Global Policy Forum

Of Bridges and Birds


By Sinan Antoon

Al-Ahram Weekly
April 17-23, 2003


945 Buwayhids; 1055 Seljuks; 1258 Mongols led by Hulagu; 1340 Jalayrs; 1393 & 1401 Mongols led by Tamerlane; 1411 Turkoman Black Sheep; 1469 Turkoman White Sheep ; 1508 Safavids ; 1534 Ottomans under Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent; 1623 Safavids; 1638 Ottomans under Sultan Murad IV; 1917 British; 1941 British again to depose pro-German government; 2003 Anglo-American invasion


It is agonisingly difficult to write about one's hometown as it drowns in flames and suffocates with smoke. After tons of bombs and thousands of liberating missiles, now many of Baghdad's own inhabitants are pillaging the city under the encouraging and voyeuristic eyes of its latest invaders. This is by no means the first time that Baghdad has fallen so violently, but in the past its fall had always happened "before" or "back then". One needed to plough through the many volumes of the city's history and poetry, or listen to its elders, in order to learn more about those past falls. This time, however, it is in the painfully present tense. A soft click on the remote control is all you need to get variations on one theme: the fall and destruction of Baghdad is live!

As if trying to enter through one of its remaining gates, I start to approach Baghdad, or rather one of the many Baghdads I have carried about with me for years, by measuring the extent to which its present reality betrays the enchanting and idealised signifiers that have taken it in turns to represent it. Or those which have tried to capture some of its magic. For now it betrays, or is forced to betray, like never before all of the accolades bestowed upon it by its numerous rulers, chroniclers and lovers. It is no longer now the "Abode of Peace, Mother of the World, Abode of Beauty, Gift of the Gods, Triumph of the Gods, Round City", etc.

Whichever way I choose to approach the city, I must tread warily, for its streets are still littered with bodies, books and blood. Even the safe, labyrinthine streets of my own memory are not free from the ghosts of wars, but at least they cannot be destroyed, or looted and pillaged, except by amnesia.

Built as the capital of the burgeoning empire of the Abbasids in 762, Baghdad was to be repeatedly conquered and sacked by would-be emperors, some local, many foreign. The ritual of imperial ascent dictates trampling on the symbols of a glory as this is being at once eclipsed and emulated. And so the city was conquered, sacked and rebuilt time and time again. In its heyday, Baghdad was the heart of an empire, and its rulers, too, wrought havoc on distant lands. But, most of its caliphs and sultans were also patrons of art and knowledge, connoisseurs, and sometimes composers, of the most beautiful poetry to have survived in the collective memory of the Arabs. Now, it is Baghdad's ironic fate to have been subjugated by a would-be emperor, who has yet to master his mother tongue. While he is fully aware of the geo- strategic importance of Baghdad, Bush is probably the one least aware, in the history of the city's conquerors, of the precious symbolism and rich history of his booty. Does it matter to him?

Baghdad was for many years the enchanting "mother of the world", as the city was once called. It was so sophisticated and elegant in its golden age that an Arabic verb, yatabaghdadu, was derived from its name to signify how people used to emulate the coveted styles and ways of Baghdad's elites.

Thousands of invisible umbilical chords still bind the city to many a soul. With every bomb, missile and fire that has erupted over the last three weeks in Baghdad, I have felt the pain of those chords being violently severed in my heart. Now, alas, even some of those who are still in the city's womb are unleashing decades of pain, violence and war upon its body and scarring its memory, together with their own collective history, in a masochistic or matricidal orgy.

I grew up in the Baghdad of the 1970s and 1980s. At that time the city's many faces, like its history, were already being appropriated and changed by Saddam and his regime to make it his Baghdad. His desire to inscribe his name and face onto the city's history and streets was insatiable. He fancied himself the descendent and natural heir to the likes of Abu-Ja'far Al- Mansur, the city's founder, and Haroun Al- Rasheed, its most illustrious ruler. And so I witnessed his murals, monuments, statues and sayings invading the city's space like rampant scars. By the time I left Baghdad in 1991, it had almost become a permanent exhibition of his likenesses. But, for those who knew it well and looked hard enough, there were always spaces to which one could escape and converse with the city, stealing a few kisses away from his watchful eyes, at least until the early 1980s.

