The Cultural Assassinations of Baghdad
This essay is part of The Mantle's series Against Censorship.
With translation assistance from Suzanne Easton, Attaché - Culture / Protocol, Delegation of the European Union to Iraq.
When the American tanks had completed their task breaking down the gates of the Art Museum, the first person to reach the main gallery, which was filled with hundreds of paintings by contemporary artists, was—unfortunately—a thief.
He turned around in confusion, surrounded by all the paintings, until his eyes lit upon a lamp which was hanging from the gallery ceiling. After only a few minutes, he had created a hill out of a load of paintings and began to clamber up it to reach the lamp. As he got hold of the lamp, the gallery suddenly filled with thieves all looking for something to steal, anything and everything of value—except, of course, the paintings!
He returned home to his mother in a very good mood. She was baking bread in the kitchen when he arrived with four old paintings, which had been created by a pioneer Iraqi artist more than eighty years ago. When his mother saw what he had brought home, she scolded him roundly because he had not brought back anything of value, only paintings in wooden frames! He quickly returned to the Art Museum only to find that it was being eaten up by fire, causing the wooden frames of the paintings to become firewood, which, in fact, was very suitable for baking delicious home-made bread!
He continued to stagger along the whole distance from the Art Museum to his house. He ignored the scorn of everyone he met regarding his insistence to carry the old wooden-framed painting, which he had found standing in the entrance of the Museum where it had been exhibited for a long time as one of the museum’s most important pieces of artwork.
Once he reached his house he hurried up the stairs and found a worn-out piece of rope; he tied this around the painting, then ran to the roof of his house and started to pull the painting up onto the roof. Once he had done this, he spent a few minutes organizing himself and, finally, made a cover for the pigeon-coop which he kept up there. He carefully placed a few stones on top of the painting to ensure that it would not fly away in a gust of wind.
#2 (2004) by Qasim Sabti; book cover and collage
The two artists were sleeping soundly in their crowded studio. Suddenly a tremendous explosion awakened them and they quickly jumped out into the street, albeit still in their pajamas. They both decided to try and lend a hand and hurried to the scene of the disaster. However, a second explosion surprised them as they were running: a deadly splinter fatally pierced the first artist's heart. The second artist was very badly wounded and in hospital where he continued to fight death for several days. During this time he was always in a humorous mood—the murder of his best friend and his own burned and ravaged body did not prevent him from joking and having as much fun as possible with his friends. When one of his friends mentioned to him that he had donated his blood for him, the artist answered with wonderful wit: "I would prefer that you and the others do not donate your blood to me because the level of alcohol in the blood is so high that it will pollute my noble blood!" All his friends laughed and departed, telling him that they would return the following day.
Sadly, that was not to be: the toxicity in his blood reached such a high level that the life of this great artist was brought to an end during the night.
He was sitting on the sofa that he sat on every evening as he smiled at the waiter and ordered his customary cup of tea. His thick fingers played with the beautiful turquoise beads of his rosary, which a neighbor had recently given him as a present from Mecca.
As the waiter brought him his tea, the bomb which had been carefully placed under the sofa was powerful enough to destroy the café and tear asunder the sculptor's body.
After many long hours of undignified waiting, the actor finally received his pension and left happily. The crowd outside was so noisy and unruly that he could not stand it. He managed to cross the street toward his friend who was waiting for him. A black car stopped in front of him and a man shot him, killing him instantly. When people ran towards him they found him still clutching his pension in his clenched fist in order that he could give it to his friend to repay a loan.
He was singing until very late at night when finally his host suggested that he give him a lift home to his house; however, the singer thanked the host but informed him that as his house was not very far away, walking there would be better as he could breathe in the night air and reflect.
They were waiting for him on the corner, their faces veiled with black, dirty masks. They gagged his mouth and shot him with a silenced gun, obliterating forever that melodic voice.
Everybody was shocked and amazed at her murder. She had been a television reporter covering the event of the bombing of one of the holy shrines at Samara, always there with a serene smile. The TV team with which she was working had finished their assignment and decided to return to Baghdad before evening fell.
On the return journey they were attacked by a group of terrorists travelling by car – the whole TV team was killed. Her dead body was thrown onto the riverbank after she had been raped.
Darkness had fallen and his mother begged him to stay, but he told her lovingly that he had to return home as his wife was waiting for him to have dinner. She kissed him on the forehead. He started walking towards his home, passing the farm as he did every day. He was holding a torch to light his way in the dark night on this dusty road that led to his humble apartment. However, this farm was so covered with wild thorns that it made him disappear forever. To this day, no-one knows the details of his disappearance, but everyone knows that one of the militia kidnapped him. His mother was a photographer and used to take photographs of all the artists' works; she still waits today to take the last photograph of her son, whose wife still waits for him.
The poet had recently won an important prize for poetry and decided to visit his modest village, which was not far from Baghdad. His mother often telephoned him, imploring him to come and visit her. The car bomb that exploded in the village market was enough to make this one his last visit. The poet was murdered days before his anthology was published.
I phoned him to say that we were waiting for him. He told me that he was coming in the Journalists' Association's old car. The Association is not far from the Hiwar Gallery of Arts. We suddenly hear gunshots, the same music we hear every day! We decide to start the meeting, hoping that we will hear his arrival as he tap-taps his walking-stick on the stony road.
A well-known writer enters to inform us that the man has been shot, not more than a few meters away. We hurry to the hospital to see him but are not allowed access because of the severity of his condition.
He was in hospital for three days before his seventy-year-old body gave in.
He had finally completed all his training with the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra, which he started after he left the Iraqi Army. He was walking to the bus station, holding on to his violin case. As he approached the station, a very good friend waved to him—they played together in the Army Band during the Iraq-Iran war.
They discussed those sad, bitter days when their only achievement had been enthusiastic war music! They praised God that they were still alive. As the bus drew up, they bid each other farewell. Suddenly a large car-bomb exploded—the bus and all the passengers were instantly charred black and covered in dust which obscured all the dead bodies.
The violin-case rose high in the air before falling topsy-turvy to the ground only to be smashed by the feet of people rushing to help. Wind swirled amongst the ruins.
October 11, 2010