Departing McClatchy rotator Jack Dolan of the Miami Herald let his successor tag along when he and Laith, one of our Iraqi reporters, toured the Baghdad Museum in Rasheed, the old part of the city. Along the way we passed three places that Laith assured us had opened as night clubs. Since he wrote the story last year about liquor stores reopening in Baghdad, look for a feature down the road about Baghdad-after-dark that doesn't include firefights and wounded victims.
The old part of the capital featured the noisy panoply of Baghdad's reemergence as a cosmopolitan city. For sale on sidewalks were beauty parlor chairs, beaded curtains, exotic room screens, red pillows with "KISS" and 'I LOVE YOU" embroidered in white and ice cream in parlors. Iraqi soldiers stood, weapons unslung, sipping soft drinks from glass bottles. A juice store sold Middle Eastern smoothies made from melons, cantaloupes, pineapples, limes, lemons, carrots, bananas, pears, grapes, pomegranate and grapefruit. Less than $2 a glass.
Like the museum itself, a 19th century granite statue of Marouf Alrusafi, an Iraqi poet, had somehow survived the American invasion, Iraqi insurgency, low-grade civil war and sectarian attacks. Standing with feet apart, left arm across his chest, the old poet seemed to be declaring that, as a museum booklet states, the purpose of art is "to protect the inheritance of fathers and ancestors."
Established in 1970, the museum enshrines historical tableaux from the city's 19th and early 20th century life. In one room, 25 reel-to-reel tapes play music from more than 50 years ago in the rooms of each exhibit. A Minerva radio, made of blonde wood, sits like a sentinel from the middle of last century.
In front of a room depicting a bride's party, sixth-grader Deveh says she enjoys the scene because, on the floor, a girl about her age is frozen in time, chasing chocolates cast by the bridesmaids. Zainab Mousa Altaii, a government interpreter, explains that, just as today, some of older women wear 'abaya,' the black garment covering most everything, while younger women wear contemporary dresses.
A coffee house the size of a two-car garage shows men, and men only, playing dominoes, sipping tea and watching two cocks fight. In the Al-Zorkhana room, or House of Strength, men lift what look like iron bowling pins and other weights to the frenetic tempo of a drum; this form of step aerobics originally came from Iran.
Other rooms show a soothsayer, money changers, a spinner, a mullah teaching formal Arabic, a saddler, seamstress, a healer of the soul, a half-Egyptian singer famous since the 1880s and, a personal favorite, "the scoundrel," a dashing, mustachioed dude who was also known as a playboy and the hero of the area. Not a favorite: the Circumcisor.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion, the dark and dusty museum lay both vacant and vulnerable. But one old man, Mohammed Kadhum, stood outside with his machine gun every day for months to protect it. "Nobody bothered to loot it because there were so many banks in the neighborhood," he recalls. "Everybody went to rob them."
In its own modest and completely underfunded way (the building isn't even air conditioned), the Baghdad Museum tries to remind today's residents and survivors of what Abu Amr Ibn Al-Ala once wrote about the capital: "One who has lived and died in Baghdad...as if he has moved from heaven to heaven."
Even with violence and death at a six-year low, Baghdadis need to be reminded that their city once dominated the civilization of the region. This dark musty building shows how Iraqi and Baghdadi culture for centuries, according to a guidebook, was "full of the famous personalities of the world, such as poets, men of letters and scientists."