Iraq's nightlife gets brighter

Cafe: Knowing it's unsafe after dark, artists find refuge in afternoon gatherings but wonder how long their newfound artistic freedoms will last.

March 15, 2004|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - It's 2 p.m., and Baghdad's bohemian nightlife is blazing. In a city adrift between war and peace, painter and gallery owner Qasim Sabti doesn't dare wait until dark.

Dappled in sunlight, Sabti jabs with iron tongs at a mound of crackling logs. A giant fish, as broad and flat as a pizza, is split in two and browning beside the fire. In the days before war, Sabti wistfully recalls, his circle of artists and intellectuals whiled away long, languid nights beside the Tigris, roasting freshly caught mazgouf and talking until dawn.

But now, Baghdad's nights echo with gunfire, and the best restaurants are prime targets for suicide bombers. So Sabti and the others have fashioned an alternative in the garden of his popular gallery and cafe, a secluded corner of cultural Baghdad. In today's mixed-up Iraq, after all, a "night" in the sunshine almost feels logical.

"That is our Iraqi life," Sabti says wryly, without looking up from the fire.

His silver hair combed back, the 51-year-old painter wipes fish guts from his hands to greet a stream of poets and filmmakers, actors and professors. On this afternoon, the gallery and cafe known as Hewar - "dialogue" in Arabic - is filled with a dozen patrons. They are huddled on banquettes inside and arguing outside near the roasting pit, singing doleful love songs, quoting Walt Whitman and stirring tiny glasses of sweet tea. It is a world away from the city on the other side of the bare concrete walls.

Yet, as in so much of Iraq, life outside seems inescapable. They lament the past, the years of creative energy stifled by tyranny. And they bemoan the war's fallout: the security problems, the looted libraries and museums, the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalists clamping down on artistic expression. But they also savor new freedoms, talking of novels that might finally be published and sentiments they can freely express.

"There was no culture" under Saddam Hussein, declares Hassan Hafidh, a wiry 53-year-old journalist. "There was only police. There was only the leader, and we were the servants.

"We clapped for him through our tears."

In the eyes of these proud men and women, culture was one of Hussein's earliest victims. Less than a generation ago, Baghdad was known in the Middle East as a center of cultural innovation and consumption. "Books are written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad," Arabs once liked to say.

But Saddam pressed artists, writers and filmmakers into service of his regime, ordering portraits and murals that celebrated his military victories and punishing anyone who dared write about victims of his slaughter. Those who remained independent found themselves hobbled by poverty and international isolation.

"This was a land of many civilizations and cultures," says poet Salam al-Haidari, 50. "This was a center of culture. ... He destroyed that."

Since the collapse of the regime, things have recovered, if still tempered by the uncertainty over who will govern. Students at the Academy of Fine Arts are unveiling bolder plays and exhibits that chronicle the war and its troubled aftermath. The visitors to Sabti's gallery are voicing their opinions with impunity.

"Today, there is progress in everything: poetry, music, art. People can say anything now without being scared," Hafidh continues. "There were seven newspapers [before Saddam's ouster]. Now there are 120. You can say whatever you want. It is like Hyde Park in London. All the flowers are blooming."

But not everyone at Hafidh's small cafe table is as satisfied with life after Hussein. Qadhim Ahmed Qadhim, a poet and Spanish-language professor, leans in with a question about the U.S.-led occupation.

"Tell me," Qadhim asks a visitor. "They could bring tanks and helicopters to Baghdad in days, but they can't bring security in nine months?"

Without waiting for an answer, he digs deep into his memory for a wisp of Western poetry. Was it Whitman, he asks in English, who wrote something like, "Battle does not express anything but the wickedness of men. And a victory is nothing but an illusion of the mad."

"We turn your own words against you," Hafidh says with a chuckle.

Across the table, 26-year-old Osama Karim rests a lute on his knee and begins to sing of unrequited love. "I embrace you with the iris of my eyes," he sings. "I love you more than your mother could. Since I was 7 years old, I have been suffering."

Hafidh, the old journalist, listens with his eyes shut and a faint smile.

"I suffered like him," he says.

When the song ends, he tells his story: "In university, I loved a girl. She was from the high social class. I was from the middle class. That was a conflict. We could not be together. She said, `Don't go for your Ph.D. because then you will stay in school and meet brown-eyed girls and forget about me,'" Hafidh says. "So the Ph.D. was gone like a wind. And so was the girl."

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