I will be leaving for Baghdad in a week and staying there awhile. I have not been keeping up my blog lately because of time constraints. Because of this, and other reasons, I have accepted Dr. Luker’s gracious offer of folding Askari Street into his, and his colleagues’ valuable group blog, Cliopatria. Obviously I shall post as often as I can, but not perhaps as much as before.
I want to thank you all for your faithful readership of Askari Street, and your really wonderful comments and questions. I’m constantly amazed by the comparative nature of our field, and how much the history of one region and epoch feeds into another. I’ve learned a lot from our online conversations, and I hope to continue learning as the days and months go by.
So, for all of you whose passion is history, just remember its really all about context, context, context…
In the 1950’s, a huge stretch of land in the Mansur area was turned into a turf club and stables. The patron of the Turf Club was Prince Abdulillah, the Regent, the young King Faisal II’s uncle. He was also made one of nine Stewards of the Club, along with currently serving Prime Ministers, Ministers of Finance and other notability of Baghdad; in 1951, these included a huge racing enthusiast, Dr. Abdul Hadi al-Pachachi and the British Air Vice Marshall, G.R Beamish (This was 1951; Iraq had been technically independent for 21 years but the British still thought that the country could not run its own Air Force). A large racecourse in the Mansur district was opened to the public on the occasion when races were run. A company whose patron was yet again the Regent managed it. Among its many Stewards were the famous General Ghazi Al-Daghistani, descendant of a Caucasian noble who had fled Russia for Iraq in search of pure-bred horses; Mr. Sa’doun Al-Shawi, a scion of the Ubayd tribe (famed for their Arabian mares); Mr. Jazmi Suleiman, whose father, the noted Turkish-speaking historian, Suleiman Faiq, himself was the son of Georgian officials, as well as one British Brigadier and Squadron Leader. The stream of visitors to the Mansur race course (Arabicized by Iraqis as al-rayssis) included jockeys, racehorse owners, stable boys and race fans as well as some of the notables of Baghdad. Until today, members of the exiled Iraqi elite in Britain and Jordan remember with particular passion the ravishing Mrs. Levi (the Iraqis referred to her as Mrs. Lawi), the Austrian wife of a British Jewish diplomat stationed in Baghdad. She created a sensation when she attended the races in Mansur; some worldly Iraqis even compared her to Hedy Lamarr (who, I believe, was also Austrian-born or was she of Hungarian ancestry?).
The Times Press of Baghdad published a booklet called “Races Past” in 1951 (in my possession) which details every single race run or horse registered during the year. I believe it was written by Major Chadwick, then the Secretary of the Iraq Turf Club. Among other racing trivia, it notes jockeys’ licenses, their names, license number and lowest riding weight. But perhaps the singular achievement of this unprepossessing book is the great attention paid to the history of the sport. Lists of horses and ponies are appended, as well as lists of their owners. Monetary prizes in the form of Plates and Handicaps are recorded (some as high as 225 Iraqi Dinars, a fortune in those days). The book is peppered with the names of the major tribal sections and their leaders, many of whom invested in stables in which their fleet Arabian mares went head to head with those of the urban Baghdadi gentry. I remember the rayssis as a child; even though the book is written in a dry and official style, it brings back the fun and excitement of those days and reminds me of a typical Baghdadi pursuit now shrouded in memory.
In the late 1990’s, Saddam Hussein resolved to build the largest mosque in the Arab world in Mansur, right there on the fabled racetrack. My explanation is that he thought he could banish sin by erecting a mosque on it. Although he destroyed the rayssis, he sure got his comeuppance. After his fall, the mosque was taken over by the Al-Sadr organization, Saddam’s erstwhile victims. They now hold sway in the largest incomplete mosque in Baghdad. Justice did prevail. All the same, a race track it sure a’int.
But this so-called geographical determinism can be seen in a different form. Earlier Orientalist scholars had seen it as a limiting factor, a heavy weight on Iraq's development. I think, on the contrary, it has often been a boon to countries such as Iraq. From the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Iraqis freely traded within their own region and beyond, much to the consternation of Ottoman authorities who were supposed to be laying down the Imperial law. Even as the Ottoman Empire began to centralize its far-flung domains in the nineteenth century, causing it to write new tariffs in commercial law and erect new customs posts on Imperial frontiers, Iraqis were busy rediscovering new routes and new markets from which to exchange and ship their goods. Eventually this would be called smuggling and contraband, and be viewed as anti-state activity deletrious to the law of the land. By the early twentieth century, with new agreements on borders having been forged by British-influenced monarchies such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as with French-controlled Syria and Lebanon, the idea of a bounded nation-state, a sovereign nation-state was born.
