2010International Reporting

In the City of Cement

By: 
Anthony Shadid
July 12, 2009

A wall built by the U.S. military in Baghdad's Sadr City faces bombed-out buildings, as seen in this May 2008 photo. (By Andrea Bruce -- Washington Post)


BAGHDAD -- There is a hint of an older Baghdad in old Baghdad. You might call it more of a taunt. It's there at the statue of the portly poet Marouf al-Rusafi, pockmarked by bullets, who gives his name to an untamed square. Around him revolves a city, storied but shabby, that American soldiers have finally, ostensibly, left.

The past is here. A turquoise dome, fashioned from brick and adorned in arabesque, peeks from beneath a shroud of dust. A stately colonnade buttresses British-era balconies and balustrades. A forlorn call to prayer drifts from an Ottoman mosque.

But few can see the dome. A spider web of wires delivering sporadic electricity obscures the view. You can't navigate the colonnade. Blast walls block the way. And rarely does the call to prayer filter out from a deluge of car horns.

"It's all become trash, broken windows and crumbling buildings," complained Hussein Karim, a porter looking out from his perch atop a flap of cardboard on the statue's granite pedestal. "Baghdad," added his friend, Hussein Abed, "has become a shattered city."

U.S. combat troops finished withdrawing from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities on June 30. But they leave behind a capital that is forever altered by their presence. Augustus boasted that he found Rome a city of bricks and made it a city of marble. Baghdad was another city of bricks, and a coterie of American generals turned it into a city of cement. Their concrete is everywhere -- from the sprawling Green Zone to the barriers and blast walls that line almost every street -- reorienting the physical, spiritual and social geography that for more than a millennium was dictated by the lazy bends in the Tigris River.

In time, though, those walls may matter less than the deeper forces that six years of an American presence hastened. Baghdad is now a city divided from itself. Shiite neighborhoods rarely have Sunnis. Sunni ones, far less numerous today, no longer have Shiites. Christians have all but left. Potentates seek refuge in fortresses, and the poor fend for themselves.

From Beirut to Cairo to Baghdad, the Arab world's great capitals have all lost a measure of tolerance, receding behind walls, psychological and otherwise, that demarcate their sects, ethnicities and classes. Each mourns the disappearance of a cosmopolitanism that seemed entrenched a generation ago. Each longs for the inhabitants that gave it more grace. In the end, Baghdad may be the dystopic culmination of those trends, not so much shattered by the present as it is divorced from its history.

The Americans created none of it, but facilitated all of it, giving space to the region's worst impulses.

"Destruction is easy," declared Karim, the porter. "Building takes a lot more time."


Saddam Hussein brought a coarsely martial style to an earlier Baghdad. To a utilitarian capital, his monuments brought a twisted vainglory.

The Hands of Victory is probably most distinguished in that vision, for its vulgarity alone. Conceived in 1985, the arch of crossed swords celebrated an Iraqi victory at a time when Iran was winning the eight-year war. The fists grasping the swords were molded from Hussein's, enlarged 40 times. The curved blades are replicas of the swords of Saad Ibn Abi Waqas, the Arab general who defeated the Persians in the 7th century. Each required 24 tons of metal, recast from the guns of dead Iraqi solders. From the wrists dangled nets bulging with thousands of bullet-riddled helmets of Iranian soldiers. By one account, the original plan called for Iranian skulls.

The walls of today are more functional, but no less distinguishing. They are without the aggressive permanence of the barriers the Israelis have built to divide themselves from the Palestinians. They lack the political graffiti and inspired art that made the Berlin Wall so distinctive. Instead they articulate the disparate ambitions in an Iraq that is emerging from war, even as many wonder what it has left.

Paintings on the cement boast an idealized Iraq of Sumerian and Babylonian glory or a future of improbable skyscrapers. Vendors use them as billboards -- for real estate, children's clothes and changing money. The government scrawls on them its authoritarian vision of law as an antidote to entrenched disorder. "Respect and be respected," one motto reads. "Be a hero. Protect Iraq," urges another.

"These walls will be removed when the people of Iraq finally wake up again," said Wissam Karim, a 28-year-old soldier walking to his base in Adhamiyah.

He glanced at a wall that stretched nearly two miles, dividing the Sunni residents of Adhamiyah from the Shiite residents of Sleikh. "Long live the resistance," read a slogan scrawled on one segment. Someone had crossed out the last word and written "Iraq."


Khan Mirjan was built in 1359, and an inscription on a wall of the caravanserai glorifies its founder, Amin al-Din Mirjan: "The most abundantly just, king of kings of the world." For 600 years, the building endured as a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.

In the months after the invasion, it was looted. A rising water table soon flooded it. Majestic but musty, the khan feels like the Colosseum might have to a medieval Roman.

"It endured for hundreds of years," said Hassan Ibrahim, a 41-year-old squatter or watchman (take your pick). "If you want to destroy it, it takes no more than minutes."

Unlike in Cairo or Istanbul, with their imperial cityscapes, remarkably little of Baghdad's antiquity has survived. Wars, the flooding of the temperamental Tigris and occasional lightning made sure of that. The city instead seems to draw pride from a culture of memory.

"When did we lose that civilized spirit?" asked Saad Owaiz, a 58-year-old denizen of the Zihawi Cafe, with a cigarette-stained goatee and Lenin-style glasses.

He longed for a past as imagined as it was real. He mourned Rashid Street and its long-shuttered restaurants and cinemas. He missed the chatter among officials, sheikhs and men of letters at the Parliament Cafe.

