Artist hopes Baghdad will regain its glory

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Posted by Tiglath from ( on Thursday, July 17, 2003 at 9:45AM :

Baghdad |By Anthony Shadid | 16-07-2003
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His head swivelling, Mohammed Ghani stared out the car window - in front, behind and to the side. "God is greatest," he muttered. At each passing scene on the bustling streets, he clicked his tongue, captivated by a city whose distant past puts its present to shame.

"I swear to God, Baghdad is a beautiful girl, but her clothes are dirty,'' Ghani, Iraq's most celebrated living sculptor, said slowly, tugging on his shirt. "Her hair is tangled,'' he added, "but her nature is still beautiful.''

Ghani, a sprightly 74 year old with bushy black eyebrows and a bald head framed by a ring of gray hair, recently returned to his home in Baghdad after a four-month stay in Bahrain. Cut off from his city and his friends, he watched on television as his country passed from dictatorship to war to a chaotic aftermath.

Now, after a lifetime that has drawn an arc across British occupation, the monarchy Britain installed, revolutions, coups and the regime of Saddam Hussain, Ghani is experiencing Iraq's latest chapter.

His words convey not one sentiment but many, some at odds with each other. There is anger over the destruction of decades of his work, and resentment of an occupation he feels violates his city's honour.

He laments Baghdad's past - a proud record of sculpture and song, poetry and painting, disfigured by Saddam's brutality. But he holds out hope for its future. To Ghani, Baghdad remains more myth than reality - an eternal quality that gives the city resilience.

"Baghdad is a symbol for the Arabs, all Arabs,'' he said, as he rode through parts of the capital for the first time since his return.

"The name itself'' evokes the glories of Arab civilisation, he said, putting his hand to his heart, then flicking it away. Educated in Italy, Ghani has had a small part in defining modern Baghdad. He claims inspiration from Iraq's past - Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Abbassid - and his monuments, mostly in bronze and built over 35 years, dot the city.

In Ali Baba Square stands his statue of Kahramana, the medieval hero's maidservant who killed the 40 thieves. Among the towering reeds of the Tigris River, his bronze Scheh-erazade stands vigil over once-libertine Abu Nawas Street, telling her stories over 1,001 nights to a reclining Schahriah.

Down the road is a flying carpet, its ascent meant to symbolise the flight of the city's residents from war. And nearby is a marble statue of Ishtar, the sultry Sumerian goddess of love, pouring water into a fountain.

The sculptures bring a certain nostalgia to a city of five million dominated today by cement housing projects, the broad avenues suited to military parades, Los Angeles-style flyovers and Stalinist odes to Saddam.

But they evoke an element of loneliness, too, in a landscape still shattered by bombing and looting and darkened by frequent blackouts. "My son told me that it is better for me not to see Baghdad,'' Ghani said. "But I insisted.''

Baghdad today is a confused city, understandably so given that its people have lived a lifetime in a few short months. To Ghani, it is bewildering. In interviews before the war, he said he feared the destruction that fighting would bring. Like so many here, he thought Saddam's government would stop short of nothing to defend the capital.

He recalled watching the war from Bahrain, a time, he said, when "days became very long for me.''

"You cannot say you're glad the war happened. But life had to change,'' said Ghani, one of the few prominent Iraqi artists who never succumbed to pressure to join the Baath Party.

"Everyone was waiting for the moment for the party to go, for Saddam to go.'' The car passed portraits of Saddam, still standing in the streets even after their subject's visage had been torn off, doused in white paint or riddled with bullet holes.

Slogans that once declared "God preserve Saddam and Iraq'' are now missing his name.

"In my life, I never saw such bad things in Iraq,'' Ghani said, his words slowing. "He destroyed the character of the people.... He took dignity and pride away from them. At least you can breathe now, you can breathe freedom. There's no Saddam, there's no fear. People couldn't sleep before because of the fear,'' he said, as if trying to make sense of the past.

"But the same thing happens now. They cannot sleep. There is no electricity, there is no water, there are no jobs. People don't find anything around them. For the majority, there's only an empty life.''

Humvees rolled through the streets on another day of hit-and-run attacks and ambushes directed against the more than 150,000 U.S. troops in the country, one-third of them in Baghdad. Many in the city express frustration with the U.S. administration over what they see as broken promises of a better life once Saddam was overthrown.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

-- Tiglath
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