Wednesday, 2 May 2007
Once upon a time in Baghdad
In these days Iraqis usually prepare themselves for summer, a long one with scorching heat which only ends with the breeze of early October. Such season change does not pass unnoticed. I remember the packing of winter clothes and unpacking of summer ones. Folding the carpets (Zewalli) and hiding them under the beds, wiping the tiled floor (Kashi), trimming the grass of the front garden and most importantly washing the floor of the roof of the house (Sattah) and the bed frames in order to sleep under moonlit night sky ingrained with countless stars. These are not memories from Baghdad in the forties or fifties as you might think when you read the title of this post. All my knowledge about that period is derived from books, vintage black and white photos in the family album and stories that my “Beebee” (Grandmother) used to tell me when I put my head on her lap waiting for her soft hand to scratch my back and quietly listening to her stories about “Tantal Baghdad”. It is the eighties and nineties’ Baghdad that I grew up in and like many others; left unfulfilled dreams and incalculable memories on her streets. There is nothing extraordinary about it. Instead its simplicity that makes it so precious to me and I desperately miss.
It was back in 1995 and 1996 when nearly everyday I used to take the (Nefarat) going to Bab Al-Sharji and getting off just before crossing Al-Sinnak bridge because I love walking on that bridge. Reaching the beginning of Al-Sinnak Street, I turn left behind the tall telecommunication Tower (which was bombed by the Americans in 2003) and through a very narrow alley to my uncle’s small shop selling spare parts of automatic Toyota cars model 1984. Most of the times I arrive so early to find the shop still closed. In such cases, I go to Edmon Abo Al-Arabana (a Christian) to have breakfast (a boiled egg or “Macklama” sandwich and sometimes and if I am in the mood I go for “Baghila Bil Dihin”) followed by two “Istikans of Chai Abu Al-Hail” from Ali (a faili Kurd). I spend few hours in the shop and in the afternoon I take my break heading to Bab Al-Sharji, passing through Al-Khullani’s square (named after the old Khulani mosque which stood there for centuries) then right to Al-Jimhooriyah Street to Bab Al-Sharji where hundreds of stalls (Bas’tat) gathered on both sides of the street and in the bus garage. As a music enthusiast, I look for rare old albums and frequently find old treasures from the 60s and 70s. gems like Thin Lizzy – Johnny The Fox (1975), The Doors – L.A Woman (1970), CCR – Best of (1967-1971), Pink Floyd- Atom Heart Mother (1970) and many others that I have collected over the years and still have them in Baghdad.
One day I was walking there keeping my eyes on the stalls and looking if they have anything interesting and suddenly I was caught by an original cassette neatly wrapped in transparent paper. The sleeve was dark blue and a picture of an old black man with flying V-Gibson guitar in his hands and just below it written: Johnny Copeland – Texas Party. The man kept his eyes on me as he obviously discovered my interest in this cassette and after breathing out heavy cigarette smoke, he said “Alfain Dinar Ea’yoony”. He was fortyish something with greyish white hair and light beard. At last I got it for 1250 Dinars (about 60 cents at that time). It’s a bargain. From that time I became a regular customer and through him (his name was Karim) I met other “Stallers” selling second hand cassettes and vinyl (as use of CDs was very limited and only affluent people afford it). My relation with them progressed to a level that I gave them my house number to call me whenever they put their hands on a new collection of cassettes. The last time I met Karim was in 1997 in Al-Karama Hospital in Baghdad when he brought his sister to the casualty department suffering from kidney failure. She was kept in the hospital for approximately two weeks but she died later due to complications of her incurable condition.
Leaving the Stalls’ wonderworld of Bab Al Sharji, I follow a different path to go back to Al-Sinnak. This time I cross the street towards Al-Khayyam Building on the left side of Bab Al-Sharji square. A four storey building with many shops inside selling men clothes mainly Jeans trousers. From there I walk towards the beginning of Al-Rasheed Street where the well-known Chaqmaqchi’s Records shop is on the corner back to Al-Sinnak through small tortuous “darbounat”.
Sometimes, I do not go to Bab Al-Sharji at my break time but instead I walk to the once thriving Al-Mutanabi books market. There you meet Iraqis from different background nothing brought them but their passion for reading. I bought many books of Jean Paul Sartre, Camus, D.H Lawrence and others. If I am too late to go back to work, I complete my journey to Shor’ja market, meet my friend there and then go back home.
So is there anything surreal about this journey? Definitely No. it’s trouble-free and the mentioning of all these details may sound unworthy. However; ordinary Iraqis now must put their lives at risk if they dare to do the same. The stalls’ area of Bab Al-Sharji, Al-Mutanabi Street and Al-Shor’ja were frequently targeted by suicide bombs. The shops in Al-Khayam building and Al-Rasheed Street are almost completely closed and nothing left in the small alley ways but the smells of death and hatred and a glimpse of memories of generations of Iraqis eager to re-live these fascinating memories again.