“Deftly sketched, simple and poetic, Dreaming of Baghdad drags politics down from the realm of the abstract into the mud, fear, and loneliness of personal experience and psychological ruin that is life under dictatorship. This is a landscape of clandestine struggle and crushing political defeat, of familiar old streets and the alienating structures of exile. Zangana’s story is heartbreaking, but her clarity and resilience inspire awe.” Christian Parenti
In 1970s Iraq, the Ba'ath Party was at the height of its influence in the Middle East and popularity throughout the West. But a group of activists recognized the disastrous potential of the regime as its charismatic leader, Saddam Hussein, became more powerful. Haifa Zangana was among those resisters, a small group of whom were captured and imprisoned at Abu Ghraib.
From the distance of time and place, Zangana writes during her first years of forced exile from her beloved country about the time of her incarceration, the agonizing loss of comrades to torture and death in prison, the haunted quality of life so far away from home and family, and the ways in which memory conspires to make us forget what sometimes is most dear to us.
About the Author
In the 1970s, Haifa Zangana was imprisoned and tortured for actively resisting Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. A journalist, artist, and activist, Zangana is the author of The City of Widows and co-founder of Solidarity for an Independent and Unified Iraq. She contributes to the Guardian , Red Pepper , and Al-Ahram Weekly and writes a weekly column for Al Quds.
Read an Excerpt
I arrived in London a month ago. This city is gray, gray. My first observation about the English is that they are trained to look straight ahead; they are so involved in their private lives that they ignore the person next to them. How I wish I could find a haven where I could settle down forever. Sometimes I feel real joy. It is the beginning of the evening.
Will we ever return to live with the people we love, the ones whom we have lost? Here there is much harshness, little love. My room is small and I share the kitchen and bathroom with others. My young neighbor insists on leaving her dog locked indoors all day, and, as I am the only unemployed person in the house, I have to listen to its constant barking.
In a hopeless gesture to dispel the grayness of the weather, the walls, the furniture, the coats, and the briefcases, I have secretly painted my room red and black. The result: anguish of a different kind. Lying on my bed in the center of the room, I spend hours and hours watching TV.
I might apply to one of the Arab newspapers or magazines for work as a correspondent; that would help me sort out the visa problem.
For years I believed I was immune to emotion, nostalgia, and dreams of returning to the places of my childhood. Now I am sitting here alone in the room I have just finished painting red and black, surrounded by books, papers, and a few paintings and posters, waiting apprehensively for the next news bulletin on TV. Yes, after the ads, the newscaster will read a few items about the Iran-Iraq war. They will show footage in which both sides in the conflict will claim victory. What we will see for the next few years are the images of men stepping over corpses, all smiles for the cameras. High and mighty is the rifle! Glory to the victory of death!
What a silent city! A city crowded with soldiers, dead sons, husbands and fathers, a city that insists on its own silence. But I am lucky, I tell myself and others, lucky to have left my own country years ago with a residue of human feeling intact. I feel happy and sad simultaneously. These are included in my plague of emotions: longing for the family house; longing to sit with the family at the table at dinnertime; longing to wander aimlessly through streets and alleys; to count the columns in Al-Rasheed Street, the main street in Baghdad which is crowded with passersby, cars, and peddlers; to watch a laborer uncover a shrine of an imam,* as he commences some long-delayed maintenance work. This is the face of my plague of emotions: a parade of ghosts wearing uniforms and sharing one body, chanting glory to death as they raise their hands in salute in unison. Against such a backdrop, does color have meaning? Do words have meaning? What has happened to our childhood friends? Why do we feel so anguished when we know the danger of standing on the edge of a cliff?
We creep back to our country quietly, one after the other, imagining that people are the same as when we left them, that the places are the same, that even the date palms are the same. And even the silence is the same. Silence and the persistent fear of others, no matter who. The children of this country of soldiers and the dead fix me forever with their gaze.
I pace round and round in my room, throw the book I am reading aside. Round and round a room whose total area does not exceed three square meters. I listen to the dog barking. Art during wartime is nothing but a safety valve. I think about how artists continue to work regardless of their art's lack of immediate impact. The body's defense mechanism says, Stand aside and smile bitterly. Thus the distanced observer can smile when the long-distance runner loses the race.
Often our questioning leads us into endless corridors. Our questions resemble magical keys to a gate that leads to another gate, continuing ad infinitum. Childhood is always the question, and the logical answer is adulthood. The mind is boundless, and it is the greater part of life. It is an area where no human can plant his country's flag and say, This is my land.
Regarding the reasons for our failure, I do not agree with you. Lack of an opposition is not the problem, but its dissolution.
Fear is our friend and comrade; we grew up with it. It is closer to us than anything else. We have lived so long with fear, we cannot live without it.
