Baghdad, city of mirages and artifacts


Alvar and Aino Aalto, Project for the Fine Arts Museum of Baghdad within the Civic Center, 1957-1963, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)

Last spring I saw a show of modernist architectural plans for Baghdad in the 1950s at the Center for Architecture in New York. I tried to cover the exhibition, but I caught it too late to make it timely. Now, home for the holidays, I came across the show again; it’s traveled up to the Boston Society of Architects.

From the curators:

City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952–1982 presents built and unbuilt work by 11 architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Josep Lluís Sert, Alvar and Aino Aalto, and Robert Venturi FAIA. Models of various scales of the built and unbuilt work by these and other architects are accompanied by a large-scale model of Baghdad.

The history of modern architecture in Baghdad is not well known and remains relatively underexplored. Specialists in Iraq and in exile throughout the world have undertaken detailed analyses of the topic, but many of the studies have been difficult to access in Europe and the United States, and the destruction of war has made it impossible to recover the complete modernist record of Iraq. The exhibition describes an era in which Baghdad was a thriving, cosmopolitan city, and when an ambitious program of modernization led to proposals and built work by leading international architects. 

The show is really about speculative modernist architecture and unbuilt urban plans in the Middle East. Frank Lloyd Wright in Baghdad? Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli? The latter was recently brought up in the International Herald Tribune, on the occasion both of Niemeyer’s death at 104 and Syria’s war spilling over the border into Lebanon. I wrote a similar, but more personal piece in The National in 2010, reflecting on a visit to Niemeyer’s unfinished fairground in northern Lebanon. That piece included some thoughts on Baghdad:

As we left Niemeyer’s park at dusk, the guard was gladly opening the gate for a wedding party in a black Mercedes SUV. They had come to take photos with the sunset. Against which concrete background we did not know. The pyramid? The Lebanese pavilion? The arch? Earlier, standing below the arch, following the uneven bend of one side, I didn’t think of Lebanon. As a visitor from Cairo, I thought about other cities in the region a half-century ago that looked to modernism to stage their national and urban aspirations. A few years before Lebanese bureaucrats were consulting with Niemeyer on what he imagined would “become for Tripoli a centre of attraction, of cultural interest, artistically and recreationally of the greatest importance with its theatres, museums, athletic and leisure centres”, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Iraq at the behest of King Faisal II, who sought a Western architectural remaking of his capital not unlike Dubai and Abu Dhabi today.

But Wright’s sweeping development for “Greater Baghdad” was never built. The coup leaders who killed Faisal II and his family at their palace in the summer of 1958 also killed Wright’s overblown plan for a university, museums, opera house and an outsized statue of Harun al Rashid at the tip of an island in the Tigris that Wright had renamed Edena. Wright died anyway the next year. Walter Gropius – who, unlike Wright, was affixed to cubic modernism of the International style – was selected by the new government to build the new University of Baghdad in a suburb outside the city centre. Le Corbusier worked on a sports complex until his death in 1965. Sixteen years later, a version of his gymnasium finally opened, named after Saddam Hussein.

One of the themes of City of Mirages is that these plans and buildings, so many of them unrealized, represent the city’s and state’s bygone cosmopolitanism. Sometimes that word elicits groans, if the nostalgia is misplaced, like the Alexandria imagined and memorialized by Lawrence Durrell. But the show doesn’t long for the days of monarchy, even if Wright’s plans, along with Gropius’s and Corbusier’s, were commissioned by the king on the eve of his brutal, bloody overthrow. The models and plans are their own kind of artifacts — even if the models were reconstructed by architectural students in Spain — of a city whose recent  urban history is about destruction, and not development.

Artifacts ran through the late, great Anthony Shadid’s fantastic essay in Granta last year on Baghdad College, a prep school for Iraqi boys founded by American Jesuits in 1932. The school was shut down by the Baathist government in the late 1960s. Shadid’s essay excavates the history of American missionaries in Baghdad in decades when America had a decidedly different role and presence in the Middle East. The title, appropriately, was “The American Age, Iraq.” “A moment has been lost, and that’s what I was trying to write about: an intersection that we did once see between America and Iraq and an idealized vision both had of the other,” Shadid said in an interview about the piece. Here here is talking about it on NPR.

I had this passage in mind as I looked over drawings and models of an unrealized modernist dream for Iraq’s capital.