While at secondary school, I used to skip the classes of one boring teacher to wander in Baghdad's old streets. I was not alone in committing this "crime against our country", as the headteacher of our school called it when he chastised us the next day. He thought that we were skipping school to go to the movies, while Iraqi men were dying on the front in the war with Iran. Little did he know that we were actually acquainting ourselves with our city and its history without lethargic and dogmatic mediation.

My accomplice, a classmate, was obsessed with Baghdad's history, and he had devoured his father's collection of history books. We used to take the bus from our school in Al- A'zamiyya to the heart of old Baghdad. We wandered in Suq Al-Saray, sifting through used books and hunting for rare ones. We would pass by the famous store of Al-Haydari and eat kahi, a delicious Baghdadi pastry with cream and syrup. We would sit at one of the old cafés on Al-Rasheed Street and sip cardamom tea and be subjected to suspicious looks from the café's more regular and older customers before parting company. My friend was the perfect guide, not just because of his vast knowledge of every coup, cabinet and uprising in the country's history, but also because I had no qualms about telling him to shut up when he went over the word limit I had randomly set, or started to expound on what I deemed uninteresting. There were many times when I wanted to hear the city speak on its own.

In later, less innocent years, I would walk alone in Al-Karrada, starting from Kahramana Square with its beautiful statue and fountains and making my way to Abu-Nuwwas Street to meet companions at one of its many bars. The last few years of the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) haunted our youth and added nihilism to our lives. During this period, the dark and dreary bars on Abu-Nuwwas Street were our haven, and we remained true to the poet's spirit and his wine songs expressing disillusionment with the here and now, but also gaiety, lightheartedness and hedonism to combat its ephemera.

The dissident contemporary Iraqi poet Muzaffar Al-Nawwab was our guide on our way back home at night. His fiery, banned poems were smuggled into Iraq on cassettes and circulated secretly among friends. Some of those friends stayed in Iraq, withering under the sanctions and now another war, while many ended up in various exiles, in countries from Brazil to Australia.

A tear always wakes in my eye whenever I listen to the traditional Baghdadi maqamat we used to sing together -- words that express a deep sorrow aged to perfection and echoing Mesopotamia's painful history of floods, famines and the fire of unrequited love. Arab friends always ask about the secret of the excessive sadness of Iraqi songs. Now they know it and will have to cry along.


Having a fascination with birds, I liked to go to Suq Al-Ghazl where birds and animals of all kinds were sold on Fridays. I also liked to sit on our roof and watch as the pigeons kept by our neighbour's son would take their usual flight in the afternoon Baghdad sky. At times, these birds would dodge, and compete with, the kites flown by kids. Sometimes I could spot a flock of birds flying high above, en route to their breeding grounds in the north. Perhaps I remember this now because of something I read a few days before the US-led invasion. Reuters reported that these annual migration routes could be disrupted when the war erupted. In the period between mid-March and mid-April, one finds the greatest number of birds in Iraq. Since many of these birds cannot make it to their breeding grounds in one flight, they stop and "refuel" on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates and in the southern marshes drained by Saddam.

Every year around this time I would look for the one or two white storks that used to nest on the dome of the old church in Bab Al- Mu'azzam. I wonder if they have made it to Baghdad this year? I doubt it. I clipped that Reuters article from Al-Hayat and left it lying around. When I read the article again on the second day of the war, American B-52 bombers were taking off from Fairfield Airbase in England and heading towards the skies over Baghdad. Someone on Fox News described them as "beautiful birds", and Rumsfeld spoke of "the humanity which went into the making of these weapons".

If they don't perish first, the storks will try to return next year. Perhaps many Baghdadis who have been forced to seek refuge away from Baghdad are now also wondering how long it will be before the skies are clear, or how long they will have to recite lines written by a fellow Baghdadi, Muzaffar Al-Nawwab:

I have accepted that my fate

Will be like that of a bird,

And I have endured everything

Except humiliation,

Or having my heart

Caged up in the Sultan's palace.

But O dear God

Even birds have homes to return to,

Whereas I fly across this homeland

From sea to sea,

And to jail after jail after jail,

One jailer hugging another.


