SAH Blog

Homecoming: Stories from Baghdad

Mar 7, 2022, 15:16 PM by Helena Dean


Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

The Unending War 


“So, what do you think of Baghdad?” is a question I was asked by family and friends in the month I was “home,” visiting for the first time in 10 years. It was the first destination in my fellowship travel that I was in a place where the nuances of culture and language were accessible to me. I wasn’t a tourist this time. When I envisioned my itinerary for this fellowship, I didn’t include Baghdad because the city is still in a state of war but also it is because of Baghdad that I went on this journey to see what can be learned from the long-term consequences of war on how cities develop. But when does war end and reconstruction begin? What do these long years of recovery look like? Berlin and Warsaw allowed me to observe established models of post-war reconstruction and their effects across a long span of time. Baghdad, however, is still undergoing sporadic conflict and political instability and offers a look at those intermediate years of struggle and recovery where consequential decisions about the urban environment are made.

Growing up during wartime becomes normal. After leaving Iraq and having the perspective of a normal life, I was able to start to process my experience and realize how unusual our lives were. I was born three months before the first Gulf War and the beginning of the thirteen year-long sanctions by the United States Security Council on Iraq as punishment for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. I was thirteen years old when the US invaded Iraq under false pretenses. I was twenty when I left for the US. My sister was born two years after the Iran-Iraq war; my brother two years before its end. My mom and dad lived through the end of the British-instilled Iraqi monarchy, the establishment of the Baath Party, the rising of Saddam Hussein to power and his wars. War creates its own timeline through which we measure our lives. It permeates our everyday language. Significant life events are situated in relation to their proximity or distance from war, “so and so graduated three years after the war; so and so left five years before the war.” Sometimes it’s the “war with Iran,” sometimes it’s the “war with Kuwait,” but when it is just “war,” it refers to the most recent one, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. 

 

The Consequences of War 


So how does Baghdad look? Ruined. It is safer now than it was before I left. The bombings that used to disrupt our daily lives and keep us confined to our homes have subsided and public life is thriving again with new cafes, restaurants, and more recently, malls. However, unfettered corruption in governmental and public institutions and non-existent regulations are accelerating the decline of Baghdadi neighborhoods. They are destroying any historical character left in this city. 

I arrived in Baghdad from Istanbul at 3 am. The Baghdad International Airport is unlike any in the world. People aren’t allowed to show up to the airport to pick you up for security reasons. There are shuttles that take you to a public square where your family or special taxis can pick you up. However, a friend who has connections in airport security managed to get my brother on a vetted list of people who can enter the airport within the specific time window of my landing there. So there was my brother, taller than I remember, and now with a beard, waiting for me. We hadn’t seen each other for 10 years. 

On the drive from the airport, I looked out the window to see what had changed. There are the quintessential palm trees still, albeit diminished in numbers. Concrete blast barriers and security checkpoints are still lining up the streets, the outcome of years of suicide bombs (Figure 1). When I arrived to the Harithiya neighborhood, where my mother and brother live, it was too dark to discern yet how this once quiet and old neighborhood had dramatically changed. I used to come to this neighborhood once a week, to my grandparents’ house where all my aunts, uncles and their kids would convene every Friday. Now my grandparents’ house, which used to have a huge garden where we’d played soccer as kids, had been demolished. Five new houses sprung up in its place, inhabited by different households, including my brother’s. The houses are tightly packed next to one another to utilize every centimeter of highly valuable land. Where is the garden?

The fate that my grandparents’ house met is part of an uncontrolled and chaotic construction trend that is changing the shape and urban quality of many Baghdadi neighborhoods. Older houses with gardens and an architecture that worked with the hot climate of Baghdad are being scrapped to accommodate multiple houses that cover the whole lot, and often the sidewalks. The streets that I used to roam and play in with my cousins are no longer walkable. Cars, escaping the traffic on major streets, crowd the inner neighborhood streets and with no sidewalks, eradicate any sense of pedestrian life.