Unlike Beirut or, closer to home, Fallujah, Baghdad was never destroyed by its war. The city here feels more like an eclipsed imperial capital, abandoned, neglected and dominated by the ageing fortifications of its futile defence against the forces that had overwhelmed it. Think of medieval Rome. An acquaintance once described all this refuse of war as athar, Arabic for artefacts, and I thought of the word as I drove down the road to Baghdad College, past piles of charred trash, to see a teacher there.


Walter Gropius, TAC (The Architects’ Collaborative) and Hisham A. Munir, University of Baghdad Campus, 1957-, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)


José Luis Sert, The U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, 1955-1959, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)


Frank Lloyd Wright, Plan for a Greater Baghdad, 1957-1959, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)


Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, Project for the Competition for a National Mosque of Baghdad, 1982, Baghdad, Iraq. Image Credit: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Aerial Views 1919

A young English painter born in Oxford joined the British air force during World War I and became an “Official War Artist,” sketching battlefields and cities from above, some of which he turned into oil paintings in his studio after the war. From an airplane Richard Carline’s views are realist but flat, distances shortened and the horizon stretched. The views suggest the compactness of some of the area’s landscape. High above Damascus, at 10,000 feet, you can see over the Anti-Lebanon range to Jebel Sannine and the Mediterranean.They are also an artifact of an imperial era, since the views are from an RAF plane over lands that the British and French had taken during and would occupy after the war. A perspective of domination, maybe, or at least of framing Damascus, Baghdad, and Jerusalem from above, as a British airplane saw them.

The BBC has a gallery of his paintings, all of which are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Above, Baghdad. Below, Jerusalem:

Baghdad Chassis

On the second floor of the Imperial War Museum in London, on a back wall near the stairs, is a large tiled eagle from Baghdad. Its caption is simple: “Built into the wall of a German residence facing the Tigris. Removed on the order of Lt General Sir William Marshall, commander-in-chief of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force after the capture of Baghdad, 11 March 1917.” Below, in the ground floor atrium full of polished, 20th-century military hardware—much of which never actually saw combat—is a car destroyed in Baghdad in 2007. The car’s title, “Baghdad, 5 March 2007,” refers to the day a suicide bomber drove a truck down Mutanabi Street and blew it up, killing 38 people and injuring over 100 others.

Mutanabi Street is Baghdad’s book souq, a center of literary trade and activity since the time of the Abbasids, the Islamic dynasty that founded Baghdad in the 8th century. Modern Mutanabi Street is home to bookshops, a busy Friday book market and al-Shahbandar, a storied café that opened in 1917. Down the street from al-Shahbandar is the Serai, the former administrative officers of the Ottomans, who ruled Baghdad from the 16th century. In the Serai in 1921, the British crowned Faisal as the first king of the new mandate state of Iraq. In 2008 the restored book market on Mutanabi Street reopened, but without cars and with fewer book stalls.

Read the rest at Guernica.

Iraq war artifact added to British war collection

LONDON: A car salvaged from a suicide bombing in Baghdad in 2007 now sits in the atrium of the Imperial War Museum, alongside military machinery from the world wars. Its title, “Baghdad, 5 March 2007,” reflects the day it was destroyed when an IED devastated Iraq’s celebrated book market on Mutanabi Street, the capital’s intellectual hub. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 38, wounded more than 100, and demolished Ottoman-era buildings.

The surge of American troops into Baghdad had begun three weeks before the attack.

The area has been a center of literary trade since the time of the Abbasids, nearly a thousand years ago. The rebuilt market reopened in 2008, but without cars and with fewer bookstalls.

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor:

In Our Orbit: Fair Warning

I have a book review in the current issue of The Nation, on Tom Engelhardt’s The American Way to War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. It’s behind the subscriber wall, so here’s the first paragraph. Why not subscribe, or even get a digital subscription to The Nation, so you can read subscriber only content like this, and support the magazine that this week exposed the hypocrisy of Lou Dobbs. Also read fellow ex-intern Nick Kusnetz’s second report on ALEC, the legislative lobby leading the fight against healthcare reform.