How tired we are of moving from country to country, endlessly choosing between submission and submission.
This morning I received a letter from a friend who now lives in Sweden. He writes, "My heart bleeds when I remember my country. I am very tired. Do you know I have fond memories of the goulnaz flower? My father used to like its transparent red color, and when he died I tended the flowers in our garden. For two years, I have lived far from home, garden, flowers."
I feel exhausted from not sleeping for nights, always pursued by the same dream. It has become so familiar that I call it my recurring dream. I might send you details of it in my next letter.
Here is my recurring dream: All of a sudden, I find myself in an airport I left years ago. I panic and feel sick. Here is my body recognizing fear before fear reaches my brain, recognizing images of torture, stored not in memory but in my body's cells. My heart palpitates and I think: When will they stop staring at me? How can I hide the trembling of my body and the pallor of my face? My body commences to claim its natural rights, to pass water, for example. I have undoubtedly taken the wrong plane. I was on my way to Madrid. How did I get here?
A man approaches me, and then another, and another. The circling is becoming tiresome. My teeth chatter and, without thinking, I smile, apologizing for a crime I have not committed. I smile at everybody, at the same time searching for a familiar face. Although all the faces are familiar, I cannot recognize one. The interrogation starts. Questions are asked, first by one person, then by others, all of whom are like students trying to outdo each other.
Why are you back? When did you leave? Why didn't you come back before? Where do you live? Who are your friends, your family, your relatives? I am so frightened I can't answer, so the crowd becomes aggressive, believing I am refusing to cooperate. Where is ...? What have you ...?
It's a dream ... it's a dream. Soon I'll wake up. Calm down and you'll find yourself in bed. I can't breathe so I push the nearest man away. I want to breathe ... air. Another man replaces the first. I push him away. Another one replaces him. I remain in one spot, frightened, trembling, about to suffocate. I start screaming. Horror! I lose my sense of wholeness. Such fear rising in my body! My hands, eyes, lungs, and feet. And I start to run through the streets, avoiding looking back, swearing not to return to that place, even in my dreams. What do you do if inside you have a wound as big as yourself? What do you do if the wound inside you is your very existence?
Somewhere I read this sentence, but can't recall the writer: I am leaving but I promise to return when I am master of darkness and light. Do you know who wrote it?
I know that my city, Baghdad, is dark. Even during the day, frightened women say, "Why is it night?" A sleepy man says, "I will sing for the love I long for."
I know that the inhabitant of the city is a sailor carrying his kit bag, ready to escape. I know that the statues in all its plazas are for but one man. Yet deep down in my heart is the longing, the yearning for a moment when the sailor will put down his kit bag, relax, and gaze happily at children's drawings empty of weapons and soldiers.
Once again I go back to painting, feeling apprehensive, as if I am about to cross another shore. I was asked by a girl I met a few days ago, What about heritage? Why don't you paint what represents your heritage? I was taken aback by the question. I thought, didn't she look closely at my paintings? Didn't she see the human being with head bent, with limbs amputated, surrounded by walls? I replied, Heritage is a coffin we are forced to carry on our shoulders, then asked to run with on unfamiliar, rugged land. The coffin carries a warning: fragile, handle with care. My main concern now is to rework the painting so that it conveys my feelings. Hence my decision, like many other Iraqi artists, to make abstract painting. It is a way to distance ourselves from the nightmares and delusions we have inherited over the years.
Could that decision also be a step toward dialogue with the West? Western artists have been through the same dilemma. Painter Max Ernstsaid, "A horrible futile war had robbed us of five years of our existence. We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true, and beautiful. My works of that period were not meant to attract but to make people scream."
Is sadness the first and last resting place? Is it the element that shatters dreams? Agony, stay away and let people wander through the forests of their dreams. At the end of the corridor stands a girl talking to the sun about her fear of darkness, raising a finger, entreating each and every one of us, Is it not time to restore to hope some of its glory?CHAPTER 2
Zino was a long muddy road surrounded by houses built of rock brought from the mountains nearby. In the village there were a number of alleys starting at the muddy road and ending at the foot of the rugged mountains. The main road in the village was narrow, not because of any error in the original plan, but owing to the shopkeepers' persistence in displaying half of their wares outside. Thus sacks of rice, wheat, and barley sat beside children's clothes, rubber shoes, fabrics, sewing needles, and cotton, together with heaps of old magazines, religious and Marxists tracts in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, with a few publications in Kurdish. In small wooden boxes were knives, forks, spoons, and kitchen utensils. Next to these were all kinds of pills, including painkillers and pills to combat indigestion. Believing Zino to be a popular resort, visited by thousands of tourists daily, the shopkeepers insisted on exhibiting postcards and local handicrafts. Each day at five p.m. (unlike other places, night visits Zino early), the shopkeepers hauled their goods back into their shops, waiting to re-exhibit them the next morning. Zino women were always in a hurry. On them fell the responsibilities of looking after husbands and children, sewing, tapestry, and weaving. Bedspreads had to be ready for winter. Little pieces of material were carefully collected and arranged in beautiful patterns for young brides. Women had to gather wood from the mountains and load it on the backs of mules, or their own backs if they had no mules. They helped their husbands farm and build temporary summer huts made from leaves and branches in the hope of renting them to tourists.
