Baghdad, the Lawless City
The wall rises first in your head. Most of the time, it forms a localised obstruction. Later it changes into a line where one and the Other touch, a wall of imaginary division, or into a physical wall. The barrier wall, I believe, is harsher, more merciless and more dangerous than the ghetto, because a neighbourhood that is sealed off on racial or religious grounds seeks to strengthen its internal solidarity in order to confront the external danger constituted by the state’s other citizens. This subjective retreat provokes the resentment of the other citizens and later encourages them to become enemies who think only of annihilating the group who have cloistered themselves away. So forceful personal retreat becomes a snare that incites instinctual violence on the other side, which contemplates carrying out an operation of racial or sectarian extermination and eradication.
What can I say then about the walls of Baghdad, my lawless city, which is ill-fated and divided? Yesterday (August 19th 2009) came news of numerous additional victims: approximately a hundred people were killed and more than six hundred wounded in a number of savage attacks that also involved the fortified Green Zone. Indeed, the suicide bombers targeted the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance, the 'Two Sovereigns', as they are known.
Baghdad? The city of fire, massacres, blood, and ashes?
Baghdad? The city of learning, poetry, wine, and beauty?
What then can be said of history’s most famous legendary city, which is also a city deprived of any cultural façade and fully exposed to destruction? We know that this city was baptised with fire and that its foundations were established by tongues of flame. A person never tires of rereading the account of that surreal scene that the Caliph Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur in person directed from the stage of an old monastery to make Baghdad the unrivalled world capital for thought, art and language in that age.Al-Tabari says in his History:
Al-Mansur sent for a host of craftsmen and labourers from Syria, al-Mawsil, al-Jabal, al-Kufah, Wasit, and al-Basrah to be brought to him, commanding the selection of a group of people endowed with virtue, integrity, intelligence, fidelity, and competence in surveying. Consequently, among those brought to him were al-Hajjaj b. Artah and Abu Hanifah al-Nu‘man b. Thabit. The caliph ordered the city to be marked out, its foundations excavated, its mud bricks shaped, and its baked bricks fired. Thus it was begun, the first stage of the project being initiated in 145 [AH]It is said: When al-Mansur decided to build Baghdad, he wanted to see for himself what it would look like, so he commanded that its outline be drawn with ashes. He then proceeded to enter through each gate and to walk among its outside walls, its arched areas, and its courtyards, all of which were outlined in ashes. He made the rounds, looking at the workmen and at the trenches that had been sketched. Having done that, he ordered that cotton seeds be placed on this outline and oil poured onto it. Then he watched as the fire flared up, seeing the city as a whole and recognising its full plan. Subsequently, he ordered the foundations to be excavated along those lines, and commenced its construction.
Al-Mansur established a circular wall around Baghdad for fear of attacks from foreigners and by Arab tribes from the Arab Peninsula, because these constituted a genuine threat to the seat of the Caliphate. But this defensive ring did not prevent Baghdad from becoming a cosmopolitan city that both was open to and opened out onto the cultures of the world and its creative geniuses, for whom Baghdad provided a home base. Al-Tabari himself was one of these and hailed from northern Iran.
I have myself witnessed stages of migration to Baghdad, attempts by migrants to adjust to its geographical and social environment, and the forms of rejection and acceptance these new arrivals have encountered from Baghdad’s citizens. The city would gradually open its heart to new arrivals and open its arms to embrace migrants from abroad, providing them with what is known today as cultural diversity without becoming a melting pot. This was a process of socialisation, in other words, an acceptance of the city’s preconditions, allowing the original inhabitants to retain their distinctive qualities.
I have felt for some time - and still do - pride in my ties to southern Iraq, to its first settlers, who were of many ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic backgrounds. The Arab Muslim, Sunni or Shi‘i, lived beside the Mandaean, the Christian, and the Jew in security, peace, and profound respect. In fact, the Muslim, who customarily belonged to one of the Arab tribes, which occasionally fought each other, was intensely keen to provide protection to his Mandaean, Christian, and Jewish brethren. I never heard or read of any attack on or murder of any member of a religious minority for religious reasons in southern Iraq, in other words in the extensive region spreading from Baghdad to Basra. Now I have begun to consider this historic truth a manifestation of a natural coexistence dictated by social indoctrination and tribal values, which are based on pride, vigilance, and respect for the other person - rather than necessarily being based on religious creeds, as will become clear to us in what follows.When the rural poor migrated to Baghdad from the south and many of them congregated in an area that is currently the centre of the Sadrist Revolution, the 'credit' for the formation of which goes to the American CIA (see Fikrun wa Fann/Art&Thought 87), the Arab tribes, which had been geographically separated from each other, became mixed together and then merged with each other. This group migration created a great social change. Some tribal Arabs began to adopt city ways, to Baghdadise, which meant wearing a jacket and trousers instead of a dishdasha, a zibun or heavy belted robe, cloak, and headcloth. Some began to drink wine, a practice unknown at the time among the tribes of southern Iraq. Another group actually began to search out female entertainers in the old neighbourhoods of Baghdad.
