Waiting for war on the streets of Baghdad

 

There is a strong sense of history and culture on the streets of the Iraqi capital. But its people are resigned to the war. Michael Jansen writes from Baghdad

Beit al-Iraqi survived the turbulent 20th century. The house rose on the mud flats beside the Tigris during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. It withstood British rule, the second World War, revolution, an eight-year conflict with Iran and the 1991 US-led campaign to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait. But if Baghdad is bombed again, Beit al-Iraqi may not stand for more than another few weeks.

"Beit al-Iraqi" means the Iraqi House. But the house is not typical of all Baghdad. Beit al-Iraqi's architecture and style belongs to the Rasafa quarter on the east side of the Tigris and to the river bank itself.

It was built by an uncle of the present owner, Sitt (Lady) Amal Khedairy, who grew up in a similar house two doors down the street. If you didn't know that Arab houses traditionally put a blank face to the world, you might miss it.

Sitt Amal's father and his three brothers constructed four spacious houses here so their families could spend the three hot summer months enjoying the cool breeze from the river, away from their permanent homes in the closely built centre of town.

For generations, the Khedairys had lived near the splendid mosque erected in the 12th century by the jurist Shaikh Abdel Kader Gailani and renovated and expanded in the 16th century by the Ottoman Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent. In Baghdad, every quarter, building and family is connected with the glories of the past. Baghdadis speak of the Abbassid caliphs, who made the city the centre of the civilised world, as if they ruled yesterday.

The city's buildings and their embellishments are a blend of Mesopotamian and Islamic. Bronze tableaux in the squares enact Assyrian conquests and the tales of the Thousand and One nights. "They didn't have architects then. The owners of the land told the masons and carpenters what to do and the houses went up," Sitt Amal says.

"My father moved here permanently after he married my mother. My mother was Syrian. My father married quite late. Before then he fought the British and was condemned to death by General Maude. But instead was sent into exile in India for two years. He didn't interfere in politics, but he didn't like foreigners stepping in his country."

Amal makes a clear distinction between shunning domestic politics and resisting foreign occupation. One does not argue with an Iraqi hala (beauty), Iraqi beauties are not to be opposed, whether Westernised, like Amal, or traditional, enfolded in the black abaya. It's a mistake to think a covered woman is a cowed woman.

Like many of the citizens of this country, Amal is a mixture of its main ethnic groups. "My paternal grandmother was Kurdish, my maternal grandmother Turkish . . . I feel Iraqi," she says firmly.

Beit al-Iraqi began to play a key role in the creative life of Iraq, the most artistic of the Arab countries, during the second World War when the British archaeologist Seton Lloyd lived there.

"He helped establish the Iraqi Museum. His wife was a sculptress who taught our greatest sculptors, Jewed Selim and Muhammad Ghani," says Amal. "The Iraqi Arts Society was founded here."

Amal went abroad to study in England and Switzerland, married and lived for some years in Lebanon. In the mid-1980s she decided to renovate the rooms with Rashid Street frontage. "When the work was done they were so beautiful I couldn't rent them. Since I always loved crafts I decided to make a centre. I opened Beit al-Iraqi in 1987. I used to travel all over the country and go to people's homes where they do their work. There was no society for craftsmen and women, their skills were deteriorating. I set up a loom and invited someone in to weave. I asked people to come and bring their work.

"We also established a cultural centre here. We began courses in calligraphy and painting on glass. We had summer classes in painting for children and lectures throughout the year. We established societies for architects interested in restoration of old buildings and collectors of stamps and old currency." But Amal's boundless creative energies were stymied and sapped by the 1991 war. "During the first days of the war Beit al-Iraqi was badly damaged when the Jumhurriyah Bridge was bombed."

The outer wall was blown in, the roof of one room collapsed and the second storey was destroyed. The foundations were badly shaken. "I don't know what will happen if we have another round of bombing," she asserts. "By the time we finished rebuilding this floor, we could do no more. Everything was so difficult. So I left it for the future." She shrugged, "Every time we try to do something we are threatened, so we stop . . ."

"In 1991 my house in north Baghdad was also badly hit," she says.

