22 October 2003
“Do you think Baghdad will be the next Prague?” a reporter from the Washington Post asked me recently. A vision of a city filled with cafes and jazz clubs and writers penning masterpieces filled my head. “Not at all,” I replied. “It’ll be lucky to be the next Peoria.”
Unlike other capital cities, Baghdad is really rather blah. There are no grand civic buildings or magnificent parks. No lively theaters or quiet, interestingly-appointed museums. No breath-taking avenues or stately halls of higher learning. The city is a dusty dump really. A hot, dusty, dump.
It’s not that the people of this land don’t know how to design beautiful buildings. The mosques, with their turquoise domes and white minarets, are really very colorful and appealing to the eye. But everything else is just unclean and uninspiring. Even the river is uninspiring. The Tigris is narrow and brownish in color, “like milky tea” to quote the late essayist Freya Stark. Everything around here is brown. When you think of Baghdad, think brown. Only the date trees and holy buildings deviate from this color scheme. (And even those are often coated by dust blowing in from the desert.)
Jack Kerouac, when writing about the gritty cityscape that is New York, redeemed the place by citing its countless “angels in the alleyways”—hidden gems waiting to be found. Not here. In Baghdad, there’s none of that. What you see is what you get. A sprawling city of brown blah. There is a depressing sameness to Baghdad. Thirty-five years of state planning will do that to a place. If one has ever been on an army base, they have a good idea of what Baghdad is like. There is nothing flashy, nothing modern, nothing cool or fun going on here. Granted, the city has just gone through a war and 12 years of economic sanctions, but still it doesn’t look like this place has seen glitz and glamour in a long, long time. The fact that several Iraqis have told me about their wonderful vacations to Ukraine speaks volumes of just what is the current state of fun here in Mesopotamia.
Allah might have something to do with it. Islam is a dignified and disciplined religion, not the kind of faith that encourages nightclubs and casinos. No Pink Flamingos (or even Veiled Flamingos) here. If Christianity is about compassion, Islam is about obedience. On top of that, so was Saddam. Artists—creators of beauty—need a freedom of thought that simply isn’t here.
There is no counter-culture, no enclave of feisty, challenging, status-quo shaking artistic endeavor in this city. Baghdad is about as far from Greenwich Village as one can get.
True, the young people here like American music and American movies. Recently, some foreigners launched a radio station that plays rock and pop in between frequencies calling you to prayer on your FM dial. Now one can cruise down the storefronts of Sa’aduun Streen moving their heads to Ozzie Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Will Smith’s “Getting’ Jiggy With It.” That’s a start. But, like every other innovation around here, even the attitude is imported. A cultural blossoming—a creative renaissance--has to come from within.
Do we need more tanks and troops in Iraq? I don’t know. Do they need more poets and pastels? Absolutely.