An artist in Baghdad, crushed between two worlds

Milton Viorst

July 13, 1993|By Milton Viorst

DURING the American attack on Baghdad on June 26, Leyla al-Attar, a celebrated Iraqi painter, and her husband were killed by a stray rocket that struck their temporary residence.

Their previous home had been demolished in the American bombing of Jan. 17, 1991, and was being rebuilt. A report from Baghdad indicated that the couple went outdoors when they heard the first sounds of the attack and were crushed by a falling concrete wall.

A housekeeper was also killed. Two of their children were seriously injured, and one later died.

I once knew Mrs. Attar. It was for a brief moment, during a visit I made to Iraq for the New Yorker in 1987.

I would not normally claim to know someone whom I interviewed for an article, but she made a deep impression on me. A thoroughly modern woman, she was also the most stylish I had ever met in the Arab world.

Small, in her mid-40s, she had chestnut hair hanging in a pony tail. She wore a flowing lavender jacket, matching harem pants and high-heeled sandals. Her eyes peered out from beneath heavy makeup and long lashes.

I thought they concealed a sadness, a clue to which seemed present in her haunting paintings.

The paintings captivated me before I ever met her. They were being shown at the Saddam Art Center, a newly built state gallery of which Mrs. Attar was the director.

Saddam Hussein, proud of the gallery, had proclaimed that "a modern nation that cannot develop great poets and artists will not be able to develop great political leaders."

Eight stories high and walled in glass, the gallery, flush with sunlight, embraced a garden of contemporary sculpture.

Mrs. Attar's work was part of a show named for al-Wasiti, an artistic genius of the era when Baghdad ruled over a great empire.

I remember being powerfully drawn to a painting of a long-haired nude poignantly lost in a grove of leafless trees, sparingly rendered in black and white. It seemed so delicate, yet so defiant of a culture that subjugated its women. It was titled "Alienation."

Mrs. Attar told me that the painting was one of a series portraying women's loneliness. Her mother, she said, had been a painter who had studied in Beirut; her sister was a full-time painter in London. She herself learned to paint in Baghdad; her studio was behind her house.

Later she took me to a room where a dozen of her paintings hung, all in fragile shades of black and white, each of a nude woman whose back was turned, semi-concealed in enveloping foliage.

When I asked whether her works were Arabic, she replied enigmatically, "They are not Islamic."

Mrs. Attar was less reticent about Iraqi artists. After Baghdad's fall to the Mongols in the 13th century, she said, Iraq produced no art, save Koranic calligraphy. Only in the 1930s were Iraqi artists introduced to European ideas, and a talented vanguard produced competent work in Impressionist and Cubist styles.

Many of these paintings now hang in an ancient house, lovingly restored as a museum, in Old Baghdad, but recent generations have been striking out in search of an authentic Iraqi style. Iraq, Mrs. Attar said, wanted to be a recognized member of the cultural world.

By disseminating knowledge of its art, she hoped to make her gallery a regular stop for international tours of the great masterpieces.

But Leyla al-Attar's hopes were never realized. Saddam Hussein, so avid to be known as a patron of culture, achieved global fame instead as an outlaw and made Iraq a pariah among countries.

Mrs. Attar, Iraqis told me, had survived his despotism by being scrupulously non-political.

Neither she nor her husband, a factory owner, ever joined the Baath Party. Their circle was made up of artists, writers and musicians.

Saddam indulged such people in the belief that they would bring him international approval and personal legitimacy.

But the thug in him prevailed, crushing what Leyla al-Attar represented to Iraq's future.

A stray American rocket did the rest.

Milton Viorst is author of the forthcoming "Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World."

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