Picking Up the Pieces

With Saddam Hussein’s portraits gone and his buildings bombed, Baghdad is a city in search of its identity.

The first time I came to Baghdad was last April, a few days after most of the city fell to U.S. troops. I drove in at night, down a road still heavy with gunfights. It was scary but bearable—until I had to stop my car (there was barbed wire across the road) and in dim light saw those giant crossed swords held up by massive reproductions of Saddam’s hands. Then I was really scared. There was something about that massive self-obsessed testament of personal power that made the whole city feel alive with terror. For the next few days I saw such signs everywhere. Saddam’s portraits were still hanging, a few on every block. His other great monuments—the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the many palaces, the huge ministry buildings—grabbed all visual attention. The new U.S. military encampments—small, ad hoc, functional, uninspiring—couldn’t compete at all. Baghdad felt exactly like what it was: a city that had belonged to one man and had been violently wrenched away. It was a place whose aesthetic—dictatorial solipsism—had been somewhat dismantled but not replaced with anything new.

I’ve stayed in the city almost continuously since that first night, and the Baghdad I drive around in these days feels like a very different place. The Saddam portraits are mostly gone now, and the palaces and monuments and looted ministry buildings are just so much visual background noise. It’s amazing how quickly Saddam’s total visual domination of Baghdad melted away. Under sanction any building that was new, bright, or interesting was a direct expression of Saddam’s power. But most of those buildings are now either destroyed, burned down, or occupied by American troops who have hidden them behind concrete barriers. With Saddam’s unifying vision gone, the many background pieces of the city now come forward. The truth is there’s so much visual information in almost any glance at the city that it’s difficult to digest what you’re seeing. All at once Baghdad is too many things: a typical poor third-world capital; an ancient place with glorious and decrepit historical remnants; a commercial center suddenly exploding with new consumer products; a war-torn, looted mess; a newly occupied city. In short it’s a place that can’t have anything approaching a unified aesthetic feel because nobody quite knows what this new Baghdad is yet.

The images that make it onto TV and into newspapers are mostly of the noisy city center. Baghdad was a small place until about 30 years ago, and most of the visual clutter is concentrated in a few square miles along the Tigris River. It’s a wanderer’s paradise: there are old Jewish mansions, now whorehouses; gorgeous ancient mosques; Ottoman colonialist masterpieces carved up into tiny markets; and everywhere broken streets, armed guards, barbed wire, sewage, beggars, vendors.

But most Baghdadis don’t go downtown. Most of today’s Baghdad stretches out from that center in new neighborhoods that accommodate Iraq’s recent massive population growth—largely from the millions of rural Shiites who have come to the city in the past few decades. These new neighborhoods look like a run-down version of Los Angeles suburbs: miles of single-family homes made of concrete laid out along grid-straight streets. And here the aesthetic is the flip side of Saddam’s self-aggrandizement. The poor and middle-class neighborhoods are crowded with small variants of the same concrete box, designed, it seems, to never catch the attention of passing secret police. The primary aesthetic is mute anonymity. The rich areas have ornate homes of shiny gaudiness: a massive Tudor barn next to a Roman temple fantasy next to some Disney-like vision of the Arab golden age. Here the aesthetic shouts out a proactive defensiveness: “Not only am I rich, but I’m also powerful and influential enough not to have to hide my wealth.”

As with everything about the future of Iraq, what this city will look like is an open question. Will a brave young generation of architects capture this pivotal moment in Baghdad’s history and design buildings that honor its past and celebrate its future, like Chicago after the 1871 fire? Will civil war destroy the place more effectively than the war did? Or will the billions of U.S. dollars be spent on large functional office towers and strip malls, making Baghdad as bland and unspecific as any new suburb?

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