When a visitor asked for the best bookstore in town, he was directed to the Dar el Hickma, the House of Wisdom, named after an early university in the Baghdad of a thousand years ago.
Upon entering the store, he saw stacks of blank notebooks, paper and pads lining the walls. Somewhat confused, the visitor asked where the books were.
"We have none," came the reply. "The House of Wisdom has no books. Only office supplies."
Baghdad is a city of disconcerting surprises, a place whose soul seems more hidden than revealed by the glistening monuments to modernity that line its broad avenues, an ancient capital where the past is treated as an embarrassment, a city of 3 million where silence tells more about Iraq's repressive politics than torrents of words and images of the country's leader, Saddam Hussein.
It is a place where people say hello when they mean goodby, where men don't look you in the eye but women do, where dark thoughts are cloaked in light euphemisms and coded gestures.
The city's diverse communities of Muslims, Christians, Kurds and other groups are connected by broad highways and common fear of expressing themselves. There is a blushing embarrassment in discussing the new floating community in their midst: the foreign hostages, some of whom travel freely about the city but who can go nowhere else.
Founded in the 7th Century, Baghdad's face has been sculpted largely during the past 20 years and especially during the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.
The glass and concrete high-rise buildings, the uniform blocks of squarish apartments, the gigantic abstract monuments to war all attest to a preoccupation with the future.
Hussein, whose portrait adorns most of the plazas here, does not have much affection for expression of the city's past. An entire neighborhood dating from the Turkish colonial period before World War I is walled from view as if to set a boundary between inadmissible old and welcomed new.
"Saddam wants to take away the past," said Ishmael Fatah, a sculptor favored by the Iraqi dictator. "He does not mind a touch of old style in the new, but he says that in 200 years he wants people to look at the city and say it is from the era of Saddam Hussein."
Added a foreign architect, who compared that mentality with the modernistic Fascist style of the 1930s in Germany and Italy: "Everything is supposed to reflect power, efficiency, function, pride, aggressiveness; there is an attempt to cut off the past, which is seen as the opposite of all this."
Among the brownish, tall apartment buildings in the spanking new Aalam redevelopment area, the talk of the residents is almost as uniform as the buildings themselves.
This middle-class neighborhood of two-income families, many of them bureaucrats, has in some ways been the first to be hit by the shortages brought on by the worldwide economic blockade against Iraq to punish it for invading Kuwait. Supermarket shelves have been quickly emptied of staple foods, and people whisper that if war comes again, the economy will be ruined. At the same time, they see no wrong in discovering shelves stocked with delicacies from a looted Kuwait, things like salmon and marmalade.
Otherwise, talk of current events is rarely original. When a middle-aged shopper and mother of two children was asked about the paradox of scarce sugar amid a wealth of Kuwaiti bonbons, the reply was straight out of the daily government newspapers.
"We are suffering from the economic blockade imposed by imperialism. There are shortages, but we would rather live on dates and water than to submit," she said.
Indeed, dates are plentiful for the date palm is everywhere in this city.
Asked whether the Kuwaiti delights somehow suggested that Kuwaitis themselves might be suffering, she answered in flat tones: "Kuwait is part of Iraq, so it is natural that its products are for sale here. I am sure Iraqi products are for sale there."
In the privacy of a car, an Iraqi translator explained her response. "She says these things because she does not want to go to the airport," he informed.
"The airport?" asked a reporter.
The translator gave a nervous laugh and said that going to the airport is an expression used by Baghdadis to describe danger inherent in crossing the government. It seems that for a time, the bodies of dissidents were dumped along the airport road. "Going to the airport" became synonymous with death by execution.
Despite the constant trappings of modernity that in some ways give Baghdad a blank expression, there are definite landmarks that hint at the diversity within.
The mammoth Imam Adham Mosque marks the center of a populous Sunni Muslim neighborhood. The Turkish outlines of the building recall that Sunnis were the preferred administrators of the Ottoman Empire that once reached as far as Egypt. A sprinkling of Christian churches in the city bespeak Christian neighborhoods clinging to a precarious identity in a Muslim-dominated land.
