Memories From Baghdad

From an Iraqi musician in Canada to a poet in London, Baghdad's former residents remember its charms

The Eternal Tigris
Azzam Alwash
The environmentalist and founder of Nature Iraq explains the innate power of Iraqi soil

I was born in Kut, and lived in Nasiriyah, Diwaniya, Baghdad and Basra before I left in 1978. Invariably, I get asked where I’m from and my answer is that I’m from the south of Iraq. The south of Iraq is a sedimentary plain. The soil of southern Iraq’s fertile earth is transported from the mountains of Kurdistan by the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These rivers not only feed the south with their sweet water, but also make the marshes what they are. The marshes of southern Iraq are the cradle of civilisation. Along its shores, agriculture was first practiced, cities were built, writing was conceived, the wheel was invented and, as legend has it, Prophet Ibrahim was born. If we are what we eat, then all Iraqis are made from the same soil.
Modern-day Baghdad is built on the ancient ruins of many cities that were located in the same strategic location. I went to high school near the old Ottoman headquarters of Qishla. It was a modern and clean city, a beautiful city, orderly and elegant. The crowded central parts were old, but the houses were intriguing in their architecture and grandeur.Along the Tigris River, there were public parkways and I remember the tourist boats that gave a view of the city rarely seen by land dwellers. Baghdad, from the river, was exotic to my young eyes. I recall party boats that took us on tours of the river late at night with calm breezes cooled by the water.Residential tracts in Mansour, Harthia, Jamma, Mamoon and Masbah consisted of houses with gardens that most people used to irrigate at sunset, so that there would be a cold breeze. I recall frogs jumping in the gardens at our feet. They were a bellwether species that thrived in clean environments. When frogs disappear, it only means that the water and the soil are too polluted for them.Major streets had landscaped islands with trees and grass. Rush hour was only 10 minutes long. There were cinemas, casinos, libraries and social clubs in Mansour. There were horse races and beautiful stables where the horses were housed and taken care of. Hardly a day went by without us going out at night – be it a school night or a weekend, which were spent picnicking on farms in the vicinity of the city. The owners often welcomed complete strangers and allowed the kids to play football between the trees.I left Iraq on July 12th, 1978, a date I will never forget, leaving behind my family who didn’t know that I intended not to return. But 25 years later, almost to the day, I did come back and I arrived in Basra first. Over time, the city had become a shadow of itself. When we got to Baghdad, I couldn’t find the beautiful streets of my youth. The landscaped medians disappeared and residential streets were blocked with traffic and potholes. My childhood house, too, was in deep need of care. The garden that my dad had grown was replaced with a concrete structure and that’s when I noticed that very few houses had gardens anymore. I was distressed, and when I’m distressed I go to the water. I went to the Tigris and it was flowing low, but as beautiful and peaceful as always. I saw a boatman pulling his boat and retrieving his fishing net. I went to talk to him and as I predicted, he was a Marsh Arab. I sat by the Tigris contemplating. As long as the eternal river is flowing, Baghdad will come back no matter what. Rulers come and go, but the river has been there since before there were rulers, or people, and as long as it flows Baghdad will be alive.

Al Muntaqah Al Hadra
Nabeel Yasin
Reflections on the river: a poet considers the many colours of Baghdad

I was born in Al Muntaqah Al Hadra, a neighbourhood of Baghdad. The original name for the area is Karadat Mariam. It was built during the 1930s and 1940s and it was a very beautiful area. There were a lot of date palm trees in the area at that time, and the railway from Baghdad to the south of Iraq ran through it, with farms that reached the banks of the river Tigris.Baghdad is a city of poetry, pictures, ideas and colour. Many of the poems that I wrote during the late 1960s and early 1970s spoke of Baghdad – the streets, the rivers, the culture and life in the city. While in exile, my aim was always to return back to Iraq, and so Baghdad was the soul of my poems. I went back to Baghdad for the first time in 27 years in 2007. My return was complicated – it wasn’t a direct flight, so sometimes I would find myself in Dubai, Beirut or Kuwait. I went to see many of the districts of Baghdad of which I had memories – those of my job, my studies, my life and my youth. But it was two different pictures and two different lives. It seemed like we had lost the city.When I grew up in Al Muntaqah Al Hadra, it was quite small but it felt like part of the modern world. Baghdad, historically, has always had good relations with the wider world. From the 1930s through to the 1950s, all of the films from Hollywood and Europe were screened in the cinemas of Baghdad.During the city’s history, there have been many stories about Al Muntaqah Al Hadra. For example, there was an Armenian woman who had come to Baghdad in the 18th century. She was very beautiful and became close to the sultan. She then became a recluse and eventually died in isolation in the neighbourhood. So, from this one woman, the area also became known as Karadat Mariam – there is still a small shrine for her. I spent my childhood in Baghdad until 1958. My primary school was on the riverfront. The Tigris itself offers the poet many emotions, pictures and colours. At night, if you cross the bridge, you can see lights reflected on the river, on the water. Staring at the Tigris, you can really go deeper and deeper into the past; it evokes hundreds of years. Now, you couldn’t build the same relationship with the river. It has always played a very integral role in the life of Baghdad’s people and in the city itself, in culture – even in politics. I think Baghdad was a mysterious city, and still is.