The embarrassing percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate sent to impose Sharia—or is it socialism?—from sea to shining sea should take a look at the Pentagon’s books. Earlier this year Obama, formerly the partial antiwar candidate, sent Congress the largest defense budget since World War II: $708 billion for the fiscal year 2011, a sum that surpassed the 2010 defense budget of $626 billion, which grew this spring by $33 billion—the initial outlay for an additional 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Nearly $160 billion of the 2011 budget (up from $128 billion in 2010) covers “Overseas Contingency Operations,” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These bloated numbers, plus the less-reported budgets and contingencies that reveal themselves in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, are not just “part of Pentagon blank-check-ism in Washington,” in Tom Engelhardt’s terms. They are also proof that “war is now the American way,” as he writes, “even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands.” At the outset of his damning new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket; $16.95), Engelhardt, a Nation Institute fellow, writes, “And peace itself? Simply put, there’s no money in it.”

Continue reading at The Nation.

Syria: Iraqi artists, now refugees, struggle to pursue art in exile


My recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (with more coming):

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – To support his art in Baghdad, Alaa Ismael opened an interior-design office in a commercial area near his house. But after the American invasion, customers dwindled as checkpoints choked the city.

In 2004, his office was burned and robbed by extremists. “They killed everyone, not only artists,” he said. “Jihadis would threaten us, calling us ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] because of our art, because of the style or subject of our work.” While he was never threatened personally, “threats were all around.”

So Mr. Ismael left with his wife, sister, and nephews for Syria, where he has been for the past five years. He quickly shakes his head when asked about going back. His oldest daughter was an infant when they left Iraq; his second daughter was born here this year.

They all share the same apartment in a ramshackle hillside neighborhood overlooking Damascus. One of its rooms is his studio, where large finished canvases and rolled-up paintings are stacked, unsold.

Ismael is one of dozens of Iraqi refugee artists here, struggling to paint and sell his work to support himself and his family and maintain a semblance of his former life in Baghdad.

“Before the war, Baghdad was the cultural and artistic center,” Ismael said. “There were galleries, art schools, universities. There was movement.”

For him, more opportunities in art exist abroad now – through friends and fellow artists in the Gulf and Europe – than in exile here in Syria.

Omar and Alaa are but two of the dozens of Iraqi artists in Damascus right now. Skilled painters, some abstract, some based in Islamic calligraphy and stylized Arabic text, they were a vital part of culture and society of pre-invasion Iraq and now have an equal place among the millions of Iraqi refugees in the region and across the globe. Read the rest here.

American-made death squads

Another side of the American remaking of Iraq, from the Nation:

As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on June 10, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad’s poor Shiite district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.

At first he couldn’t tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground. The men didn’t move like any Iraqi forces he’d ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes. They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was “finished.” But before they left, they identified themselves. “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade,” Hassan recalls them saying.

The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003. There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.


Refugee Chess

A recent story of mine that ran on the newly launched Wunderkammer Magazine in New York.

They lived well in Baghdad; their eldest daughter had two cars. Six years later, the Iraqi couple moves their mattresses out of the bedroom each night to sleep on the living room floor. The only bedroom is left for their daughters while they live in this concrete refugee suburb of Damascus.

It was Friday and quiet on the balcony above the street. The fried fish lunch was over and the mother was reading fortunes in the bottom of coffee cups. The father skulked past the couch and flashed his pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke before the war. He was a chain-smoker by the time he arrived in Damascus. He shrugged when his wife explained his new habit—“he’s always with a cigarette, always, but he never smoked before.” She brought her index and middle finger to her mouth and mimed puff after puff.

Read the rest here.


“This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is a farewell kiss, you dog! … This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”

There is a lot to say about these shoes, and the gusto of Muntazir Az-Zaydi. It’s a subject that will get play in the press for weeks now – I mean the Arabic press. Az-Zaydi is a celebrity now, a folk hero for online video and satellite news. American media will report ad nauseam in clear and simple English just how offensive shoe throwing is in “Arab or Muslim or Islamic culture.” They will try and delve into the cultural significance of all this, and only look more and more like out-of-touch asses oggling at the others for standing up and throwing something at Bush. The Angry Arab is having a field day — is there a better Eid present? or early Christmas gift? — and if you want to laugh and read all the compliled cultural analysis on the meaning of a shoe in the Middle East and see how it is properly lambasted, click there.

Seriously, let’s hope Az-Zaydi is released very soon.

From McClatchy:

It wasn’t clear whether Zaidi was hurt. His employer, Cairo-based Baghdadiyah Television, released a statement late Sunday demanding Zaidi’s release from Iraqi custody.

