The fall of Baghdad: the end of an era for the Arab (intellectual) world?

“Create/Destroy” a representation of al-Mutanabbi street during the Iraq War by artist Martha Hayden

Annamaria Bianco (Université Toulouse 2 Jean Jaurès/IREMAM, Aix-Marseille Université)

On 9 April 2003, Baghdad fell into the hands of US forces,marking the beginning of the American occupation of Iraq. That day, however, represented not only the fall of the country’s political capital, but the capture of a city with a history stretching back thousands of years. A history whose symbolic power is inscribed in a larger, pan-Arab, cultural heritage.

The second-largest city in the Arab world after Cairo, Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansour in 762 and became the capital of the Islamic Empire during its Golden Age (790-1258), due to its architectural beauty, economic wealth, and intellectual ferment. The circular shape of what was then a veritable metropolis was synonymous with its “perfection,” sung about for centuries by Eastern and Western poets. Fabled background of several tales of A Thousand and One Nights, which depicted the extreme luxury of Haroun al-Rashid’s court in the 9th Century, Baghdad was known as “The Eye’s Delight,” but also as “The City of Peace” (Madinat al-Salam) for its multi-cultural cosmopolitanism, where Christians, Jews and Muslim from different ethnic origins used to live together. Its first destruction by Mongol invaders in 1258 symbolized the decline of the great medieval Muslim civilization and has been for centuries the subject of many elegiac poems. It was also a moment, along with the fall of Granada during the Spanish Reconquista (1492), that foreshadowed the catastrophes which have struck the Arab world in modern times. As a result of this event, Baghdad was pushed into the margins of the Arab-Islamic world, falling under Ottoman authority only to regain its former glory towards the end of the 19th Century and find a new prosperity under the reign of King Faysal I (1921-33). During its newly acquired independence, Baghdad gradually regained its former prominence as a significant centre of Arabic culture, also thanks to reforms in the education system that provided fertile ground for the emergence of modernist Arabic poetry in the 1950s, with the revolutionary invention of free verse, and the development of a committed prose of strongly Marxist inspiration in the 1960s. The 8th Century centre of Baghdad bookselling, al-Mutanabbi street, was filled with bookstores and outdoor book stalls, reconfirming an old Arab adage, “Cairo writes, Beirut prints, Baghdad reads.”

Despite the advent of the Baath (1958) and the establishment of Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979), marked by the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) as well as the Gulf War (1990-91) on the international front and the imposition of censorship on the local intellectual community, the capital’s roiling cultural energy never slowed, even finding itself deeply fuelled by what scholar Yasmeen Hanoosh has called the “contempt” between “State Literati” and “Street Literati.” Writers who had chosen not to flee abroad were in fact constantly confronted with the literary and media propaganda imposed by the government and were forced to experiment with new forms to counter these policies. Nevertheless, when US Marines tore down one of the huge iron statues of the dictator, symbolically marking the capture of Baghdad in 2003, it did not signify real liberation for the country’s intellectual community. Instead, this represented a highly controversial issue, as described by the Iraqi American author and journalist Sinan Antoon (b. 1967), who is associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University:

I had always hoped to see the end of Saddam’s dictatorship at the hands of the Iraqi people, not courtesy of a neo-colonial project that would dismantle what had remained of the Iraqi state and replace it with a regime based on ethno-sectarian dynamics, plunging the country into violent chaos and civil wars. (The Guardian, 19 March 2023)

The footage of this precise moment, broadcast everywhere by Al-Jazeera satellite channels, shocked the entire Arab world, recalling a past of defeats and the ghost of cultural decadence that followed the first sack of Baghdad. In her novel The Guardians of the Air (Hurras al-Hawwà, 2009), Syrian writer Rosa Yassin Hassan (b. 1974) describes the bewildered reactions of the protagonist Anat and her father to those television images in Damascus, which became one of the main destinations chosen by Iraqi war refugees. The elder man immediately associates the event with the march on Baghdad in 1917 by British forces, who had made Iraq their battlefield against the Ottoman Empire, describing the new fall of the capital as yet “another catastrophe.”

As early shown by Antoon’s 2004 documentary About Baghdad, it was precisely the end of Saddam Hussein’s 24-year despotic rule over Iraq that undermined the (intellectual) life of the capital, which rapidly sank, along with the rest of the country, into deep sectarian violence marked by successive suicide attacks and explosions. One of these car bombs even caused the destruction of al-Mutanabbi Street in 2007, which killed 60 people and deprived the country of the centre of its cultural life and the entire Arab world of one of its most famous literary sites. In 2014, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) only added further horror to these events, as its men have been responsible not only for the death of many Iraqis, and especially members of the country’s ethnic-religious minorities, but also for the so-called “Mosul Book Massacre” of 2017, when the central library of the University of Mosul was burnt down and later bombed during the battle led by the central government to retake the city from the Califate.

This daily violence, which transformed Baghdad from a “City of Peace” into a “City of Chaos,” causing at least 1 million deaths and displacing 1.5 million people internally, has fostered the birth of a stream of writing steeped in what Fatima Sai defined as a form of “necropoetics,” somewhere between postcolonial gothic and magical realism. One could find this style as much in the production of the writers who remained in the country, such as author of Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), Ahmed Saadawi (b. 1973), winner of 2014 Arabic Booker and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, as well as in the works of authors in exile, such as Hassan Blasim (b. 1973), who rose to worldwide fame after winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with The Iraqi Christ (2013).

However, the US occupation, in addition to being the focus of Iraqi fiction published between 2009 and 2012 according to a study conducted by Ikram Masmoudi in her monograph War And Occupation In Iraqi Fiction (2015), has affected the Iraqi literary field far beyond the content of literary production, profoundly altering its balance and, above all, accentuating the competition that existed between writers from the diaspora and those who remained in the country. The latter, in particular, found themselves extremely isolated from the centers of pan-Arab literary production, together with the major publishing houses of the country, with the exception of Dar al-Jamal, founded by the exiled Khaled al-Maaly and located first in Cologne and then in Beirut.

Though, if the beginning of the occupation marked the progressive “end of an era” for the literary scene, the withdrawal of US troops in 2021 seems to have projected the country into a new phase of cultural ferment: in the same year, al-Mutanabbi Street has been reopened to the public and book fairs have started again, sponsored by some NGOs, such as in Erbil, or directly by the government, whose former prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has invested heavily in cultural recovery. Two hundred and fifty publishing houses from across the Arab world participated in the 2021 Basra Book Fair, and the 2022 Baghdad Book Fair was even more attended, with the participation of many Iraqi exiled writers and several authors arriving from other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, some of whom were enthusiastic about the idea of being able to set foot for the first time in a country that still enchants the pan-Arab imagination with its millenary history.

Nonetheless, whether this cycle of prosperity will continue over time remains to be seen, since the country’s geopolitical balance is still extremely fragile, both internationally and nationally.

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