A journey into the shadows

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BAGHDAD, Iraq - The guidebook describes pleasant evening strolls along the banks of the Tigris, where fishermen sell fish pulled from the river and roasted over open fires in "the atmosphere of an Arabian carnival."

The book is titled Iraq: A Tourist Guidebook, and it was published in 1966 during a tumultuous period of coups and two years before the Baath Party regained power.

"The man who is tired of London is tired of life," the guide advises prospective visitors. "And perhaps an Iraqi may be permitted a similar feeling about Baghdad."

Baghdad today is a city of uneasiness and uncertainty, of great danger and disorder, a city that feels very different from that cheerful guidebook of 37 years ago.

A few men still grill the flat fish called al-mazgouf, split on stakes pounded into the ground around fires roaring along Abu Nuwas Street. The street follows the twists of the river, which is a dense green, and the banks are a murky tangle of weeds and sewage. The evenings are thick with heat.

Hardly anyone visits the riverbanks after the sun begins to set. That's when the shooting starts.

Touring Baghdad with a guidebook from another time can be a frustrating, nerve-racking experience, one that includes obstacles as dangerous as tanks and gunmen, as exasperating as gridlocked traffic, as disconcerting as the squatters who have taken over historical sites. Still, there is much to see.

Mosques with gilded domes and towering minarets distract from the burning trash and rubble heaps. Coppersmiths still turn out decorative plates in stalls tucked away in the warrens of an ancient covered market where the ravages of war are all but forgotten, or ignored. Here, the old guidebook says, "one can see at work craftsmen whose skill has been handed down from father to son with true Oriental fidelity."

An Arabian carnival it is not.

"No one cares about this place anymore," says Hussein Khadem. A coppersmith, he is 80 and it shows. Sitting in the back of a cluttered stall, he strains to hear above the noise of metal pounding metal as craftsmen in neighboring stalls dutifully churn out their products.

His sons, he laments, have abandoned him, ending four generations in the same shop. His last sale was months before the war - a small genie lamp for $1. Dust swirls and grime lies thick on his desk, but his crooked hands are clean. Khadem hasn't made anything in months.

"It's been a hard, difficult life," he says, talking about himself, but speaking for all of Baghdad

Baghdad's nearly 5 million residents are angry about their orderly society suddenly crashing around them. They scrape by in the sweltering heat, shirts soaked with sweat, watching with trepidation as soldiers and officials from the United States oversee the police force, close roads, impose curfews and pay salaries when they see fit.

The Americans talk of creating a market economy, ending 13 years of United Nations Security Council sanctions and resuming oil exports that could make Iraq rich. But those comforting promises are uttered in compounds wrapped in razor wire, and go all but unheard.

Asked if they think life will improve, Baghdadis invariably shrug, say "inshallah," or "God willing," then ask a question that no one seems able to answer: "When will the electricity be turned on?"

For the outsider, the old guidebook offers an escape from that reality.

The book, published before the worst of the torment and the torture, before oil money was squandered on palaces and Saddam Hussein's self-aggrandizing monuments, before three devastating wars, recommends visiting the Mustansiriya School, built between 1226 and 1242. At the time, it was the most prominent university in the Arab world, offering studies in medicine, astronomy, mathematics and theology.

It is still there in all its splendor in the heart of Baghdad's Old City, behind a towering door shaped like an arch and made of white stone, with an intricate design chiseled into its facade. A sign has Hussein taking credit for restoring the school from its use as a drab customs office, even though work had begun in 1945, well before his time.

A bell summons the guide, Ghazi Hussein, 55. He has shown visitors the empty study halls, living quarters and library - from which the Ottomans threw some 80,000 books into the Tigris in the 16th century - for the past five years. He lives with his wife in a single room off the rectangular courtyard. The stones keep the room cool.

Few tourists came here in recent years, and always in company with government minders. The last group of tourists arrived in November, from Japan. The guide says police questioned him about each group, then took kickbacks for whatever they bought at the gift shop. Hussein earned about $10 a month.

The guidebook recommends a stroll along Rashid Street, the central downtown artery that is an extension of Abu Nuwas, but veers away from the river and plunges into a commercial district of banks, market stalls and excited crowds.

This is no longer a place for tourists searching for gifts. True, everything seems to be for sale, from eggs and live chickens to shirts and shoes, and the end of the war has produced a new, thriving commerce in guns, ammunition, night vision goggles, satellite phones and televisions.

The crowd of moneychangers, pickpockets and entrepreneurs ignore the pops from guns being test-fired into the stale air. One day last week the gunfire was directed not into the air, but at a man's head.

A crowd gathered around his body, lying face-up on the sidewalk at Bab al-Muadham Square, just behind the Ministry of Defense. Someone had torn apart a cardboard box and fitted it around his head, covering the wound in the back. He was a large man, perhaps in his late 30s, and he went unmourned by the restless crowd.

"He was a thief," one man said, dismissing the shooting as justified.

American troops came, glanced at the body and left. People were angry, but not at them. Somewhere deep in the crowd, a man beat another with a stick and stole his wallet. The victim, bleeding, ran up the street.

People lost interest in the body and simply began to walk around it. Onlookers seemed content to wait for someone else to remove it.

The palaces built by Saddam Hussein remain off limits except to the American military, which also occupies the parade grounds surrounding a memorial to Iraqi soldiers who fought in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

It is a huge monument visible from many parts of the city - the dome of a mosque split in two to symbolize a clash between Islamic nations. The Army uses the site to fix tanks and has hired a translator to turn people away.

Baghdadis are taking pleasure in once-banned forms of defiance, as simple as parking under a portrait of Hussein. At Firdos Square, where Iraqis pulled down Hussein's statue when American troops arrived, young art students have built their own monument atop the empty pedestal. A sun rests inside a crescent moon in their stone Statue of Hope.

A message is written there in English: "It's practical to build a new Iraqi civilization."

Below it, someone scrawled a note to American troops: "All done. Go home."

The old guidebook describes a modern city blessed with "a brisk and efficient system of transportation by colorful red double-decker buses and crowds of cheerful, intent people who could never be mistaken for the people of any other land" along with young Baghdadis "dressed as elegantly as any modern young man in London or Paris."

The elegance faded long ago. Baghdadis are impoverished, their monuments crumbling, their city a dim shadow of itself.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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