Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From 2003: The Stranger in the Waste Land

The article below, which originally appeared on the Web in July 2003, apparently is no longer live. But the broader debate it addresses certainly is:



This text is a draft I excavated from my hard drive:

What the Thunder Said:
Art and Culture after Shock and Awe

By Christopher Dickey

Above the bar a mass of Ruffino Chianti bottles were hung so closely together that the bases made a single pattern of wicker rings. The paintings on the walls were, in some cases, actually painted on the walls. Others were drawn on paper with the dregs of Turkish coffee and lipstick, and all had a drunken, kind of desperate energy to them. “Al-Ghareeb,” the bistro was called, which means “The Stranger,” and a decade ago just being there, on a side street in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, could give you a rush of pure existential excitement.

This was not the Iraq that any of us on the outside had heard about. This was not the Iraq where most Iraqis lived. It was a place were intellectuals and painters, architects, writers, and sculptors made themselves a little space to think and relax. Other dictatorships have had such bohemian retreats, like Naguib Mahfouz’s houseboat adrift on the Nile in Nasser’s time. (“Because we are afraid of the police and the army and the English and the Americans, and the visible and the invisible, we have reached the point where we’re not afraid of anything!”) But the total evil that was Saddam made this little candlelit corner of Baghdad all the more special.

At Al-Ghareeb the unafraid artists talked for hours. They listened to piano players who were great, good, and godawful. They got falling-down drunk. They paired off and had affairs. They forgot, more or less, where they were, until one or another of them would leave for exile, or be picked up for questioning by the secret police. Sometimes government officials stopped by, hoping, themselves, to escape the ethos they served. And in the old days there was that voluptuous painter of dark visions, Layla al-Attar, whom Saddam was rumored to love. (He would take for himself anything valued by others, and anyone.) She was killed in her house in 1993 by an American Cruise missile, which may have been meant for him.

Last month, almost as soon as I got to Baghdad, I went back to Al-Ghareeb. As I feared, it was closed. When Saddam banned spirits in Iraq in the mid-1990s, in a bloody fit of hypocritical Muslim piety, a lot of the spirit had left the bar. But there was a pile of rubble out front, as if it were being remodeled. The next morning I went back again and found the lanky gray-haired owner, architect Faisal Jaburi, sitting at the counter amid the construction dust, reading some of Baghdad’s many new newspapers.

What were his plans now that he was liberated?

“I cannot talk to you,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because of what has happened.” He gestured around him, not at the inside of the restaurant but at Baghdad, at Iraq, at a calamity too enormous for his voice. We sat more or less in silence. “If you want to talk to artists there is a gallery,” he said at last. “A cafeteria. Everybody is there during the day.”

The drive across the city is long and hot at high noon. Traffic jams appear suddenly and senselessly, and the missing cops, the powerless stoplights, are only partly to blame. Some Iraqis have an instinct for gridlock, taking perverse pleasure in blocking intersections. And if an American patrol comes on the scene, trying to drive through in Humvees with heavy machine-guns and a platoon of infantry standing in the back of a truck, there’s a sudden wild sense of danger. The soldiers draw their pistols and train them on every car around. Wherever the troops appear, they know they’re targets, so everyone around them is targeted.

We were half lucky. We got to the Hewar Gallery behind the old Academy of Fine Arts the day a show opened. But there was no electricity to light the exhibits. In the shadows the owner, a painter named Qasim Alsabti with a mane of graying hair and a poliomyelitic limp, said many of the best works were ones that had been looted from the Saddam Center, which had served as Baghdad’s museum of modern art. Unlike the international furor that surrounded the looting of Sumerian and Babylonian antiquities from the Iraqi National Museum, the devastation of Iraq’s contemporary culture went unnoticed by the rest of the world.

“I heard from many friends that I could find these works in Al-Midan” – the looters’ market in the middle of town—“a place full of drunks, full of thieves,” said Alsabti. “I went to the area, this dirty area, looking for the works, and I paid the thieves, but of course not the real price.” He smiled, proud of what he’d salvaged. “Sometimes they show me things I know were from the Saddam Center, but …” He shook his head. “I buy only the good stuff. This museum, sometimes they bought rubbish from the Ba’ath Party people. I don’t pay for that.”