I felt pangs of pain a week ago as I watched an American tank crawling across Al- Jumhuriyya Bridge in the heart of Baghdad. I have crossed that bridge hundreds of times, and I used to linger a bit half way along, especially when walking alone, and look down at the river. The Tigris splits Baghdad into two sections: Al-Karkh, on the western bank, and Al-Rusafah on the eastern. I used to recite Ali Ibn Al- Jahm's famous line about the enchanting, almond-shaped eyes of the Baghdadi women who used to cross from one bank to the other in the nineth century. On a lucky day, I would encounter a descendent or two of those women. Now the moon-like faces celebrated in thousands of verses are hiding in houses on both banks, white voyeuristic satellites are hovering above and scrutinising every inch of the city's body.

It was also impossible, whenever I crossed any bridge over the Tigris, not to remember Al- Jawahiri's (1900-1997) most famous poem about Baghdad, written when he was in exile in Prague in the early 1960s. Although hailing from Najaf, he, like many before and after, fell in love with Baghdad and claimed it as his muse. In fact, every Arab poet considers Baghdad his home. Al-Jawahiri's Baghdad was "Umm Al-Basatin" (the mother of orchards), and he saluted its banks and embraced them from his exile. He reminisced about the boats meandering along the Tigris and wished that their sails could form his shroud the day he was laid to rest. Alas, Al- Jawahiri died in exile and was buried in Damascus in 1997. Today, many parts of the "mother of orchards" have been burnt by the mother of all bombs, or M O A B as it is termed by the Pentagon.

In hoping to die in Baghdad, Al- Jawahiri was probably echoing one of his poetic ancestors, the great poet Al- Ma'arri from the fourth century. Abul-'Ala' Al-Ma'arri left his hometown in Syria and came to Baghdad, but he was disappointed at the cold reception he received and yearned for his own people, resolving never to return to Baghdad. However, as soon as he left, he could not contain his desire to return:

Were it my choice I would have died among you.

But, alas, that is beyond my reach.

Give me one last drink from the Tigris:

If I could, I would drink the whole river.

In 1991, the US bombed the bridge about which I am writing, slicing it in two. The justification then, as for the other acts of destruction now, was that it was part of the city's "command and control network". I rushed out the next morning on my bike to see for myself. Hundreds of Baghdadis had also come and were looking on in silence. Now unable to link Baghdad's two banks, the bridge resembled a broken smile.

My best friend and I used to roam Baghdad, surveying the daily destruction and checking on friends and relatives to see if they had been consigned to the dubious category of "collateral damage". The bombing had severed all communications in the first week, and the phones were dead. Now, tanks spit their fire towards a row of houses on the eastern bank of the Tigris, and blazes go up. A correspondent announces that Apaches are hovering over Baghdad for the first time, but, alas, this is a familiar species in our part of the world. They have come to make sure that Baghdad's residents join the Palestinians as the fortunate recipients of the latest form of lethal "liberation".

Rivers of blood are flowing along the Tigris as America tattoos its imperial insignia into the bodies of Iraqi children, stamping their futures with its corporate logos in order to "safeguard" it. There is an abyss in and around Iraq, and it is widening by the moment. But one must look for, and cling to, a bridge. And so I try. A few bridges north of Al- Jumhuriyya Bridge lies Jisr Al-Shuhada' (Martyrs' Bridge). Throngs of Iraqis burst onto the streets in January 1948 to express their rejection of the Portsmouth Treaty signed between the despicable Iraqi government of the time and Great Britain. Some of them were killed by the regime's bullets on that bridge, and Al-Jawahiri commemorated the uprising with one of his powerful poems. It was an elegy for his brother, Ja'far, who was one of those killed and had died in Al-Jawahiri's arms.

Many Iraqis know the poem's opening lines by heart. Like many of Al-Jawahiri's poems, this one has prophetic lines: "I see a horizon lit with blood/And many a starless night./A generation comes and another goes/And the fire keeps burning." Baghdadis and Iraqis have indeed lost their way, but they have not lost their collective memory. The US tanks will have to go soon, and so will the generals, the soldiers and their Iraqi informants. I can already hear the chants of the demonstrators and read the signs. The clock is ticking, and the message is simple enough for even Bush to understand: Leave Iraq!

In The Thousand and One Nights, otherwise known as the Arabian Nights, that great work that is eternally synonymous with Baghdad, when morning comes, Sheherazad, mother of all narrators, must embrace silence and leave her readers to wonder where the narrative will go next.

For me, it is mourning time, and Baghdad is now enveloped in a long, cruel and starless night. But, just as she's done in the past, she will wake up once more and try to forget. And I must tend to her scars, ward off her future nightmares, and shower her with kisses and love from afar.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.