A view from nowhere
Youssef Rakha recalls a country he has never seen
The writer of this piece was barely 16 when the first Gulf War broke out. One (televised) image that lives on in memory is that of Mrs Thatcher, a late-in-the-day political analyst, commending President Mubarak’s stance. Some of the raw resentment brought on by the notion of Egyptians fighting Iraqis is summoned up, too. Up until then Iraq had existed only in situ, as it were. Suddenly, and for what sounded like the wrong reasons, it was all over the place. From then on what one recognised as the centre of the Abbasid dynasty, the Mashriq’s most notable patrons of the arts, became synonymous alternately with sanctions and Saddam. Already in 1991 one realised Iraq was a police state; at millennium’s end it became, in addition, a rogue state. American Middle East policy was infuriating and Iraq was a case in point. The saddest part was that this diverted attention even further away from its role in Arab culture, in the glories and triumphs of an imagined identity.
Arabs of my generation have seldom had occasion to visit Arab countries, a paradox that reflects exactly how imagined that identity is. Of Baghdad, as much as of Damascus or Sanaa, what one likes and relates to has little to do with present-day reality. Such, at least, is the assumption: associations of political corruption, arbitrary justice and economic disinheritance are paramount; history and culture figure less prominently. Or else they figure, in a variety of contexts, at an abstract level. Prior to the start of the war, the terra incognita of contemporary Iraq consisted largely of the reports of Egyptian acquaintances who had sought employment in an oil-rich Gulf country, impressions of Iraqi literati and academics one had met and the contents of books of history and literature. Connections between the latter, prior or unreal knowledge, and information gleaned from the media or through hearsay were few and far between; to register fully or evolve into a holistic picture of the country, they required some degree of creative intervention.
Baghdad was, for example, home to the Thousand and One Nights Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, whose reputation for sensual excess was tentatively backed up by reports of a subdued but unequivocal focus on the simple pleasures of life. Hard as they worked — and, compared to Egyptians, it was said, they worked really hard — Iraqis had a tremendous capacity for fun; no feelings of guilt or obligation could hamper their enjoyment of what life had to offer. Others who had encountered trouble supplied similar, individual glosses on the general precepts of life under Saddam. Ex cathedra interference in the lives of ordinary residents was ruthless and demeaning; there existed, in many social arrangements, what amounted to a caste system in which those not affiliated with government bodies were repeatedly put in their place. The wielding of power was, in general, far more reckless and vainglorious than in Egypt. More reassuringly people also referred to a stricter moral code governing human interactions; a man’s word was honoured beyond all else; an Iraqi employer, so long as you did not betray or attempt to deceive him, was eminently reliable. Such, it would seem, was the Abbasid strain.
Encounters with Iraqis proved equally heterogenous. By the time they occurred, the sanctions had taken their toll on those of them who lived there. Others, like the great poet Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati, were confident and irritable. The latter was an icon of the contemporary poetic movement — lyrical, romantic, thoroughly modern. As an aspiring author who knew many of his lines by heart, I had expected a soft-spoken, gentle old man. The person who met me, a few months before his death in Amman, seemed gruff and reluctant. His welcome was far from warm, but neither did he know me. I have retained, along with the disorientation induced by the perception of such a difference between the man and his work, only his inattentive gestures, his gutteral voice, the rare, sarcastic smile. Before Al-Bayati, I had discovered Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab; and after him, Saadi Youssef. The felicity, power and innovation of modern Iraqi poets convinced me that in spite of everything the Arabs’ literary heritage, the essence of which is poetry (some of the best remembered lines were produced during the reign of the aforementioned dynasty), was alive and well only in Baghdad — or among a Baghdadi diaspora scattered, sadly and perhaps irrevocably, across the whole world.
I also recalled, however, that during that era the vanity and sophistication of the literary capital could cast Al- Ma’arri — a relatively simple, blind Syrian even as he remains a formidable poet and thinker — out of it, keeping him in his small hometown of Ma’arra till the end of his life. Something of this duality appeared in all my dealings with Iraq. Hearty and intense, the Iraqis I met were nonetheless too proud to give up, even for a moment, that impenetrable veneer of confident civility. Their cinema, what little of it I saw, may have been slack and rudimentary, but their literature evidenced a corresponding combination of confessional fluidity and linguistic polish. The Baghdadi maqam, a distinct musical form which I discovered through the fortunate coincidence of being given a French-produced CD, was the closest I came to the sound of Abbasid music — an intuition that finds support in historical fact. Unlike anything I had heard, and full of the refinement of a culture at its height, it was a real awakening.
Walking across Tahrir Square the day after the arrival of the American and British forces in Iraq, I could think of nothing but the unmediated sense of identity so many Egyptians felt. Anti-American sentiment was inflated, but it was justified and real, far more real than resentment of the Saddam regime. No one cheered when the dictator’s statue toppled over; and subsequent images of looting and plunder could only inspire shame and a sense of having been betrayed. Everyone sympathised with Iraq, but what did Iraq mean to people? It was at this point that I thought of making a mental list of all those things Iraq, a country I had never seen, meant to me. I thought of a man who sold donner kebab near Hull University campus, an exile whose perpetual homesickness had metamorphosed into a painful quietude. The solitude, the desolation on his face drove me to inquire about his personal history, but he would have nothing to do with me. One night, following an intense evening at the Union Bar, I happened to drop the name of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab. Slowly, pensively, in a voice more like its author’s, this little educated man recited Al-Sayyab’s most famous poem, Unshoudat Al-Mattar (Rainsong). By the end he was on the verge of tears; he never shed any.