A consequence of the 2003 War is the spread of corruption at all levels of governmental institutions, not excluding the municipality regulating construction practices in Iraq. Violations of building regulations are routinely permitted through bribes. This is why public sidewalks are disappearing or multi-family apartment buildings are popping up next to single family houses. Corruption, a long lasting consequence of the war, is destroying what’s left of Baghdad’s identity. The old ways of building that mitigated the harsh summer heat are replaced with overbuilt concrete lots that lack any open space for shade or ventilation. As new houses are getting narrower to fit as many as possible on the lot, they are growing taller, violating height regulations and transforming the scale of traditional neighborhoods. Along with an egregious mishmash of façade materials and styles that are often meant to communicate socio-economic status, Baghdadi neighborhoods are breaking with historical and architectural continuity. 

I sat through many amusing conversations listening to my mom’s friend telling of her treacherous experience navigating government bureaucracies to have permission to demolish her old house and build three apartments in its place. With every step of the process that has been ongoing for a few months already, she was turned away for trivial things such as not having enough photocopies of a certain document or a mysterious old unpaid electricity bill totaling two dollars. Every obstacle would set her back a few extra weeks, unless, of course she reached for her purse and dispersed some “red ones,” referring to the 25,000 Iraqi Dinar bill. My mom’s friend’s quandary is exacerbated by the fact that she was inexperienced in smoothly handing out bribes. It was both comical and unsettling to watch her friends teach her how to be a smooth operator, otherwise, they said “you’d still be in the same place next year.”

A lot has changed in the 10 years I’ve been away from home. New types of architectural projects have appeared as both a symptom of the current dysfunctional state of government and as an escape from a present that is lacking in basic needs. I was struck by the sight of the gated residential developments going up all around Baghdad (Figure 2–3). Baghdad has traditionally been a low-rise sprawling city, so the sprouting of these towers significantly alters its shape and scale. These new self-sufficient neighborhoods consist of apartment buildings, hospitals, pharmacies, schools, etc. They become cities of their own, possessing an alternate reality shaped by real estate developers and independent of the one run by the government outside its gates. That’s not the only thing rising up in Baghdad’s skies. Baghdad is experiencing an increased popularity and proliferation of shopping malls. From my mother’s house, I can see the electronic billboards of Baghdad Mall (Figure 4). People in Baghdad kept telling me that the only new things that get built these days are restaurants and malls because “what else is there to do than eat and shop?” 

The rise in the number of shopping malls going up around Baghdad can be explained further by this paragraph from Omar Sirri on the connection between the political situation in Iraq and shopping malls:

“The popularity of Baghdad’s new shopping malls does not mean the city’s residents have acquiesced to this order of things. Nor do they believe shopping centres are the most ideal places of pleasure and entertainment. Rather, during years of physical insecurity in Baghdad, the secured shopping malls—with their metal detectors, watch towers, and armed private security contractors—became safe places in which residents could ‘breathe’. Insecurity in the city helps facilitate new shopping malls as sites of social pleasure that are vital to everyday survival; they are frequented in part because nothing else is on offer.”1

 

yellow car near a concrete wall, palm trees in background

Figure 1 Unsightly Concrete blast walls still stand in many parts of Baghdad

 

aerial view of three high-rise apartment towers

Figure 2 Iraq Gate apartment complex. Image from http://iraqgate.com/

 

aerial view of multiple high-rise apartments

Figure 3 Al-Ayadi apartment complex. Image from http://www.ayadigroup.com/

 

view of mall from parking lot at dusk with palm tree silhouettes

Figure 4 Baghdad Mall in the background

The Scars of War 


I was one year old when the U.S Air Force dropped two “smart bombs” on the air-raid shelter of Al-Amiriya in Baghdad. The attack resulted in the death of approximately 400 women and children. The numbers vary as the book that documented the number of civilians sheltering in the building was incinerated inside. The first bomb made a hole in the three-meter-thick reinforced concrete. The second one entered through the opening and exploded, incinerating everyone inside.2

