A stranger in Baghdad
Baghdad’s appearance has changed dramatically over 10 years – but its love of poetry and writing has not.
History creeps into the geography displayed before me on the tiny screen on my nocturnal flight from Berlin to Abu Dhabi. Or perhaps I am the one colouring the map with my nightmares and insomnia, forcing history to wake up and scream in deep red, to remind me of its dominion.
These lilting names, like Mardin, which lies in Turkey today, remind me of stories I heard about our neighbours’ ancestors migrating to Mosul, in Iraq, a century ago. Then, decades later, to Baghdad. Now the grandchildren have their own stories about their flight away from Iraq’s skies and soil to Canada. A history that plays with humans, scattering them like dice on maps.
I doze off for a few minutes and wake up near Talla’far, whose name I frequently read in the news in recent years. It was a target, like so many other cities, of gratuitous death. I snatch my iPhone to photograph the plane’s route over Iraq on the screen.
A passenger sitting nearby looks at me suspiciously. This is the first time that I cross Iraq from north to south without being stopped or asked for my ID. All of Iraq, like a bird, but in a cage, chained with seatbelts. The plane doesn’t fly over Baghdad, which I will visit in a week for the first time in ten years. It flies farther east along the Iraq-Iran border, where hundreds of thousands of people on both sides died in an absurd war.
The names of cities glow. Night and distance bestow a beauty and flow that are both non-existent in miserable daytime. From my window, these cities look like scattered jewels dotting the darkness. Sects and ethnicities sleep at night and the entire country is wrapped in a singular darkness. I, too, sleep after passing over Basra, the city I, alas, never visited. Al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Iraq’s most famous poet, lulls me to sleep: “The stranger sat by the Gulf, his perplexed eyes fluttering.”
On the way from Abu Dhabi to Baghdad a few days later I see the Tigris and it appears as if it’s hesitating on its way out of Baghdad. I revised this image later: It is actually running away. I try to locate our home in relation to the bend in the Tigris south of Baghdad, but am not sure. My heart flutters when I hear the captain saying, “Welcome to Baghdad.”
We are greeted by chaos at the airport. Chaos, pale colours and disorganisation at an airport befitting an impoverished country, not one floating on wealth. On land and under the sun, streets are suffocating with traffic and checkpoints. Election billboards and signs stab the sidewalks and assault eyes.
They all promise an earthly paradise. The other paradise is implicitly promised by the more sacred others who occupy considerable space on billboards and walls. “Muhammad is the symbol of our unity,” was one of the slogans I saw everywhere – a slogan meant to unite Sunnis and Shia. It eloquently and brilliantly excludes and marginalises all others. One is lost in a thicket of the names of symbols, martyrs, parties, organisations, and coalitions.
One word is almost absent: Iraq.
The hope and thirst for life in those young eyes of my readers was my only solace. I still had a home in Baghdad. Poetry and writing was my indestructible home.
It was my first time back in Baghdad in ten years. And the first time I had to stay at a hotel, like any stranger, transient, or tourist. Perhaps this was the official stamp to finally certify beyond any doubt my total estrangement.
The house where I was born and lived the first 23 years of my life was sold in 2008, after the last family member had to leave the country following the sectarian civil war. I do not know who the new owners are. Who sleeps in my room? Are the doves that used to sleep at the edge of the window still there? Or did they leave too? There are thousands and thousands of people who were violently displaced without even being able to sell their houses. We always seem to fall in the snares of selective nostalgia no matter how vigilant we think we are.
Trip down memory lane
“Home” was the first stop in my tour. I thought I was lost at first, but I recognised the street I walked back on from school every day for so many years. The giant eucalyptus and palm trees on both sides of the canal were gone. The canal itself was dry and full of sewage. I recognised the bridge near our street. Traffic slows down. There is a checkpoint before we enter to the right. The street is empty. No children playing soccer or riding their bikes. I see our neighbours’ two palm trees. They are pollinated and much taller now. I am happy that the new owner is tending to them. We pass by our house. The facade is different and painted maroon red. I take two pictures, but the friend who is driving asks me not to: “The residents will be afraid and think we are terrorists scouting a target.”
No one will know me here. All our neighbours have left except for one family and they are travelling this week. We reach the end of the street and I ask my friend to make a U-turn. I take several pictures. The wall is much higher. It hides the garden entirely. There is no trace of the giant mulberry tree near the front gate.
No trace of the bougainvillea whose branches and orange blossoms used to climb the walls. Did it die? All the neighbourhood’s walls are all much higher. “Do you want me to go back again?” asks my friend. “No, it’s enough. Let’s go.”
Places are pale and dusty versions of the old “originals”, and much is crossed out. Do the streets remember their own history? Do they yearn for their past and suffer from selective nostalgia too? I walked with my friend and publisher from our hotel on Abu Nuwas to al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s book market. I noticed something I had never seen in Baghdad before. There were so many stores selling equipment for the physically disabled.
My publisher, the Iraqi poet Khalid al-Maaly, organised a reading and book-signing at the Baghdad Poetry House right by the Tigris. I was surrounded by friends I had known for years through email, but was meeting them for the first time. The students from the Sada School, whom I had taught on Skype, were there too. The hope and thirst for life in those young eyes of my readers was my only solace. I still had a home in Baghdad. Poetry and writing was my indestructible home.
The last stop before the airport was the Abbas Ibn Farnas statue – the Andalusian Icarus who made two wings of feathers and tried to fly. Baudelaire’s Albatross came to mind: “The Poet is like the prince of the clouds, haunting the tempest and laughing at the archer; Exiled on earth amongst the shouting people, his giant’s wings hinder him from walking.” Ibn Farnas was about to fly, but towards Baghdad and not away from it. Buthe will never fly. Benjamin’s passage about Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, which has been haunting me in the last few years, distilled everything:
“His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”
Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi poet and novelist. He is the author of I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody and The Pomegranate Alone. A translation of his second novel, The Corpse Washer, was published in August by Yale University Press.
You can follow Sinan on Twitter @sinanantoon.