Kanan Makiya Reflects on Baghdad

Al Rachid street in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1950. Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

I returned to Baghdad the week after Saddam’s monument in Firdos Square fell. The last time I had seen the city in which I was born and raised was 1968, the year the Baath Party came to power. That fateful summer I studied sculpture with Muhammad Ghani. There in his Baghdad studio he had sat so patiently with me, showing me how a piece of wood could be made to respond to different tools. Twenty-three years later I would write a book, under a pseudonym, about his “Victory Arch” monument in Celebration Square.

Ghani’s teacher and mentor had been the great Jawad Salim—the artist who had been to 20th-century Iraqi art what Diego Rivera had been to 20th-century Mexican art. Perhaps I was hoping that through Ghani some of Salim’s aura might rub off on me. I had grown up in the Mansour suburb of Baghdad alongside Salim’s children. Conversations in our house about art and architecture repeatedly rang in my ears. In those years I did not have a single political thought. We lived in a glass house, literally, in which Saddam did not exist.

Why, then, did I leave? Why did I go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the States if I wanted to be a sculptor? Perhaps my American Jesuit teachers at Baghdad High School, all of whom hailed from Boston College, persuaded me. I don’t know any longer. But I do know that when I left at the end of that glorious summer, I did not return again for 35 years.

In 2003 I drove up to Baghdad from Kuwait with three good friends, all of whom, like me, had not seen the city of their birth for decades. We stopped on the outskirts and, like children in a state of heightened expectancy, kissed and hugged one another. As we drove through the city, however, absolute silence descended; it was as though a lightning bolt had struck the car and shocked us into a state of total immobility. The car toured sites of utter devastation and degradation; it was a holocaust, but one wrought by neglect, not war. Crumbling and filthy with overflowing sewers and piles of garbage strewn about everywhere—this was a tired, beaten down, and profoundly sad and depressed place. Nothing was as we remembered it. The city we were driving through shared nothing with the one we had left behind, except a name.

All over the city that summer, posters, monuments, and signs that signified or made even the slightest reference to the Baath era were being torn down, just as propaganda had been trashed in Eastern Europe in 1989 and Baghdad itself in 1958, the year the monarchy was overthrown. Artifacts like these speak to memories, memories that constitute the very marrow of a community’s identity, bestowing personality and character just as they do upon an individual. It does not matter whether those memories are good or bad. But it does matter how they relate to their city, and which survive to represent them. Iraqis in 2003 were hoping that it was easy to excise bad memories.

As soon as I could, I paid a visit to Ghani’s Victory Arch. Despite writing an entire book about the two massive, crossed swords, I had never seen them in person. I wanted to walk under those arches and experience them before they, too, came tumbling down. As it happened, the monument, which Saddam himself had conceived, was being protected by the U.S. Army.

In my book I had imagined Saddam’s monument to be unspeakably monstrous. The idea of it was certainly that, but not, it turned out, the object itself; it was too vulgar. The embodiment of evil that I’d written about just 12 years earlier was not there for me as I stood, literally, in its shadow.

Marco Polo was imagined by the novelist Italo Calvino to have told the great emperor Kublai Khan: “With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

I tried to make a go of it in Baghdad, staying for four years. I fell in love with the childhood sweetheart I had left behind in 1968. I married her and returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we now live. And yet Baghdad, the city we left behind, still sits there, like a millstone around my neck, unable to answer the many questions I still have left to ask of her.

Makiya is the author, most recently, of The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem.

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