The shelter is not too far from my maternal grandparent’s home in the Amiriya neighborhood. I went to see the building with my mother and aunt on the way to my uncle’s house, which used to be my grandparents'. As I was approaching the shelter, it became clear that it is not open to the public nor is it a memorial space as it was suggested online. The building looked deserted and closed. Piles of trash stand inside of its fenced walls and broken glass is everywhere. My aunt asked a guy on the street if the shelter is open. He told her to go over to the gate and knock and a security officer should be there to answer her question. So we went over and knocked on the gate and waited. A minute later, a security officer showed up. We asked him if the shelter is open and if we can take a look inside. He asked if we were journalists; he is not allowed to let in journalists. I told him that I am an architect writing about war and destruction. He seemed hesitant. He said he usually lets people in who want to say prayers for the souls that were lost on that miserable night in 1991. He said he often had visitors who lost their loved ones inside the shelter.

The kind security officer opened the gate for us. Before we entered the shelter, we stopped to look at the memorial commemorating the victims of the shelter (Figure 5–6). The officer said he is tired of chasing after kids who would break in and destroy the gravestones. He didn’t understand those kids. He asked us if we are okay to go inside the shelter on our own or if we need him to come with us. He warned that it is completely dark inside and there might be stray dogs. We all voted that he should guide us through the building. We didn’t understand at the beginning that this building was abandoned. There was no light or electricity. It was open to the elements. We turned our phone flashlights on as we entered. I held my mom’s hands, worried she’d trip over the debris and broken pieces of glass, concrete, and wires. Through the main entrance, black and white photocopies on cheap paper that display the victims’ portraits are taped to the walls. We entered through the heavy steel door of the shelter, which after it was subjected to the intense heat from the missile, melted and sealed shut, trapped everyone inside. Then it was dark. We walked slowly and carefully until there it was, frozen in time and unchanged, the hole in the ceiling from the missile 30 years ago, illuminating the darkness below. War is cruel.

red, white, and black curvilinear memorial with woman in foreground

stone markers

Figure 5–6 A memorial for the victims of Al-Amiriya Shelter

 

concrete facade with arched doorways with broken glass

Figure 7 Entrance to the shelter

 

black and white photocopies of photos of victims attached to a white wall

Figure 8 Photocopies of the victims’ portraits taped to the wall of Al-Amiriya Shelter

 

room with steel walls and meter-thick door

Figure 9 A meter-thick steel door

 

corridor of the shelter

Figure 10 One of the shelter’s corridors, a blackened wall on the right

 

hole in reinforced concrete ceiling with sunlight coming through

Figure 11 The hole in the reinforced concrete ceiling where the missile entered

 

pile of flowers on floor with dust and rebar

Figure 12 Flowers for the dead lay underneath the missile’s entry hole

 

silhouette of two women walking down dark corridor to the light

Figure 13 Walking towards the exit from the unlit and pitch-black interior of the shelter

 

green sculpture of woman's head screaming with stylized flames

Figure 14 Monument to commemorate the victims of the Amiriya Shelter stands outside the building

 

There have been a lot of bombings in Baghdad since 2003, but the memory of some lingers with Iraqis more than others for their unprecedented brutality and terror, like the Karrada explosion in 2016. A suicide truck bomb exploded in the Shia’ neighborhood of Karrada next to the popular shopping center Al-Hadi during the holy month of Ramadan. The explosion killed 340 civilians and injured hundreds. I wasn’t living in Baghdad by that time. When I was in Baghdad, my mother and her friend took me to the Karrada neighborhood to take a look at the site under construction. 

four-story building under construction, clothes hang on racks outside, cars and moped in foreground

storefronts with racks of clothes on sidewalk, cars on street in foreground

Figure 15–16 Reconstruction of the shopping center that was destroyed in the 2016 Karrada

 

In the Company of Women: Women and Urban Space in Baghdad 


I grew up knowing Baghdad from the car while being driven around by my parents, the school bus, and other adults. I remember being able to play outside in my neighborhood and ride my bike with my neighbor until one day it wasn’t acceptable. I had crossed the threshold from kid to girl. Hereafter, I mostly experienced the city in the car as I was going to and from school or from one house to another. The public realm of the city wasn’t accessible to me. It was the domain of men and boys. With time, it became uncomfortable walking outside and being subjected to unwanted looks and advances. The war and unsafe conditions on the streets only pushed us girls and women more inside the house. The first time I experienced the joy of walking on my own and exploring the city was when I lived in Damascus for a year when I was 19. 