The lights came back on briefly. The fans worked briefly. Alsabti walked me through the show quickly.

“I decided to exhibit the stolen works with new works by the same artists to give the message to the Americans, the message that we are alive,” said Alsabti. “And we are not thieves like on TV. We are people of art and culture.” But no, he said, nobody from the Coalition Provisional Authority had been to visit. They had not seen the dark abstractions with only the faintest flash of color; the Giacommetti-like bronzes; the brooding, distorted figures by Iraq’s modern masters, Ali Talib and Ismail Fatah.

We finished the tour and continued our conversation over Pepsis in the gallery garden, where we were surrounded by artists and writers who chain-smoked and joked and argued and fluttered folded newspapers to fan up faint breezes.

Alsabti was polite and hospitable, but he had to work at it with this stranger from the United States, a country he blamed for almost everything. “I have seen the American smile,” he said. “The foolish American smile that I see always on the faces of American soldiers inviting the thieves to enter our places of culture.”

I said I didn’t believe for a minute that Americans approved the looting of the Iraqi National Museum or the Saddam Center. Maybe the soldiers were just trying to be friendly, I said, or were simply bewildered.

Alsabti shrugged. “They invade all the details of life,” he said. “They try to change the soul, the minds, the brain. But there is a long distance between Iraqi civilization – I mean the meaning of this civilization that goes back to Ur, to Sumer, to Babylon, 5,000 years – and 200 years of American life. That is not civilization. That is not even history. I know who my grandfathers were for 1,000 years, and what they did. An American doesn’t know who his father is.”

Alsabti could no more contain this anger than he could stop the sweat coming out of his pores. “They are interested in the meaning of money, we are interested in the meaning of our soul. They are not interested in art and culture, they are interested in petrol and the economy. When an American baby is born and is at his mother’s breast, she doesn’t sing to him, she talks about money.”

The looting and thievery, they were all part of the same picture in Alsabti’s dark eyes. His English failed him as he got more emotional. “It is part of a plan to steal our soul to… to …” Alsabti turned to some bystanders for translation. “To cut off our dicks,” said one. “To castrate us,” said another.

There it was, the emotion that reigns not only in the world of Iraqi artists, but in the mean streets where American soldiers are shot almost every day. No matter how Iraqis felt about Saddam, they have not felt the invasion, the defeat, and the occupation as a liberation, but as an emasculation. The sense of catastrophe is all around them, I realized, and also inside them.

I wished that I could talk to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra about all this. An elegant, Anglophile Palestinian author who translated Shakespeare into Arabic, he lived in Baghdad from 1948 until his death in 1994 at the age of 75, and I used to go see him whenever I visited. His take on Arab art and politics was ironic, passionate, often funny, and sometimes wonderfully surprising.

It was Jabra, for instance, who explained how important T.S. Eliot and “The Wasteland” had been to Arab writers. For Eliot, the poem’s sense of cosmic catastrophe grew out of the wholesale slaughter of World War I, while drawing on ancient Middle Eastern myths about the restoration of fertility to the dead land through the blood of the god. When Eliot’s poetry was at last discovered by the Arabs, a generation after it was written, they had suffered not only the World Wars but “the Palestinian debacle and its aftermath,” as Jabra put it. Through Eliot they rediscovered in a new light their own 5,000-year-old legends. “A whole order of things had crumbled, and the theme of the sterile ‘cracked earth’ thirsty for rain seemed most insistent of all,” said Jabra. There was even, in Arab eyes, a coda for salvation in the description of “what the thunder said” that Eliot drew from the Upanishads: Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata –Give, Sympathize, Control. “Love and sacrifice shall bring fertility to the land,” said Jabra, “though they may both come in lightning and thunder.”

In Iraq today, after the awesome shock of invasion and occupation, “give, sympathize, control” is certainly a better formula for peace and justice than the speeches we hear from the Coalition Provisional Authority about democracy and free markets. But, then, those speeches are for a self-satisfied audience in the United States, not an emasculated one in Iraq. And as you drive through the 120-degree streets, bracing against sandstorms, and watching American soldiers train their guns on the cars and crowd around them, it’s another famous line from “The Wasteland” that comes to mind: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Post a Comment