Jihad for Civilisation, from the Tigris to the Thames

Jihad for Civilisation, from the Tigris to the Thames
7 min read
08 Jun, 2017
Blog: The parallels between life in Iraq and the UK can be striking, writes Hadani Ditmars.
'A world where young people can walk tranquilly along the Thames or the Tigris' [Getty]
In the midst of British election fever, as I prepare for a presentation hosted by the London Middle East Institute at SOAS on the revitalisation of a cultural development project along the Tigris, I am reminded of my last trip to Baghdad, in 2010, also during election time, and of the ongoing connections between Iraq and the UK.

The atmosphere was fraught then as now, but instead of terror attacks like something out of a bad Hollywood slasher flick, it was hotels being bombed.

At the time of my 2010 visit, a series of explosions ripped through three Baghdad hotels popular with Western journalists and NGOs, including the towering Sheraton built in 1981 and designed by TAC.

At the time of its inception - part of a building spree instigated by Saddam Hussein to beef up Baghdad for a 1983 conference of non-aligned nations - it was a proud symbol of Modernist cosmopolitanism.

But when war broke out with fellow non-aligned nation, Iran, plans for much of the building spree were abandoned and Iraq was soon plunged into four decades of war, dramatic decline and increased sectarianism that led eventually to the emergence of the Islamic State group.

By the time of the 2010 election bombing, the Sheraton had become a symbol of foreign occupation.

By 2008, with neighbourhoods literally walled off along sectarian lines, mixed areas formed a tiny minority of the city

Pondering the tale of two cities - Baghdad and London - twinned in many ways by their riverfronts and their capital status - I remember last year's bombing of the al-Hadi shopping centre in Karrada (not far from Abu Nuwas) that killed hundreds of mainly young people out for a celebratory holiday night during Ramadan.

I think of the terror attacks here on London Bridge that also killed young people out for an evening on the town. And I pay homage to the innocent ice cream eaters cut down in their prime in the attack last week in Karrada.

But I also remember the cosmopolitanism that pre-invasion Baghdad - with the majority of its neighbourhoods "mixed" in 2003 - once shared with London, where a substantial Iraqi diaspora now resides. In a documentary I produced for CBC radio in 2009, Iraqi artist Hana Mallalah told me she felt at home in London because so many of her nation's treasures can be found at the British Museum.

It's worth remembering at this time, ripe for division and disharmony, that before the invasion it was not uncommon for Sunni, Shia and Christian communities to live as neighbours in Baghdad.

By 2008, with neighbourhoods literally walled off along sectarian lines, mixed areas formed a tiny minority of the city.

The project I am presenting on Thursday evening, just before polls close in the UK, is a 3.5 kilometre development along the Tigris in Baghdad's Abu Nuwas - a commission awarded to Canadian architect Arthur Erickson in 1981. A kind of Iraqi "South Bank" if you will, it was based on drawings by Frank Llloyd Wright from the 1950s, when he imagined an opera house and a university on an island in the Tigris.

Erickson's plans, which included a variety of perfumed gardens, science centres and theatres, never came to fruition due to the ensuing war with Iran.

Abu Nuwas is not a religious but a secular space - and now we are in great need of such spaces

But, as I wrote in a feature for Architectural Review, architect Mowaffaq Altaey - who worked in the administration of the early 1980s Baghdad building schemes for the city - saw merit in the plan, and kept copies of the drawings.

Altaey - who recently authored a book in Arabic named Frank Lloyd Wright: Genie of Baghdad, and is himself a wily survivor of various regimes, coups and monster palace commissions - reintroduced the Erickson plan to the mayor of Baghdad in 2014, who sadly declined for budgetary reasons.

At the time, the septuagenarian architect and planner who was both lionised and terrorised by the old regime - as a design consultant on some of Saddam's more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist - was working as an adviser to the mayor.