But things are different in Baghdad now. The city is safer for everyone but it is still a gendered space. My mode of exploration for the past four months of this fellowship involved a lot of walking around, even during the cold winter of Poland. But here in Baghdad, especially in some of the historical areas, I felt uncomfortable as a woman walking around with a DSLR camera. I felt myself walking fast and not stopping too long to get a good picture. Quickly, I learned to explore in a different way in Baghdad, not by myself, but in the company of other women. My mother, her friends, and my own friends were more than happy to take me around Baghdad and to accompany me to site visits. My favorite moments were when they told me that I showed them a new part of Baghdad they’ve never seen.

 

The State of Architectural Heritage in Iraq 


The sad thing about the destruction of architecture in Iraq is that it hasn’t only been the result of direct fighting during the war or from suicide bombs, but mainly from the failure of the government and municipalities to protect architectural heritage and enact regulation that would prevent the ceaseless destruction of historical neighborhoods. It is a manifestation of the long-lasting effects of war in crippling a country’s soul for years to come. The crumbling buildings of Al-Rasheed Street are not the product of bombs but of a broken system in a war-torn country that is still struggling to form a stable nation-state and suffers political and social instability. As Iraq is still struggling to address basic economic and social needs of its society, its architecture is reflecting the corruption and dysfunction of its institutions. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been to Al-Rasheed Street before this visit even though I’ve read and written about it before. It was the first boulevard built by the Ottomans in 1916 and is one of the most important cultural and political spaces in Baghdad (Figure 17–26). Most recently, the 2019 demonstrations that stunned the country in the biggest form of civil unrest since 2003 also manifested in Al-Rasheed Street, despite endangering its already collapsing historical structures. The state of Al-Rasheed Street now almost brought me to tears. I’ve seen images of it in its heyday with its beautiful colonnades shading pedestrians from the summer heat. Now its colonnades and balconies are tilting and collapsing. The life around it, so accustomed to loss and destruction, keeps on going, almost oblivious to its slow death. I started my walk at Maidan Square and walked through Al-Rasheed Street until I arrived to the most famous and beloved street in Baghdad, Al-Mutanabbi Street (Figure 27–31). Named after the Abbasid poet from the 10th century, Al-Mutanabbi, this whole pedestrian-only street is dedicated to one thing: selling books. Established bookstores and small book stalls line up both its sides while pedestrians walk in the middle browsing new releases or used old books. This peaceful avenue wasn’t spared the violence either. In 2007, a suicide bomb exploded there and killed around 100 people. The street has just celebrated a major renovation right when I arrived in Baghdad in December. 

crumbling row of retail buildings with goods on sidewalk along street

two yellow cars in street alongside deteriorating building storefronts

facade of concrete and brick buildings with boarded up, roofless building in center

crowded street scene with vendors, buildings with colonnade, crumbling facades

people walk down street filled with racks of clothes alongside three-story facade

cars are flanked by people and rows of goods, colonnade facade in background

yellow cars in foreground, crumbling yellow-brick colonnade building in background

Figure 17–23 Deteriorating buildings on the historical Rasheed Street

 

concrete building withe cylindrical top and square base, street scene in foreground

Figure 24 The Abboud building, a modernist building by the Iraqi architect Rifaat Al-Chadirji, also neglected and deteriorating

 

man with gray beard smiles at camera among street vendors

Figure 25 A man that works in one of the shops on Al-Rasheed Street. His friend asked me to take his photo while I was photographing the building