“Any action taken against Muntathar will remind us of the actions and behaviors taken by the reign of the dictator and the violence, the random arrests, the mass graves and confiscations of freedom from the people,” the board of Baghdadiyah said.

Friends said Zaidi covered the U.S. bombing of Baghdad’s Sadr City area earlier this year and had been “emotionally influenced” by the destruction he’d seen. They also said he’d been kidnapped in 2007 and held for three days by Shiite Muslim gunmen.

A studio visit


We enter the artist’s apartment – let’s call him Khalid – and turn to the left into another room. There is florescent light at one side, to the right, where two painting hang on facing walls that frame the middle wall, which is the workspace. A plastic tarp hangs on the white wall, protecting it from splattered paint, aerosol spray and free strokes. The linoleum floor is not covered and has the shoe sole and color marks of a studio floor. A folding worktable is covered in paint cans and jars and dry brushes.

To the other side of the room, to the left upon entering, is the living room. The television in the corner is showing “First Knight” with Richard Gere and Sean Connery on mute, below more paintings: a pair of tall blue and red figure pieces – “these I don’t like much,” Khalid says – and a yellow and green scene of three thin figures over a bicycle.

A couch on the opposite wall faces the studio corner, flanked on the adjoining wall by two chairs. A place for tea – which he brings ten minutes after showing us the paintings and gushing at our visit.

“These two… are brother and sister” – he points to a pair of white and turquoise-banded paintings on the small wall, cut by the balcony, that faced the living room corner.

“Are they the marshes?” I ask, since they share tones of two of his other paintings, which he described a week before, triumphantly, as “marsh paintings: southern Iraq.”

“No, they are any village,” he replied. “They are the Iraqi villages, along the rivers, or the oases, in the desert.” Faded silhouettes of palms are clouded by white in both paintings – sandstorms maybe, or just the haze of heat.


“Everywhere in Iraq there are palms, like in the States? California? The south? Except in the north, where like you we have other trees” – he makes a motion of descending triangles with his hands.

“Cedars. Pine trees,” I reply. “Like in Lebanon.”

“But the marshes, they are like another world.” Gesticulating, he looks in Arabic for the English word for Martian, or planet, or outerspace. “When I was there, it was like another… planet? People live on the water.”

But he’s not from Basra he’s from Baghdad. He left some three years ago, escaping violence that made a man a target for the militias – in his case Shi’a – because his name – a Sunni name – was suddenly a threat. He won’t go back now. One day “God willing” he will go back, when it is no longer this confessional society, its new meanings enforced by ethnic cleansing and blast and sectarian walls, and when parks and traffic circles and public schools are not being renamed after Shi’a clerics. No more Abu Nawas. No more Salah-ad-Din.

When it is the old Iraq, or even a better new one, when its capital Baghdad can be his home again, a place for an artist – there are so many of them – who were educated there, trained there, members of artist unions there, then forced onto a truck or a taxi, their paintings and supplies strapped to roofs and shoved in suitcases, driving through the desert to Syria, for Damascus, for a refuge. Where they paint today, trying to sell their work for a sum, wondering among other things, like Khalid does, where is the artists’ festival?

“They have celebrity festivals, for musicians, for Nancy Ajram, in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beirut,” he says. “Where is our festival? Our bi…” Biennial is on the tip of his tongue.

“I want to meet more artists, talk to them, talk to me.”

 He sighs and offers us more tea.







“Did the New York Times not know that `Abdu-s-Sattar is dead?”

A sign of the state of American reporting in Iraq? The New York Times printed a story on the “pacified” Anbar province earlier this week, with the following photo and caption:

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, right, and Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a Sunni sheik, on Monday in Ramadi.”

Problem is, Abdul Sattar was killed last September in a high profile assassination by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. It was pretty big news, since he was the “key Sunni ally” of the US in Anbar, a figurehead for the so-called Sunni Awakening (how much did the Pentagon pay him, you wonder?). He was among other Anbar Sunni tribal leaders who met Bush in Iraq in early September 2007, barely a week before he was killed in a bombing near his home. Maybe the Times forgot about all that. After all, in this article about the shift from violence to apparent calm in Anbar, Dexter Filkins doesn’t even mention Abdul Sattar’s assassination.

Source and title quote: Angry Arab News Service.