When it was first founded, Madinat al-Thawra witnessed numerous incidents of armed assault and burglary, but peace and security were soon established among all the residents of this city. When the Iraqi government headed by Abd al-Karim Qasim investigated the causes behind these violent assaults, it became clear that one of the Arab tribes was implicated in these crimes. So the government decided to appoint members of precisely this tribe as watchmen for Madinat al-Thawra. It was actually a somewhat surreal strategy, which seemed inspired by the popular saying 'It takes a thief to catch a thief'. Subsequent developments, however, underlined the correctness of this approach. The city began to enjoy tranquillity, and security was established there in a way unparalleled in any other Iraqi city. It was so secure that I don’t remember carrying a key in my pocket. Indeed, I can’t imagine what this key looked like. I never saw any of the residents of Madinat al-Thawra carrying a key. Outside and inside doors all remained wide open day and night, as if Madinat al-Thawra, where hundreds of thousands of people lived, was a single residence rather than eighty thousand houses.
Today - after a chain of bloody daily incidents in Baghdad, the fall of Saddam Husayn’s regime, and the arrival of the Occupation Forces - I ask myself: how was this social concord established without any repressive measures being taken? I, for example, never carried a weapon. I did not feel afraid even when I was a boy walking along the streets of Madinat al-Thawra or down its narrow, dusty alleys. No child was kidnapped, no girl was raped, and there were none of the other crimes that have become the daily ration of Iraqis nowadays. How could security and tranquillity have prevailed in their model forms despite the lack of social services and the prevalence of poverty, which was endemic in this district? Why didn’t people erect barrier walls between each other?
Whenever I have thought carefully about this question I have grown ever more convinced that the wall, which is first sketched out in the head and then constructed on the ground to separate people, relies basically on sectarian religious eradication; because religion, I am convinced, is always a divisive factor among the spectra of a single people. Whenever religious or sectarian elements have entered into the political or economic struggle, this foundation has acquired a savage, bloody dimension, because 'religion' is the logical analogue of ethnic cleansing or social schism and an internal link to a power. In order to explicate this idea, which over the course of long years of contemplation has become my firm conviction, I will use Germany as an example, because this nation has known in its extensive history numerous schisms and armed conflicts, ever since Martin Luther’s Reformation approximately five hundred years ago, and has been a theatre for the most savage wars. Here I am referring to World War I and World War II, if we exclude the sectarian religious Thirty Years War at the outset.
Germany today, however, has been able to overcome those divisions as well as the ideological splits between the Communist East and the capitalist West. All the same, it has not been able to overcome the religious sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants. This is the only division that remains extant within German society to the present day, even though its intensity has diminished as religion has been marginalised and subjected to the laws of the German state. I became acquainted personally with some areas of the division on one of my trips to East Germany after unification. I was accompanied by a Catholic activist who told me sadly of the Catholic Church’s lands which supporters of Martin Luther seized with direct help from the German princes. Those events, which happened in distant centuries, still remain alive in the consciousness of Catholics. Even today, the papal church refuses to allow followers of the two denominations to celebrate mass together, let alone with adherents of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe.
If we apply this sectarian reality to Iraq, it becomes clear to us that the hostility between Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims goes further back than Martin Luther’s 'reformation', which dates back only five hundred years. The Sunni versus Shi‘i division goes back to the early period of Islam and will continue to blaze so long as the religion that is the source of this split and conflict continues in its current condition. The problem is not confined to religion, considered purely as religion, but lies also in religion’s exploitation of personal political ambitions and objectives. Warlords exist everywhere and in particular in Iraq, where they ally themselves with this or that sectarian group in order to realise their personal ends. Moreover, for strategic reasons the religious sect lends no credence to what is national or public and no weight to geography, because sectarian affiliation ignores national boundaries and consequently does not respect them. In this sense they are quite similar to absolute ideologies like Communism or capitalism. The Shi‘i Muslim here is anyone who venerates the members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family or their teachings, and the Sunni is anyone who believes in the Prophet Mohammed’s righteous companions and in the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs. There is nothing to link a religious man to the fatherland beyond his sectarian affiliation. Cultural affiliation is the total opposite of what is religious. If we examine the history of Iraq in detail, we see that the embrace of Islam by the first Iraqis was in the first instance for cultural reasons and in the second for political ones, based on the ancient Iraqis’ hatred for the Sasanian occupation. Whenever Iraqis have found an opportunity to express their cultural, rather than their religious, affiliation, they have gone jubilantly into the streets in all their ethnic and religious diversity. The triumph of the Iraqi singer Shadha Hassun, for example, in an artistic competition, or the victory of the Iraqi national football team in the Asian Cup confirmed this reality.When a wall gradually becomes firmly established in the mind and emerges into the communal sectarian consciousness, it will express itself openly at the appropriate moment. What we see today in Baghdad is the embodiment of this wall that has crystallised in people’s minds over the past 1,400 years, but it surfaces now because of the weakness of the other side. For this reason, erecting or dismantling a wall is meaningless, because fear of the Other, who ought to be a partner in a single nation, is more deeply ingrained even than the wall itself. So this sectarian fear is a partisan hoop that prevents assimilation and amalgamation and has provided a seal of approval for sectarian cleansing. The decision to erect barrier walls, which have been established on the blood of the sons of a single people and which have increased their divisions and their internecine struggles, was part of an American plan after 'a report presented to the American Congress recommended building walls in Baghdad on the pattern used in Belfast to limit sectarian killings'. One of the ironies of fate is that an important figure overseeing the building of walls was Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland - of the Police Service of Northern Ireland - who had previously supported the erection of barrier walls in Belfast itself?
born in 1954 in Iraq, lives in Berlin and works for Deutsche Welle TV. He has published several novels and collections of stories in both Arabic and German.
Translated by William M. Hutchins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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