"I spent a whole year without glass in my windows and doors. It was so cold at night that I went to Nuha because she has a chimney." Amal is one of the stars in Nuha al-Radi's book, Baghdad Diary, published in London and other European capitals. The diary tells how a group of family and friends survived the bombing of Baghdad by sticking together, sharing and keeping busy.

Amal says, "During that time we didn't have glass for the windows, cats and dogs came in the house, but there was no stealing. Things are different now. People are very poor because of sanctions. We're not afraid of bombs, we're afraid that there will be no one to keep order. This government has a hold on the country, the people who may come here to rule do not understand how to control Iraq." Amal has made no preparations for the war. "I haven't packed up anything, rolled the rugs or bought supplies," she says. "Last time I got ready ahead of time. But there's no one to help now. Many houses near mine are empty. People have died or gone abroad." She still hopes that there will not be a war.

From Beit al-Iraqi, I drove along the curving Tigris to the Jadriya campus of Baghdad University. The river, like history, is the connective which holds Baghdad together. We entered the gates. Beit al-Iraqi's Baghdad was yellow, the Baghdad of today is built in shades of brown.

I had met the dean of the political science faculty, Dr Muhammad Adami, the night before I called on Amal. He invited me to pay him a visit in his vast office at the university. Dr Adami earned his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, returned to Iraq to teach at the modern Mustansariya University where he established the history department and postgraduate studies. He became assistant dean of education at that university before accepting the appointment of director of television in the Ministry of Information.

Iraqis are adaptable. During the 1970s he presented a television programme on history and politics. In 1989, he entered parliament. "That series got me elected. It was very popular. Everyone knows my face. I can win a seat in any district in Baghdad." Unlike Amal, Dr Adami is prepared for war. He has stores of food both at home and in the kitchenette attached to his office at the university.

"I will do my best to carry on, if there is war," he says. "I live on the other side of the river. If they hit the bridges I will be stuck either here or there." He showed me fat sacks of rice and pulses, bottles of water and cooking oil. A torch and kerosene lanterns. Dr Adami says, "We don't want war. We want dialogue with the Americans. But they don't want to talk. They want to create enemies. The issue is not weapons of mass destruction. They can't find any and won't find any."

In his view, Washington "wants to gain control of the oil, settle the Palestine problem to benefit the Israelis and divide the region. By gaining control of the oil, its distribution and pricing, the Americans will control Europe and Japan.Although North Korea has weapons of mass destruction, it has no oil and no Palestine question, so the Americans are ready to settle with the North Koreans."

He points out that Iraq could double its oil production relatively quickly. "By 2030 the US will need to import 80 per cent of the oil it consumes. Iraqi oil is of the best quality and very cheap. It costs $0.50 a barrel compared with $2 for Saudi oil and $16-17 for Central Asian oil."

The political science and engineering departments are located in the U-bend of the river. Like Beit al-Iraqi the campus suffered collateral damage in 1991 when the nearby Dora power plant was hit. "The faculties in the city sustained more destruction," Dr Adami says. The 1991 war disrupted the academic year for 35,000 students; today there are 70,000. Iraqis are as eager for education as they are for culture. On Wednesday, students sat for examinations. They will be on holiday until mid-February when the pundits believe the US will launch its war. "I blame the Arabs for not stopping this war," Dr Adami says. "If they had united against the threat of war, they could have averted war. The Arabs are frightened of the US but they should remember the 1998 protests" after the four day Anglo-US bombing campaign.

In the courtyard outside Dr Adami's office, I took a straw poll among students streaming out of the classrooms. Most believe there will be war. "There is nothing we can do about it," says one. "We'll carry on as normally as possible until it comes," remarks another. Dr Samir al- Radhi, a Texas-graduated professor of international relations, confirms my findings.

We drove back into the city along the river, through heavy traffic, across a bridge over a loop in the river, then over another bridge over another stretch of water. A light breeze whipped the sluggish grey surface giving it a bit of life and sparkle. Baghdad's buildings may be bombed and battered in a new war, thousands of Iraqis may die, but the Tigris and history will carry on.