Dar el Zaman
Nova Emad
The singer shares her memories of the music of Baghdad – from kitchen tables to football stadiums

I grew up in Baghdad in a very musical, artistic household – my mother, Seta Hagopian, is a famous singer, and my father, Emad Bahjat, a very well known television director. A few weeks ago, I was at home and my mother surprised me with a home video. I’m about six-years old in the video and wandering after my mother, following her from room to room and mimicking one of her songs, ‘Dar El Zaman’.As I grew up, the same song became part of Iraq’s own cultural memory – one of the songs that people sing at football games. They have changed the lyrics a little bit, depending on the team that they’re cheering for, but the song is still there. One of my mother’s fans recently shared a video of the audience in Al Shaab Stadium singing ‘Dar El Zaman’. It was so overwhelming to see that people still remember it.My sister and I used to live with my mother’s aunt because our parents spent long hours working at an Iraqi television station. In the mornings, when I would wake up, I remember the radio turned up really loudly, playing all sorts of music at 6.30am. After getting dressed for school, I remember sitting for breakfast and listening to this music. It was the exact same song every single day; it spoke of a woman with a beautiful Sumerian face and Babylonian eyes. Every time I close my eyes and listen to that song today, it takes me right back to those mornings. I can still smell the bread and I can still see the little kitchen where we used to eat breakfast.Music takes you to a place or moment, and makes you relive it again. At university, I had a little group of friends with whom I used to study biology. We had some classes in which we were always really bored, so we used to skip them and sit outside in a small yard. The guys would bring their guitars and we would spend three hours just singing, from old Iraqi songs to whatever was playing on television at the time. In biology, we used to have these very long, complicated names for different plants or animals, so we used to replace the lyrics of Gypsy Kings’ songs with these names. Today, every time I hear a Gypsy Kings song, I’m taken back to my university, to where I used to sit outside.
Sometimes music brings good memories, and sometimes sad. The people that you associate them with are no longer here. But it reminds me of how many great things I went through in Baghdad. It always brings me a kind of hope. A hope that if I still remember it that way, then I’m sure that there are others who do as well. Seeing Facebook now, and being in touch with friends who are still there, I see the videos of songs that are being sung right now in Iraq. Today, it’s Al Mutanabbi Street that most of the musicians go to. A lot of people take their guitars or whatever instrument they have and start singing. Sometimes, people send me videos of musicians singing my mother’s songs on Al Mutanabbi Street too. It’s so heartwarming to see – just people sitting down and singing. For me, if you’re singing that means life is still okay. I really hope that I get to go back again and sing on the streets too. Not on a stage, but just for and with the people, to share that memory again one more time. I feel homesick every single day; it’s not easy. I write, and that helps a lot. The very first single and video I released was about longing to go home. The lyrics talk about longing for my homeland and in my video – directed by my sister Naire Emad – I’m sitting wearing a white dress, similar to a Sumerian wedding dress. I sit on a shore and there’s a big burned-out boat behind me. It’s sort of a symbol – I’m still waiting for a new boat to come and take me back home.

In Dia Azzawi’s Colours
Nada Shabout
A Texas-based art historian sees Baghdad in Iraq’s modernist paintings

Baghdad is waiting for the school bus early in the morning with that special smell of the neighbourhood gardens in the cold December air. It is the collective listening to Fairuz in the morning and to Oum Khalthoum in the afternoon. It is staring at the skies from my bed on the roof in the cool summer night breeze, counting the stars with my brother. It is the aroma of the dark tea that has been brewing all day at college canteens. It is my high school years and friendships that span time and distance. As I write and remember, one of my most vivid memories is my senior high school trip. Our high school had a tradition of taking the graduating class on a weeklong trip either north or south. It was south for my class. We drove in three busses with four sections of the graduating class, the principle Miss Anissa, one of her deputies Miss Sanaa, and faculty: Miss Faiza, Ustadh George, Ustadh Lazar, Ustadh Hazim and Ustadh Tariq. It was a week of eternal bonding as well as memories of southern Iraq. We drove to Basra and camped in an empty elementary school. On the way back, one of our busses broke down and we happily spent a night in Amarah at the headquarters of the General Federation of Iraqi Women. A group of us (the smokers) somehow found a convincing excuse to be allowed to sleep in a row on the roof without balusters. We went to Qurna and the marshes. The images of the marshes are by far the most entrenched in my imagination. Looking into the faces of women cutting reeds while in a mashhoof navigating Al Hammar Marshes is unforgettable, as are the swear words I heard. Fortunately, my memories of the marshes, Basra, Nasiriyah and Amarah are frozen in time. Those of Baghdad, however, are translucent. Instead, they now inhabit Iraqi painter Dia Azzawi’s colours, Rafa al-Nasiri’s horizons, Jewad Selim’s forms, Shakir Hassan Al Said’s walls, Muzaffar al-Nawab’s and Muhammad Mahdi Al Jawahiri’s stanzas, Sinan Antoon’s imagination and many others who continue the struggle to remember.

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