In the bazaar that creates a refreshing, jumbled atmosphere by the Tigris River that bisects the city, Kurds labor under the burdens of boxes of vegetables that they haul from truck to stall. The Kurds, from the rebellious north of the country, do mostly menial tasks in Baghdad. Other low-paying jobs are handled by foreigners, especially Egyptians, who number in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq.
In Kadimiya, a Shiite Muslim suburb, the golden dome and flowered Persian tiles of the Iman Qassem Mosque locate a clear passage from the Middle East into
Asia. The mosque is a social center for the neighborhood. Women in black chadors lounge on mats, play with their children and stare intently at strange men who pass by. Men sit apart, smoke cigarettes and chat in the shade of geometrically arched alcoves.
"Hello," one called out to a visitor who is clearly foreign. The man will also say hello at the end of his conversation. A reflection of an Arab habit of offering a welcome at the beginning and close of an encounter.
Political talk here is cloaked in religious garb in deference to the holiness of the place and the many ears in the patio.
"We want peace, God willing," said the mustached man who owns a gold shop in a bazaar outside the mosque.
But will Iraq keep Kuwait? he was asked. "We are all the same under God's eyes," he answered obliquely.
And if there is war? The man made a sweet gesture of sleep, resting his ear on the palm of his hand, closing his eyes and letting his tongue dangle out the corner of his mouth.
It is a Baghdadi gesture for death.
A pair of strollers in the bazaar on the Tigris noticed something odd about the way they were treated. They ate a meal of spicy chicken at a traditional restaurant, but the aproned owner refused to accept payment. When they stopped in for a drink at an old teahouse near the Mustansiryah, a 13th-Century center of learning when Baghdad had plenty of books and no office supplies, the clerk said that the tea was on the house.
The foreigners later recounted their experience while talking with Iraqi college students. "They think you are guests," a student whispered, using the official euphemism for hostages. "As guests, they must take care of you."
The community of hostages--Americans, Japanese, French, British and other nationalities numbering in the hundreds--is something of a haunting phenomenon in Baghdad. Just about every Iraqi knows about them because of the heavy television and newspaper coverage about them and their whereabouts.
Some hostages have been scooped up in the street and forcibly relocated to military and industrial sites as a shield against air attack. Others have taken refuge in their embassies, hoping to escape detention. Still others live at their homes or in hotels, free to roam in the capital city that for them is a sprawling cage.
Many foreigners trapped in Iraq are scholars or businessmen and so have contacts and friendships with Iraqis. In the ambiguous condition of being able to move about the city, contacts can prove to be awkward when renewed.
The other night, an Italian hostage, an art student, invited some Italian friends and Iraqis to a lawn dinner. It was a curious evening in that the dilemma of the Italians came up only obliquely.
During one seemingly unreal exchange, an Iraqi music teacher urged the Italians to take trips to the countryside to see Greek ruins that dot the northern part of the country. The Italians kept answering that they were forbidden to leave Baghdad. No matter. The woman continued with her urgings as if the Italians were tourists passing through.
At one point another Iraqi, a pianist, turned to an American reporter, not knowing whether he was a hostage, and started up a conversation.
He first asked if the American was from Kuwait. When he answered no, the man asked if the American had been invited to Iraq by the government.
The questions seemed odd until the host explained in a side conversation. "You see, he does not know that you are 'guest.' He's trying to find out, but of course it is difficult for him to ask directly. If you are from Kuwait, he can assume you are a hostage. If you are invited by the government, maybe you are free to go," the Italian explained.
"But it is never said outright. No one likes to admit that anyone is in a strange situation."
As the evening ended, the Iraqis insisted that two of the Italians accompany them to their home for coffee. The Italians protested that they were tired, but the Iraqis kept on until a virtual shouting match broke out.
Finally, the Italians said they would come another day, and one added, "We will be here for the unforeseeable future, after all."
That statement turned the uproar into a sudden silence, and the Iraqis quickly agreed to give the pair a lift, down broad streets, past the walls hiding an unacceptable past, toward the bright new government office buildings lit up in the back, past the House of Wisdom and up to the hotel, from where the Italians cannot check out.