Sacred Ground: The Past and Present in Baghdad

Source: The New Internationalist

I am standing on sacred ground. Baghdad is a sharif city, with the graves of many Sufi saints buried in its much-contested soil. Near them are the graves of the Jewish prophets Ezekiel and Joshua. South of here, in Ur, the home of Abraham shares a barren plane with the site of the now reconstructed Sumerian ziggurat. And St Thomas sojourned in Basra, en route between Jerusalem and India.

But my friend Mohammed – a young Iraqi journalist who came of age during the invasion and the worst years of sectarian fighting – tells me, ‘We don’t visit the shrines so much these days. We are too busy visiting the graves of our loved ones.’

Guns and garbage

This partly explains the state of the tomb of Zumurrud Khatoon, wife of an Abassid Caliph. This exquisite example of Seljuk-style Abbasid architecture should be a UNESCO world heritage site. Instead, it lies derelict in a neighbourhood full of guns and garbage. A few hundred metres away lies the grave of al-Haq, one of the most important Sufis of the Baghdad school.

And yet, like so many neighbourhoods in Baghdad now, the journey here is one marked by savage turf wars between Sunni and Shi’a, with some areas still literally split down the middle of main roads.

I have been brought here by Muwafaq al-Taei, a 68-year-old architect and town planner who was both lionized and terrorized by the old regime. He was the designer of some of Saddam’s more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist. He walks with a limp after he was shot by US forces a few years ago whilst working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the South. He possesses both an irrepressible charm and an unbridled enthusiasm for his country’s heritage.

We have just been for a visit to the nearby Iraqi Museum, where the curator quite boldly refused an interview unless a $500 ‘fee’ was coughed up. But the upside was a fascinating two-hour lecture on Iraqi history delivered by Muwafaq – from Babylonian Queen Semiramis, who successfully dammed the Euphrates for both irrigation and defence purposes (she would unleash the river’s might on her enemies), through to caliphs who had to make deals with various sects and factions to stay in power. ‘You have to understand the past to make sense of the present,’ he tells me.

Now we are in between Karkh and Sheikh Marouf, historically rich yet impoverished inner-city neighbourhoods where many of the museum’s looted objects (excluding the ones in the basement storage area that most agree were taken as part of an ‘inside job’) may well have been taken.

On the way here, we paused briefly at the riverside to view the exterior of the Abbasid Palace, before being stopped by Iraqi police – suspicious of my cameras – along a muddy potholed street with Shi’a flags flying in the wind. But Muwafaq treats everyone like an old friend and seems impervious to any danger. He is from a well-known Shi’a family and manages to reassure the police that all is well. Later, as we drive past a series of mud brick buildings, he says, ‘These all belong to my family – but you see what a state of disrepair they are in. Even though we are Shi’a, it’s so dangerous here, and the local officials so corrupt, we haven’t been able to collect rent here for years.’

Tombs and toughs

Within minutes we are in a Sunni area (‘there are still remnants of al-Qaeda here,’ Muwafaq notes casually) and we stop to ask directions from a man with a herd of sheep in the middle of the road. He is surprisingly friendly and even entertains my question about who he might vote for in the elections. ‘I’m not voting,’ he scoffs, ‘they are all trying to line their own pockets.’

When we arrive at the tomb, we are met by the keeper, a local tough accompanied by two vaguely menacing looking friends. This is not a place that receives many visitors. We are taken inside the tomb to view the gorgeous light-filled interior of the conical structure, where swallows have nested in the crevices. But soon the tomb-keeper is making troubling inferences about certain ‘Mossad agents’ in the neighbourhood and nodding in my direction, and it is time to make a hasty exit. But again Muwafaq saves the day by telling the young man that he’ll put in a good word with the Director of Antiquities and try to improve his meagre stipend.

As we drive away, I notice the corrugated tin roof shacks across the road where displaced people have settled. I suppose that in a no-go zone, where your visitors are few and far between, it’s perfectly normal to assume that anyone mad enough to visit must be a Mossad agent. With little in the way of infrastructure or employment opportunities, what will this neighbourhood be like in five years from now? I wonder.

As we make our way back along old city streets where, in the absence of any functioning state, young men given jobs and guns by militias with deep pockets killed each other in the name of God, Muwafaq smiles at me. ‘I’m so glad that you came here with me today. This is still my city and it is still great. Things will get better soon, I’m sure.’