Archive: December, 2008
For decades, Mutanabi Street in Baghdad was the place where bibliophiles went to get their fix on Fridays. Bookstores line this street in an old quarter of the city, and browsers could also pour over tables full of books lined up in front of the sidewalks - religious books, old English paperbacks, dictionaries, atlases, histories of Iraq, and textbooks.
In a part of the world where books are rarely found in homes, there is a saying: books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq. That's why it was so shocking to Iraqis when Mutanabi St. was hit by a suicide bomber a year ago, killing dozens and destroying cafes and bookstores.
So it was moving to revisit Mutanabi St. and see that it has been rebuilt, including the historic Shabander Cafe where writers and poets have been hanging out for fifty years. But there is a sadness here. Although the cafe has been restored, with government funds, and photos from the 1920s and 1930s still hang on the wall, Haji Mohammed, the owner, gazes over at five photos hung on the wall near the entry - the portraits of his four sons and a nephew who were killed by the bomb.
I attended 8:30 a.m. Christmas mass at a Chaldean Christian church in the Karradah district of Baghdad. Many Chaldeans have been targetted in recent years by Islamic fundamentalists because Christians used to run liquor stores in the city, some of which were bombed. So were several churches. Many Christians have fled abroad, with thousands leaving northern Iraq where the situation is even dicier. Outside the Church of the Virgin Mary, there were two police vans for protection, along with a line of national police.
But in Karradah. Christians feel pretty safe and the church was full, with young women dressed in high heels and fancy boots and knee length skirts or fancy jeans, while their some of their mothers wore lace mantillas on their hair. A choir sang in the front near a Christmas tree, and there were several local TV cameras present; the Iraqi government has made Christmas an official holiday. When I exited the church, I saw a procession of cars passing by heading for the compound of the Shiite cleric Abdel Aziz Hakim, with his turbaned photo pasted on their hoods.
The Karradah district of Baghdad is where locals come to buy appliances like heaters, refrigerators, furniture, and small generators (electricity is still off for much of the day in Baghdad.) The main shopping street never closed down, but I haven't seen it booming like this since right after the fall of Saddam. When I asked one merchant why sales were so good, he explained: Iraqis are returning to homes they fled during the sectarian killing, and their homes have been looted, so they have to replace what was stolen. And the government is giving a stipend to returnees. What's that they say about every tragedy having a silver lining....
Abu Nawas Street which runs along the Tigris River used to be famous for its fish restaurants which were long closed but now have been refurbished. But the green strip along the river was once an hangout for unsavory types. Now it has been totally redone as a park with shrub-lined walkways, benches, tables and several mini-playgrounds with swings and slides. On Christmas Day, which was a national holiday here, the park was full of families sitting on blankets, walking by the river, and pushing kids on swings. It was such a normal scene that it nearly made me cry, and it definitely made me fearful that a crazed suicide bomber might take advantage of the crowd. I also wondered whether the government will maintain the greenery, and collect garbage (no waste barrels were in evidence). But as a step forward towards a semi-normal city this park is a great start!
What has been astonishing about this visit to Baghdad is the psychological shift in officials and ordinary people.
The future is still uncertain, electricity in Baghdad neighborhoods varies from a couple of hours a day to 12 hours at best, jobs are scarce, suicide bombs still go off. Government corruption is rife and essential services absent.
But Iraqis seem to be getting back a sense of their "Iraqi-ness." Nationalism is in the air. The security forces finally have a country to defend, instead of focusing their loyalties on sect and religion.
Went to the Iraqi parliament today. The parliament meets in a dim, grim convention center in the Green Zone where Saddam once held pro forma government meetings. It used to be possible to shmooze with members in the cafeteria, until a bomb went off there over a year and a half ago, killing a member.
Since then security has been tight and an elaborate, uncomputerized system of permits and bodychecks is required to get in. Kurdish pesh merga troops guard the place - everyone seems to think Kurds are the most professional, even though other Iraqi factions get annoyed at what they claim is Kurdish overreach on territory in the north of Iraq.
Today the debate was over whether to kick out the speaker, who is a hot-tempered rabble rouser, and over how to regularize the presence of other foreign troops who aren't covered by the status of forces agreement signed between Iraq and the United States. But I went to talk with some of the most interesting members, like Shaikh Humam Humoudi. He's a turbaned cleric, and member of the Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq. He also helped draft Iraq's constitution, is a gold mine of information on Shiite politics, and where Iraq's political relationship with America is likely to go in the future, and has a son in Pittsburgh.