But how bound was Iraq to its own sovereignty? In the late twentieth century, the Iraq-Iran war showed that regional influences were paramount. Even though the war was globalized, with the US entering surreptitiously on the side of Iraq, the real incentives sprung from the region. Again, smuggling and contraband came to the fore, this time arms smuggling carried out by dhows (traditional sailing ships, now outfitted with outboard motors) carrying enormous loads of arms, and sailing from the Gulf to Iran or Iraq. And we all know how the Baathist regime skirted international sanctions in the 1990’s by heavily smuggling in goods and arms across both its land and sea borders.
In Iraq today, smuggling and contraband are rife. Gasoline, copper wires, electricity pylons and food are being trucked out of Iraq at an alarming rate. If this continues, the shadow economy, more vibrant and more dynamic than the official economy, will soon denude Iraq of its very infrastructure, most of it obsolete and probably valuable only as scrap. My question is this : even supposing that Iraq will once again be a safe place to live, where laws will be obeyed and the official economy will become a self-sustaining economy ( ‘though largely based on one source, oil), how long will this last before regional incentives will again appear to tear its “sovereign” status apart? I am pessimistic. I think the region is stronger than the nation-state. The region provides incentives that the state, as now constructed, cannot provide. The region supplies the conditions for a free-for-all entrepreneurial activity that the big, hulking state will need to tamp down, if only to assert its own authority. In the next ten years, when Iraq’s security threat will have diminished ( please say inshallah), will the new state be able to offer as great an amount of opportunities for its citizens through legal channels as the region is willing to provide for the reckless, devil-may care sector of brash entrepreneurs in Iraq?
The next day, I went to collect my new Iraqi passport; like most Iraqi identity papers, passports had been heavily subscribed by the former regime in the past. The consular officials ushered us in a room with chairs against the wall and an empty desk. He told us that we should line up in front of the desk and that another official would soon arrive to hand out our passports. Immediately the man next to me began to complain." Why should we stand in front of an empty desk when we can sit?" he asked loudly. Everyone around him nodded their heads vigorously. Smiling through grit teeth,the consular official reiterated that those were the rules. The complaining man began to complain again, "I don't see the point," he bellowed, "We'll go sit down and then form a row in front of the desk when the official comes". Eventually a number of us did sit down. The passports official took ten minutes to arrive; when he walked in, everyone clapped and whistled.
As I was exiting the Consular Section, passport in hand, I heard the defeated consular official say to his colleague, " You ask them to stand, they want to sit down. If only I'd given him the back of my hand!"
On the fortieth day of mourning for the great Iraqi doctor and artist, Dr. Khalid Al-Qassab, his family and friends gathered together at the Orfali Center in Amman, Jordan to pay respects to his memory. Befittingly, Dr. Al-Qassab’s life was celebrated through a retrospective of his art; his watercolors and oil paintings were evocatively described as the slide show progressed, from the first tentative pastoral scenes to the brilliant colors of his last still life painting. Before the retrospective, Dr. Al-Qassab’s friends and colleagues in the medical profession had underlined his brilliance as an cancer surgeon; now was the time to celebrate his life as an artist. But both sides of his personality, the scientific and the artistic, were a vital part of the whole; indeed, for Dr. Al-Qassab that was how it should be. When asked what tied medicine to art, his answer was immediate. “They both benefit people”, he is reported to have said.
To understand Dr. Al-Qassab’s life work, and the many influences on his calling, one must read up on Iraqi art and never, never pass up the opportunity to see the fragments of Iraqi art – paintings, sculpture, ceramics – still left untouched in galleries in Iraq itself, and especially, in private homes the world over. The Iraqi art historian, Ms May Muzaffar, has left us with a vivid description of the Iraqi art scene from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. She emphasizes that from as early as the 1930’s, Iraqi artists were being sent abroad on government scholarships to learn from European masters. The first, and best known Iraqi artists of the period, Faiq Hassan (1914-92) and Jawad Selim (1921-61) blazed a path which was followed by several outstanding artists of their generation. After WWII, Hassan and Selim formed a group called La Societé Primitive, influenced by French Impressionism. Later on, the group came to be simply known as the Pioneers (al-ruwwad in Arabic). Among its fluctuating members was that ultimate Renaissance man, Dr. Khalid al-Qassab.
But what makes Iraqi art distinctively Iraqi is that, in the end, the education of Iraqi artists in Europe became yet another route to rediscovering their heritage. Europe became a distant mirror; the predisposition of Iraqi artists to reflect upon local themes gained ground as the decades wore on. As Ms Muzaffar puts it : “[Jawad Selim] was the first Iraqi artist to develop an Iraqi consciousness and therefore call for an equation between traditional heritage and modernity—recalling the artistic legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia and Islamic art while benefiting at the same time from Western art and artistic achievements” (Muzaffar in Inati, ed. Iraq: Its History, People and Politics, 2003). Mixing Islamic themes with Byzantine motifs, or reworking Assyrian bas-reliefs to produce monumental art, the Iraqi artist refocused his energies to create distinctive forms of painting or sculpture that his countrymen and women could learn from, be awed and impressed by, and ultimately, adapt to their own very specific reality. Dr. Khalid al-Qassab’s work reflects all those characteristics : it is inspired by the Iraqi earth and drenched with its colors.