Altaey, who walks with a limp after he was shot by US forces in 2004 while working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the south, but who still possesses both an irrepressible charm and an unbridled enthusiasm for his country's heritage, was charged with a Sisyphean task.

His job was to try and reintegrate Baghdad's post-invasion neighbourhoods, separated by blast walls and sectarianism, and he saw in Erickson's plans a way to facilitate this. 

"Abu Nuwas", Altaey explains from his home in Baghdad, "is a spine linking different areas, including Karradeh, Bataween and Sadoun Street," and, in that way, has great potential to "connect people". Erickson's plan, he contends, was to create a common public space for people of different backgrounds with cultural, scientific and other activities that bring people together.

A key point, especially in post-invasion Iraq, he notes, is that "Abu Nuwas is not a religious but a secular space - and now we are in great need of such spaces".

I am going to light a fire in paradise and pour water on to hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether

- Rabia, Iraqi Sufi poet

Not surprisingly, even in 1981, fundamentalist clerics wanted to change the name of the area - Abu Nuwas was named after the pleasure-loving 8th century poet. And more recently a statue of the poet was mysteriously relieved of its glass of wine.

As I travel back and forth between Rodmell - staying with a friend who lives a few hundred metres from Virginia Woolf’s Monk House - and London, with a friend who lives close to Arabised Queensway - I also appreciate the great literary traditions shared by England and Iraq.

From 8th century Iraqi Sufi poet Rabia who wrote of the dangers of binary thinking and extremism - "I am going to light a fire in paradise and pour water on to hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether" - to Virginia Woolf, who wrote in Three Guineas:

"You must teach them to feel the inhumanity, the beastliness, the insupportability of war."

I thought of poor Virginia, whose ultimate demise was partly the result of despair at the coming war and the fate of her Jewish husband, as I took the train back to Rodmell, fresh from a London Festival of Architecture party in the city, amid towering banks turned hotels, the day after the ice cream parlour attack in Baghdad.

Wearing a Bedouin necklace purchased in Petra the day after September 11, 2001, I got a lift to the station with a Jewish writer friend who once worked for MI6 and now works for the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

England and Iraq also share enduring memories of culturally destructive invasions - Norman, Mongol and more recent ones - and links to ancient pasts.

On the train to Lewes, I sat next to a former RAF officer who'd spent time in Basra, fresh from a leadership training seminar at Windsor Castle, and then became embroiled in a Facebook argument with the son of an English officer who had once fought the Stern gang, about the terror attacks in Manchester and oddly enough, the merits of the Iraqi invasion.

Eventually, I was delivered safely to the edge of Virginia Woolf's garden by an Anatolian cab driver, fasting for Ramadan.

There, in the place that inspired EM Forster and Vaughn Williams to compose a musical pageant called England's Pleasant Land decrying the greed of commercialism at the time of 18th century land enclosures with an actor playing both acquisitive country squire and Norman knight, and referencing world wars, in a nation now enduring ongoing "social cleansing", I said a silent prayer for peace.

The night of the London Bridge terror attacks, I took in La Traviata at Glyndebourne. This time last year I saw The Barber of Seville, and, along with the superb performance, recall dark mutterings on the shuttle bus afterwards by a Brexiteer with a posh accent in a tux.

Current events made me wonder whether England was a dying, consumptive Violetta, spurning the advances of the European Union and fending off terror, or whether true love really could save the day. Oddly enough, the man playing Alfredo's moralising father bore a strange resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn.

England and Iraq also share enduring memories of culturally destructive invasions - be they Norman, Mongol or more recent - and links to ancient pasts. One can still draw a continuum from the Sumerian arc to modern Iraqi architecture, and in a country where the nation's chief druid lives quietly in Lewes - from Boadicea to the Queen.

What is at stake in both nations is not mere electioneering - but the fight for civilisation itself. For a world where young people can walk tranquilly along the Thames or the Tigris, celebrating life and art and love in perfect peace.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars