The Nakba of Baghdad

A city that used to lead the world is now in ruins. Can Baghdad rise again from the ashes? Writes Salah Nasrawi

“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 over God’s land.”

The song came over the taxi’s sound system as the car carried on down the dusty road in the Palestine Street district, once an affluent residential area in Baghdad and home to a complementary mix of trendy professionals and well-to-do families.

“Gone are all those old good days. It is now the city of suffering, death and decay,” said the taxi driver, a retired school teacher in his seventies who has turned his private car to 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, messy and dusty houses and then to the car’s worn leather seats which were wrecking the spines as the dilapidated vehicle kept moving.

As Iraq plunges in violence and mismanagement and its plethora of sectarian, ethnic, tribal and party militias struggle over power and control of the nation’s immense wealth, its capital Baghdad, once a mighty symbol of the nation’s glorious past has now become the embodiment of a terrible decline in post-US invasion era.

Thirteen years after the US war, the Iraqi capital is still a violent city where suicide bombings and attacks rock its neighbourhoods on almost daily basis.

Chaos and lawlessness is widespread and banditry and criminality such as killings, kidnaping for ransom and robberies are common making Baghdad one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

With shortages of electricity, safe running water, lack of basic services such as garbage collection and sewage treatment, the city, once one of the greatest in the world, has become a miserable place for living for its nearly 7 million inhabitants.

For several years now Baghdad has been topping an international index of the world  worst cities based on studies of its overall quality of life survey on political, social, economic and environmental factors, as well as personal safety, health, education, transport and other public services.

This year with a crushing economic crisis triggered by low oil prices and salaries’ cut the humanitarian crisis has hit celebrations for the holy month of Ramadan during which Iraqi tradition dictates hosting big family meals.

And the onset of harsh summer weather and lack of electricity for cooling and house utilities make fasting for millions of Baghdadis even more difficult.

Escalating violence has sparked fears of a repeat attacks against holy shrines and mosques where worshipers usually gather for Ramadan’s nights prayers.

Glory days

But for Baghdadis for whom so many things went wrong since the US invasion in 2003, violence and decay is the overwhelming picture of their city’s present today reality and not its glorious past.

Founded in 762 by the second Abbasid Muslim Caliph Abu Jaffar al-Mansour, Baghdad is situated on the River Tigris in the heart of present day Iraq and some 90 km from the ruins of ancient Babylon and some 30 km to the north of Ctesiphon the capital of the Persian Empire which had been under Arab Muslim control since 637.

Books penned by great Muslim historians tell us Baghdad was built on the site of ancient Sumerian ruins and probably Hellenistic and Roman eras’ settlements that benefited from Mesopotamia’s legendary fertile land.

Thanks to detailed records of its construction we know now a huge amount about Baghdad’s meticulous and inspired urban planning. Its building was both magnificently creative in design and monumental in construction.

Some 100,000 workers, in addition to thousands of architects, engineers, surveyors, carpenters and blacksmiths were recruited for the project which took four years to build. 

With its round shaped design, al-Mansour’s Baghdad had a circumference of six km and massive crenellated walls of mud-brick crowned with battlements.

The caliph’s palace was built in the city’s center surmounted by a green dome which could be seen for many kilometers around. The walls commanded impressive views of a landscape of kilometers of lush palm groves and fields that fringed the Tigris.

Four straight roads ran to the city centre from symmetrically placed outer gates that open to areas and neighbours. Arcades of bazaars with side streets lined the four roads giving onto residential areas of royalties and dignitaries.  

The Grand Mosque, adjoining the royal palace, was originally made from sun-baked bricks set in mortar. It was reconstructed by al-Mansur’s grandson, the legendary Harun al-Rashid.

The origin of the name “Baghdad” is under some controversy. Some say it comes from ancient languages used in Babylon, or Aramaic, or old Persian: bagh means orchard, or garden and dad means dear one, or father, or gift.

By blending all these languages and meanings, the name of the city becomes: “The garden, or the gift of the dear of father or God.” At least at one point in its earlier history Baghdad was called “the City of Peace.”

Throughout its peak, the city remained the epicenter of Arab and Islamic culture. Muslim travellers wrote that they had never seen a city of much splendor, more perfect roundness, more endowed with superior merits or possession of more spacious gates or more perfect defences than Baghdad.

By the time al-Rashid, assumed the throne in 786, Baghdad reached its zenith. It was the largest city in the world outside imperial China: With an estimated population of 1,200,000 people, it was one of the centres of world civilization and the pinnacle of Islamic power.

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

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

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

One of the greatest books associated with Baghdad is “One Thousand and One Nights”, a collection of Indian, Persian and Arabic legends, stories and folk tales much of it composed in Baghdad.  

The book which is also known as, “The Arabian Nights” has had immense influence on world literature and inspired poets and writers of many nations. Images of pleasure and romance deep derived from these cultures have always associated “The Arabian Nights” and Baghdad with tolerance and the city’s cultural diversity.

As history tells as a thousand years ago, Baghdad raced ahead of the Western world. While Europe festered in the Dark Ages, the great city was at the heart of a vibrant and diverse civilization.