 

mosque with blue and gold domes, line of parked cars and dumpsters in foreground

Figure 26 Haydar Khana Mosque,1826

 

people walking on paved road with retail shops on either side

tables of books along walkway with two-story retail shops

tables display books in front of colonnade storefront

people walk down paved walkway with yellow brick colonnade storefronts

Figure 27–30 The newly renovated Mutanabbi Street

 

two-story yellow brick building with wraparound balcony

Figure 31 The famous Shabandar Café is an old and beloved space in Al-Mutanabbi Street since 1907

 

Baghdad was established as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in 762 A.D. There are few remnants of Abbasid architecture in the city, although neglected and in desperate need of repairs. One wonders how long before they, too, disappear from the urban fabric and the public’s consciousness. While I was out with my newly acquired friend, Zina, in a café near Al-Mutanabbi called Al-Mdalaal, the owner approached us with a flier. He told us about an upcoming trip he is organizing to visit Al-Ukhaider Fortress, the Abbasid structure south of Karbala, Iraq. I was delighted. I’ve been trying to find a way to go to Al-Ukhaider and this opportunity just fell from the sky. I took the flier. I went with my mother, her friend, and Zina on a day-long trip (Figure 32–49). The structure seemed to be in a good shape on the outside, probably due to its isolated location in the desert of Karbalaa. It is not protected nor maintained, as evident by the graffiti and trash left by visitors. After exploring it on the inside for a while, it was clear that this historical building is falling apart as well. It was built in 778 by Isa ibn Musa, the nephew of Abbasid Caliph As-Saffah. The massive structure encompasses courtyards, residences, and a mosque. The building displays the early architectural innovation of the Abbasid period, such as the use of the pointed and transverse arches, which became characteristic of Islamic architecture. It is one of the earliest examples of Abbasid palaces that exists till this day.3 However, it has been on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2000.

fortress walls with people in foreground

people stand outside fortress walls

stone walls of fortress with arches and turrets
aerial view of inside of walled fortress

stone walls and columns with etched graffiti

fortress facade with entryway

arched doorway

people stand in corridor beyond doorway of barrel-vaulted room

four geometric designs inset in squares in barrel vault

detail of deteriorating stone arched entryway

view through crumbling stone arched doorway into another room

tops of buildings in foreground, arched fortress wall in background

view from inside fortress with paved atrium surrounded by arcade

view into atrium within fortress, people in background

view down long corridor with stone barrel vault ceiling and arches

view of interior of fortress

interior view of fortress with many levels

interior of fortress showing tops of buildings

Figure 32–49 Al-Ukhaider Fortress

 

My favorite piece of architecture during this visit in Baghdad has to be the Zumurrud Khatun Mausoleum (Figure 50–59). It’s another gem from the Abbasid period, which displays the unique nine-layered, conical muqarnas dome rising over tombs of important Imams or political figures (Figure 51). But this was built by sitt Zubayada, the mother and wife of Abbasid Caliphs. She commissioned the building of the mausoleum while she was still alive.4 The mausoleum is situated in Sheikh Marouf Cemetery in the Karkh side of Baghdad (Figure 58). The tomb is enclosed in an octagonal structure that supports the base of the conical dome. The muqarnas dome is pierced with openings letting daylight to the inside of the tomb space creating a mesmerizing play of light and shadow. On the outside, the walls of the enclosure are covered with geometric patterns and pointed arches. When we arrived at the tomb, we were met by a poor family that lived in or near the cemetery. They offered to guide us for a little tip. The man told us that all his family is buried next to the mausoleum and that’s where he will be, too. He guided me up the narrow and claustrophobic staircase from inside the room of the mausoleum to the top of the base where I had a good look at the cemetery and Baghdad at large. I was able to take a closer look at the muqarnas dome on the outside (Figure 54–56). I saw it is cracking and splitting and noticed the steel cables trying to hold it together. I worried about this beautiful and forgotten spot and its eventual loss if the Iraqi state continues to neglect its monuments.

brick mausoleum with octagonal base and muqarnas dome

Figure 50 Zummurd Khatun Mausoleum, 1202

 

view up into the muqarnas dome

Figure 51 Conical muqarnas dome from the inside. Three windows and small holes in the muqarnas dome allow daylight to enter the space below.