Rest in peace, Aba Walid.
All good Iraqi poetry is characterized by a fierce individualism, and more often than not, a principled agenda. Even those alienated poets in the fifties and sixties that hated the city because it symbolized corruption, excess, aloofness and distance wanted to save it, and so save themselves in the process. What is astonishing, however, is how pervasive the reformist impulse was, even in the early years, and how poetry became the vehicle par excellence to establish an Iraqi social mandate based on social and economic equality as well as national independence. Such, for instance, was the progressive agenda espoused by the two leading Iraqi poets of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Jamil Sidqi Al-Zahawi(d.1936) and Ma’ruf Al-Rusafi (d.1945). The former was the scion of an established Kurdish family settled in Baghdad, and a poet and philosopher, the latter was a journalist and editor who retreated to Fallujah out of poverty and because it was less expensive than Baghdad. While their supposed rivalry has attracted a lot of attention in Iraqi literature, they had similar views on some of the most urgent matters of the day.
One of those matters concerned the unresolved status of Iraqi women in the early Iraqi state. The question of Iraq women’s emancipation joined two issues together: the lifting of the hijab, or veil, and women’s education. Both were resisted fiercely, especially in the rural areas. A friend of the family told me the story of how he forcibly desegregated his village school by enrolling his sister in it so that when the villagers saw that the village notable’s sister was going to school, they shed their prejudices and began to send theirs to school too. But the hijab, or veil issue was far more protracted and difficult a question; everything was involved, from modesty to family honor to religious principles. Typically, the charge to grant women the right to throw off the veil was carried out by men writing in newspaper columns, with Al-Zahawi and al-Rusafi leading the fight.
Al-Zahawi wrote several poems under his own name, each one of them advising women to cast away the veil because it was a social ill. In one poem, he counseled “the daughters of Iraq” to tear off and burn their hijab because life required a revolution, and the hijab was a false guardian. Al-Rusafi, meanwhile was bluntly telling women that the hijab imprisoned them, and they needed their liberty. In the end, it was only after several years of trying that the veil came off women’s heads, but it was a slow process. That process has now been reversed, with thousands of Iraqi women going back to the veil from the 1990’s onwards, so that women whose mothers and grandmothers went out bareheaded in the forties, fifties and sixties have now re-adopted the head covering considered so restricting by poets of the Iraqi Enlightenment.
Sadly, both men are no longer with us but I remember their courtesy and charm until this day. The first time I met Mr. Hourani in his study, I conversed with him for about two hours on all kinds of subjects, large and small. I was invited to dinner shortly afterwards. As I recall, it was the first time that I had tasted beet soup. We watched Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on tv in utter silence. Even then, there were forebodings of American might. Some time later, he came to UCLA and gave a wide ranging and panoramic view of Middle Eastern studies that is still unsurpassed in its breadth and richness.
Dr. Enayat was just as considerate and attentive. I would like to think that my connection with him was more personal because I am of Iraqi origin and he was Iranian. I met him at the height of the Iraq-Iran war and he was very hospitable, quite unlike some of the Iranian graduate students at Oxford, who were wary and distant. I remembered him in Baghdad, where I had gone shortly afterwards to research my dissertation topic and I bought a photographic album depicting the Shi’a shrine cities in Iraq as a gift. After I returned from four months of study, I passed by St. Antony’s to see him. He was at dinner in St. Antony’s great dining hall, conversing, of course, with a graduate student. All I wanted to do was to give Dr. Enayat his gift and tell him first-hand about my impressions of Baathist Iraq after so many years outside the country but, wouldn’t you know it, the student kept droning on and on. Finally, he left and I was able to give Dr. Enayat the gift. I received a wonderful hand-written note thanking me several months before he passed away.
Both these men were humanists of the highest degree. They wrote books that are still in vogue, even thirty years later. In particular, I have used Dr. Enayat’s book, Modern Islamic political Thought (University of Texas Press, 1982) to great advantage, both in the classroom and in my own research. His book was the first, to my knowledge, that effectively and lucidly rewrote the tangled history of Sunni-Shi’a interaction (both in wartime and peacetime), in Iraq and Iran and elsewhere. He discussed in detail and with impeccable impartiality all the great controversies that divided, and still divide those two major Muslim camps. His conclusion is simple, elegant and reflective of the basic unities that tie both Sunnis and Shi’a together.
I think I’ll translate Dr. Enayat’s book in Arabic.