But as it happened often in history with the rise and fall of great empires, fortune took bad turn with Baghdad some four hundreds of 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, grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked the city and destroyed much of its infrastructure and ordered the death of the last Abbasid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim.

Though Baghdad survived the devastation, the fall of the Abaside Caliphate was an event that rocked the Muslim world; the repercussions of which felt over centuries.

For the next seven centuries Baghdad lived under the rule of foreign invaders, falling to further decline. In 1534, it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, seeing relative revival in the latter part of the 18th century under some reformists Valies.

Baghdad remained under the Ottoman rule until the establishment of the Hashemite kingdom of Iraq in 1921 under British colonial power following the occupation of Iraq in the First World War.

Over more than 30 years under the monarchy Baghdad endeavoured to rise from ages of foreign occupations as a dynamic metropolis of cultural diversity, tolerance and trade.  

The Iraqi capital fast became one of the Middle East richest and most intellectual cities in the first half of the 20th century along with Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul and Tehran.

A series of uprisings and coups over more than five decades culminated with Saddam Hussein’s Baath authoritarian Party taking power in a coup in 1968, radically altering Iraq’s political and social structures and destroying Iraq chances to turn into a modern democracy.

During Saddam’s era, even when the country was held back by despotism and convulsed by wars, a projected reorganization and renewal of Baghdad, including huge buildings, palaces, infrastructure and monuments were carried out, part of his vision for a grandiose pan-Arab Iraqi capital.

Baghdad falls again

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Saddam’s ouster signaled the start of a new history for Baghdad which is still being recorded not with ink, but unfortunately again with blood and tears. 

Shortly after the fall of Saddam’s regime, the city plunged in turbulence and since then it has been mired in sectarian killings and bombings that have made Baghdad one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

For the last thirteen years Baghdad residents have been waking up every day wondering if it might be their last.

As a result, Baghdad is overrun by security forces and militias and there are blast walls roadblocks everywhere. Security checkpoints and dense urban populations often cause terrible traffic bottlenecks.  

In February, authorities started building a three-metre-high security wall and trench defences around Baghdad in an effort to thwart terrorists’ attacks.

 Many Iraqis fear the 100 km security barricade that includes a wall and a trench around the sprawling city will eventually turn into a new physical barrier that will set back the idea of the city’s cultural and religious diversity.

In the midst of the political upheaval that followed the US invasion the city has witnessed dramatic changes in its identity. The fabled diversity of the city’s population reflected in the Arab, Muslim, Christian, Kurdish, Turkoumen and Mandeans does no longer manifest itself in Baghdad.

Since the US invasion in 2003, the city’s population has nearly doubled to some seven million people largely due to internal displacement and migration from Shia towns and rural areas in the south.

The great number of mostly poor Shia who are seeking jobs and opportunities in the capital have enormously influenced the city’s politics and its cultural and economic infrastructure.

A growing number of Christians have left the city or immigrated abroad due either to rise of the IS terror group accompanied by violence or increasing intolerance against non-Muslims.

Many of these Christians and others who have left came from the middle class which will deprive Baghdad from its economic and social elites and technocrats.

In a sense the city has lost its historical tapestry of different sects, faiths and ethnicities. As sectarianism flourished and nationhood diminished, the future of Baghdad as a city of diversity remains uncertain.

Like other Iraqi cities, Baghdad suffered significant damage during the invasion and nearly eleven years of occupation. The destruction of infrastructure which includes roads, bridges, building, industrial, communication, farming and irrigation centres severely degraded the city’s limited reconstruction efforts, with serious consequences for the population.

Many of Baghdad’s cultural monuments such the iconic Iraqi Museum which houses precious relics from Iraq’s ancient civilizations was looted and many of its stolen artifacts did not return. Though the building was refurbished it remains rarely open for public.

The University of Baghdad’s library, one of the country’s bacons of learning was burnt down during the war. The library lost thousands of its books and manuscripts either to looters or in the fire. While the building has been reconstructed, very few books were returned.

Perhaps nothing can sum up all the disastrous years of the conflict since the US invasion better than the 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 formidable character, a town which the author Ahmed Saddawi describes as a “dystopia,” and “hell on earth.”

Though the effect of the harsh reality in the novel, which won a prestigious international prize for Arabic fiction in 2014, is delivered across clearly, Baghdad’s real dilemma remains far beyond literary description. 

Today, Baghdad is not only facing the threat of losing its historical sublimity and a world city but also decaying into oblivion. As factionalism grows Iraq is threatened with partitioning and Baghdad may end up a capital of a small sectarian entity.

Given the scope and the durability of the 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 take most of the blame for the country’s disaster.

As in the song over the taxi’s audio, Iraqi folk poets and singers are increasingly taking the lead in voicing their sorrow for whatever happened to Baghdad amid mounting popular frustrations over the failure of their politicians to restore security, fight rampant corruption and provide basic services.

Baghdad had its days in the past but it has never had it worse in many ways than its post-US-invasion era, an era which was supposed to bring democracy and prosperity to husband that with the glory of its past.   

For many Iraqis the US invasion and its aftermath was a national disaster reminiscent to the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, the Palestinians’ dispossession and the loss of their homeland.

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


Article published by Al Ahram Weekly on 24/05/2016

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