Sunday, March 27, 2005

AP discovers the earthly paradise - in Saddamite Baghdad 

This Associated Press article - "Once a beauty, Baghdad bears many scars of war" - must be one of the most tendentious pieces I've read recently. In trying to blame the Iraqi capital's current look and ills on the American invasion it is in effect playing on the "at least under Saddam everything was peaceful" meme, so popular recently among the media which is increasingly finding itself with less and less bad things it can say about less and less other aspects of life.

The meme itself - "at least under [insert the name of a dictator]..." - is not new; Mussolini made the trains run on time, Hitler created full employment, under Stalin pensions were paid on time, and Castro made everyone read books (as John Derbyshire wrote a few years ago, "Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy."). Hence we shouldn't be surprised at the meme's re-emergence in Iraq, where it has the added advantage of merging with that another, even older Western myth of a noble savage and an earthly paradise spoiled by the (Western) civilization.
"Baghdad, whose name means the 'Garden of God,' has fallen from grace.

"Known for centuries as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, its landscape has been marred by concrete blast walls, barbed wire, steel barricades, sandbags and crumbling buildings pockmarked by bullet holes or ransacked by explosions.

"Things have gotten so bad that the Iraqi capital has dropped to the bottom of a quality-of-life survey of 215 cities, conducted by the London-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting."
Terrorism and counter-terrorism unfortunately do that to cities; fortunately both phenomena, like the media interest, are transitory.

But the problem here goes much deeper. "Garden of God", of course, is meant to evoke idyllic images of giggling children skipping down the sunlit promenades along the Tigris, in the shadow of gently swaying palm trees; the Eden itself before that unfortunate snake and apple incident (hence the rather blatant use of "fallen from grace" as an obvious piece of pre-lapsarian imagery with a proud secular pedigree reaching back all the way to Rousseau and the Romantics). The problem is that Baghdad haven't been quite like that for quite some time - certainly long before the Yankees came with their tanks and barbed wire.

But AP's Rawya Rageh continues in the similar vein:
"Once dubbed the 'City of Peace,' Baghdad was founded in the 8th Century by Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur as the capital for his rising Muslim Abbasid empire. The city soon became the heart of medieval Muslim civilization -- a mecca of arts, culture and architecture.

"Forming half-circles on the two sides of the Tigris, the city's suburbs, parks, gardens, mosques and marble mansions earned it the reputation as the richest and most beautiful city in the world."
What Rageh fails to mention in his historical vista is that Baghdad's reputation as "the richest and most beautiful city in the world" pretty much went out the window with the end of the Abbasid dynasty in the mid-13th century when after the Mongol onslaught Baghdad ceased to be the seat of the caliphate and therefore the undisputed center of the Muslim world. Rageh's next paragraph is more historically honest:
"Since then, Baghdad has survived the 13th-Century mayhem inflicted on it by the Mongols, the 16th-Century marginalization by the Ottomans and two decades of war and sanctions under ousted President Saddam Hussein."
The key word here being "survived". Through its recent history Baghdad has hardly been a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis that would otherwise, but for the aftermath of the US invasion, excite Western journalists. There was a brief renaissance in the 1970s at the time when Saddam was still sticking to inexpensive extermination of his own subjects and before he engaged in the ghoulishly costly (both in terms of resources and human life) foreign military adventures. Fuelled by the flood petro dollars (remember, this was the decade of the oil shock), Saddam embarked on a construction rampage to remodel his capital to match his ego and ambitions. Most buildings of that era were designed by friends from the fraternal socialist Poland - I know; the state-run (there weren't any others) architectural office in Krakow, where both my parents practiced, was responsible for many of them.

But that had all pretty much ended by the time Saddam decided to humble the Persian empire of Khomeini - except for the palace-building spree which was to continue until the very end while Iraqi children starved by the tens of thousands, the phenomenon that, sadly, too many enchanted Western observers are still fond to mistake for a sign of general economic vitality. The major challenge of the reconstruction - one that too many journalists either don't seem to understand or if they do, they rarely explain - is that the unenviable task facing the Coalition and Iraqi authorities is not returning the infrastructure to the pre-war status quo, but reversing a quarter of a century of neglect, that large chunk of time when on Saddam's list of priorities guns took precedence over butter, or for that matter maintenance, upgrade and development. Iraqi infrastructure is crumbling not because some surgical strikes during the Operation Iraqi Freedom did all the damage; it's because the power stations, water mains, and sewage are all still stuck in a 1970s time-warp.

But it's much easier to pretend that the "fall from grace" is a recent tragic occurrence, and but for all the fighting Baghdad would still be a "beauty" and "Garden of God" ("After the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the city of 5 million became one large military barricade: Humvees and tanks roaming the streets, helicopters rattling above, checkpoints and soldiers everywhere. A two-year insurgency attacking homes and government buildings compounded the scars on the city's face, undermining its ailing infrastructure and tattering the remaining grace.").

Rageh's last paragraph, however, really does it for me:
"Even democracy has taken its toll on Baghdad. Posters and banners of candidates running in the landmark Jan. 30 elections -- a collage of mismatching colors -- are still plastered everywhere, tainting roundabouts and walls two months after the vote."
Ah, that messy democracy. Baghdad was so much more orderly and aesthetically pleasing when only the countless pictures of the One Leader were allowed to grace the public spaces.


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