 

octagonal mausoleum with ornate brickwork and muqarnas dome

detail of ornamental brickwork, palm fronds in foreground

Figure 52–53 Ornate brickwork and pointed arches from the Abbasid period

 

exterior of muqarnas dome

steel ladder leads to the top of exterior of muqarnas dome

detail of cracked and degraded stone exterior

Figure 54–56 Muqarnas dome on the outside shows cracking and wearing away of some parts

 

dome with ornate patterned brickwork

Figure 57 Domed entrance to the mausoleum from the later Ottoman period

 

view over cemetery with cityscape in background

Figure 58 Sheikh Marouf Cemetery where Zummurd Khatun Mausoleum is located

 

crumbling headstones made of brick

Figure 59 The current state of the cemetery

 

On the way back from Al-Ukhaider, which is some 100 miles from Baghdad, my mom and others suggested to the Midalaal crew to organize a tour of historic sites in Baghdad. They welcomed the idea and planned one right away. So on a nice sunny day in the mild winter of Baghdad, we went to the Midalaal café, had our Arabic coffees, and set out to walk around. We arrived at the Abbasid Palace, and while others went to look at another historical building nearby, I beat the crowd to the palace to take some photos. I entered the quiet courtyard of the palace through a monumental iwan, ornate with geometric and vegetal designs characteristic of Islamic architecture (Figure 60–66). Historians are not sure if this structure was actually used as a palace or if it was a madrasa (school). Its design is very similar to Al-Madrasa Al-Mustansyria in Baghdad. Opposite to the entrance and on the other side of the courtyard, stands another elaborately ornate iwan, which is flanked by the most striking design element of this two-story palace, muqarnas-decorated arcades. It was the first time I saw anything like it.

single-story building with patterned brickwork, pointed arch iwan

Figure 60 Entrance to the Abbasid Palace

 

iwan with pointed arch and ornate brickwork

Figure 61 Entry iwan of the Abbasid Palace

 

detail of intricate diagonal patterned brickwork

patterned brick with quatrefoil stars in squares

serpentine column along the corner of brickwork building

ornamental stonework with floral shapes inside hexagon pattern

star-shaped patterns inset into brickwork

Figure 62–66 Geometric and vegetal brickwork designs on the exterior walls and entry iwan of the Abbasid Palace in Baghdad

 

courtyard with fountain and two-story arcade with pointed arched and ornamental brickwork

view of fountain in courtyard with double arcade

ornately decorated pointed archways

double arcade with palm trees in background

view into courtyard with four men near fountain

view into courtyard, palm tree rise above double arcade

Figure 67–72 Interior courtyard of the palace

 

view up into muqarnas arch

muqarnas arcade

Figure 73–74 Muqarnas-decorated arcades

 

References:

1 Sirri, Omar. “Seeing the Political in Baghdad's Shopping Malls.” LSE Middle East Centre, July 2, 2020. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2020/01/09/seeing-the-political-in-baghdads-shopping-malls/.

2 Barbarani, Sofia. “Amiriyah Bombing 30 Years on: 'No One Remembers' the Victims.” Conflict | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, February 17, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/2/13/amiriyah-bombing-30-years-on-no-one-remembers-the-victims.

3 Bassem, Wassem. “Stepping Back 1,300 Years into Iraq's Ukhaidir Palace.” Al-Moniter, December 3, 2015. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2015/12/iraq-karbala-ukhaidir-palace-neglect-history.html.

4 Al-Hadithi, Atta, and Hana' Abdul Khaliq. “The Conical Domes in Iraq.” Baghdad: Ministry of Information, Directorale General of Antiquities, 1974.

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