"There's not as much conversation these days," he lamented.


Residents of Baghdad's Sadr City line up along a blast wall for aid in May 2008. The barriers have changed the social geography of the capital. (By Andrea Bruce -- Washington Post)


The neighborhood that unfurls from Rusafi's statue was once Baghdad's most vibrant, with a mix of Ottoman mosques and markets and British-era apartments. There was fashion on River Street, culture on colonnaded Rashid Street, the first to be illuminated in Iraq. The tastiest pastries, the best coffee and the most delicious ice cream could be found there. Protests got their bearings at the square, then surged forward.

Today there is commerce of another sort, cheap goods disgorging into streets that no longer form intersections; the blast walls make them more a maze. Fish from the Tigris asphyxiate in a tub on a car. A pyramid of soft drinks sweats like its vendor. Girls' dresses splash yellow, orange and pink in a street of gray and brown.

Pictures stare out from the occasional cafes and even more occasional bookstores. King Ghazi's handsome gaze contrasts with King Faisal II's boyish innocence. A prince dons the sidara, a cap forever tied to an era.

In the days of those pictures, Owaiz boasted, he would eat no more than a piece of bread and a slice of cheese, then drink a glass of pomegranate juice from a stand called Hajji Zibala.

"It was like we ate an entire sheep," he said. "Now if we eat an entire sheep, we're still hungry. . . . The mood's just not there."

"Baghdad," he added, "is like a ghost to me."


Nostalgia is perhaps the defining sentiment in a disenchanted Arab world, punctuating conversations in Cairo and Beirut as it does in Baghdad. It marks the fact that something -- a measure of tolerance, a more libertine life, the cosmopolitanism of a confident culture -- has been lost.

Beirut had its downtown, before the civil war wrecked it, where families posed before the statue in Martyrs' Square. Now a preserve of the rich, it was once a crossroads of class, where cinemas abutted the fish market, and boutiques and banks shared space with vegetable vendors. Cairo had its downtown -- the Groppi cafe and cinemas such as Rivoli, Metro and Opera -- whose era ended with a fire in 1952 and a revolution that followed.

Not all was wonderful, of course. Cairo was far more pleasurable if you were a foreign resident, sometimes never speaking Arabic, than an Egyptian. Sightseers in Beirut could ignore a ring of misery on its outskirts, populated by disenfranchised Shiites. But few would dispute that identity, be it sect, ethnicity, even class, was more malleably defined. And nearly everyone would agree that chauvinism had yet to best tolerance.

"How do you tell that story without seeming too nostalgic for a world that in many respects we wouldn't want to bring back?" asked Mark Mazower, author of "Salonica, City of Ghosts." "That's the dilemma."

To Mazower, the nostalgia is not something singularly Arab, but rather a universal narrative that seems to capture failure as much as it does loss.

"Everybody is conscious of how difficult nation-states find it to establish stable and tolerant regimes," he said. "The nostalgia reflects the sense of their crisis today."


There is neither stability in postwar Baghdad, nor tolerance. But Maysoon al-Damluji stops short of blaming the American troops who have mostly left her capital.

"I have always said an army is an army, regardless. It's just young men with guns," said Damluji, an architect and lawmaker from a prominent family. "You don't expect an army to take care of a city. You don't expect an army to be sensitive to people's needs."

Baghdad was immiserated already before the Americans came. There was the eight-year war with Iran, when prisoners of war were paraded in pickup trucks through the city. Sanctions followed another war, Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait, in time wiping out Baghdad's once-vibrant middle class.

Baghdad vendors set up shop in the shadow of U.S.-built wall in March 2008. "These walls will be removed when the people of Iraq finally wake up again," said an Iraq soldier. (By Andrea Bruce -- Washington Post)

"There are whole generations that have grown up who know nothing but the language of war, confrontation and defiance," Damluji said. "You see it in people's eyes."

Baghdadis -- by which she meant the city's tolerance -- have gone. Migrants from the countryside, with the hard rules of hard men, have taken their place. In her day, a tribal sheik would forgo his headdress when he visited the capital.

"He would be too embarrassed," she said. "When they visited, they acted like Baghdadis. Now people living in Baghdad act like tribal elders from the countryside."

Damluji has an answer; a project to restore the swath of urban wilderness around Rusafi's statue. Owners would become shareholders in a company that would renovate and resurrect a portion of the city that stretches nearly two miles along the Tigris, from Bab al-Sharji to Bab al-Moadhem. Traffic would be forbidden. Cinemas and stores would share space with parks. Hers is similar to a vision that helped rebuild Beirut, but unlike in the Lebanese capital, she said, "We are going to try to keep the social fabric and not turn it over to Starbucks."

She unfurled a photo 20 feet long, a satellite image of the city. There were no barriers, no concrete, no t-walls. "All this is going to be restored," she vowed, waving her hand across the photo.

There is a famous song by Kazem al-Saher, Iraq's best-known singer, about the capital. "Has God ever created, in the entire world, anything as beautiful as you?" he asks. His voice then rises, plaintively, as he cries, "Baghdad! Baghdad! Baghdad!"

Was it ever really beautiful? Damluji paused.

"No," she answered. "No, I don't think Baghdad was ever a beautiful city. But it was a lively city. It was civilized."

The photo remained at her feet. She dragged on a Davidoff cigarette as her gray terrier, Apricot, jumped into her chair.

"It will take awhile," she admitted. "It's far more difficult to build than to demolish."