Baghdad suffered significant damage during the US-led invasion and nearly 11 years of occupation. The destruction of infrastructure, which has included roads, bridges, buildings, industrial units, communication centres, farms and irrigation plants, has severely set back the city’s limited reconstruction efforts, with serious consequences for the population.

Many of Baghdad’s cultural monuments, including the iconic Iraqi Museum, which houses precious relics from the country’s ancient civilisations, were looted and many of the museum’s stolen artefacts have not been recovered. Though the building was refurbished, it is rarely open to the public. The University of Baghdad Library, one of the country’s beacons of learning, was burnt down during the US-led invasion. It lost thousands of books and manuscripts either to looters or fire. While the building has been reconstructed, very few of the lost books have been returned.

Perhaps nothing sums up the disastrous years of conflict since the US-led invasion better than a surrealist novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, which portrays the dark days of a city slowly perishing and disintegrating into nothingness. With its grimy and cluttered streets and soulless inhabitants, Baghdad emerges in the novel as a place that the novel’s author Ahmed Saddawi describes as a “dystopia” and a “hell on earth.”

Yet, though the harsh reality is delivered clearly in the novel, which won a prestigious international prize for Arabic fiction in 2014, Baghdad’s real dilemma remains beyond literary description. Today, the city is not only facing the threat of losing its historical character and its status as a world city, but it is also decaying into oblivion. As factionalism grows, Iraq itself is threatened with partition, and Baghdad may end up as just the capital of some small sectarian entity.

Given the scope and durability of the US occupation’s devastating legacy, the Americans are largely responsible for Baghdad’s tragedy. Yet the Iraqi political class that assumed power following the invasion must also take much of the blame for the country’s disaster.

As is clear in the song that came across the taxi’s sound system, Iraqi poets and singers today are increasingly taking the lead in voicing their sorrow for what has happened to Baghdad, amid mounting popular frustration at the failure of the country’s politicians to restore security, fight corruption and provide basic services.

Baghdad saw periods of decline in the past, but it has never seen anything worse in many ways than the period after the US-led invasion, one that was supposed to bring democracy and prosperity and restore the glory of its past. Instead, for many Iraqis the US-led invasion and its aftermath was a disaster reminiscent of the Nakba, or catastrophe, the dispossession of the Palestinians and the loss of their homeland.

However, while the Palestinians’ plight remains without redress, a growing number of Iraqis have hope that their country’s conflict can be resolved. But it will take very unusual leaders and innovative builders to save Iraq from further fracturing and restore Baghdad as a city of glory, pride and peace.

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