Because of the village's location on the Iraq-Iran border, one profession dominated village life: the black market. Zino was a free zone under the control of no government. The men carried the most modern weapons, and from time to time the women wore expensive jewelry. Trafficking included everything: weapons, carpets, fabrics, ammunition, hunting guns, fishing rods, leather belts, books, American toys, boxes of chocolates, packets of tea. After midnight, the men headed for the distant mountains, riding their mules or walking on foot across the border and returning with items for sale.
In the daytime, the village road was crowded with salesmen, black marketers, mules, and builders carrying their loads of stones. Children played in the street while old women looked on from their doorways. Houses in Kurdistan were not built all at one time. A family started by building one room and the toilet and kitchen, then added another room whenever they had the money, resuming work with the help of their neighbors. Sometimes the new room, with its low, unfurnished walls became a refuge for dogs. Fitting windows and doors was a task that took months because the materials had to be brought from a distant city. Openings for windows and doors remained empty during this time, and children would climb in through them when they got home from school, their cloth satchels full of books and pencils.
I was eight years old when my father took me with him to Zino to visit our Kurdish relatives. He was so proud to see me reading and writing Arabic that he never taught me his mother tongue, Kurdish. And although he was fluent in Kurdish, Persian, and Assyrian, Arabic eluded him.
We arrived in the village at noon. The road was empty and the shops were open with half their contents outside on the street. It was the time for prayer, lunch, and siesta. We headed for a half-built house, passing an incomplete fence, and walked through a room with no door or window. As we reached a wooden door, Mam* Mahmoud opened it, welcoming and hugging my father and me.
The room was almost empty except for a huge wooden box in one corner. On it there were blankets, cotton covers, and round pillows. From the other corner came the smell of tea brewing in a samovar and the scent of burning coal. I was fascinated by a beautiful, multi-colored Persian rug which gave the room a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
A few minutes later, Mam Mahmoud's wife, Mam Jin, walked in carrying a tray with four tea cups. She put it beside the samovar and shook hands with my father, then hugged me. Since I could understand very little of what they were saying in Kurdish, I occupied myself by watching cubes of sugar dissolve in my tea, which I stirred continuously, making enough noise to attract the adults' attention. I expected my father to be angry, as he would have been at home. Instead he remained silent and relaxed, sipping his tea as if time had lost its importance.
In that room, my father's presence was different from how he seemed in the city. He questioned Mam Mahmoud about our relatives and what they were doing, and he talked about the city. Mam Mahmoud talked about problems with border guards, and how times had changed.
Mam Jin was silent most of the time. When she spoke, she asked my father to make an appointment with a gynecologist for her. Mam Mahmoud was silent until finally he commented that it was getting late. I whispered, "Why can't we stay in Zino?" Noticing the way my father sat, and looking into his green eyes, I could see what it meant to come back to a place where he could stretch out, touch familiar things, and feel safe. I felt the urge to touch him, to make sure it really was him, the man who was lost to me in the big city. He sensed my feeling and stroked my hair tenderly. I whispered, "Why can't we stay here?" He did not reply. Living in Baghdad had been his dream, as being married to an Arab woman had been. Being proud of a daughter excelling in her studies was also his dream. "The cold weather has arrived early this year," said Mam Mahmoud as he quietly stepped outside, on the lookout for the last birds of summer. He walked ahead of us toward one of the shops, which, unlike the rest, was locked up. He unlocked the door, and from the darkness within came an unforgettable smell. In the years that followed, and in moments of despair, the memory of that smell became for me a window opening to the sky. It was the smell of darkness, humidity, and mounds of Persian carpets rolled up in a certain way to keep them safe from moths. I jumped on them, and as my father gave instructions, I helped Mam Mahmoud pull one out. He unrolled the carpet in front of the shop. How beautiful it was! I stood there gazing at the endless patterns of bright colors with fascination. Moving closer, I felt the wooly texture and tried to imitate and upstage my father in savoring its smell. Mam Mahmoud laughed and hugged me again. We bought two carpets that day. Then we started our journey back to the city.CHAPTER 3
I was twenty years old. I stood in the middle of a room in front of four men. My boxes of books and pamphlets, a huge desk, recording machines, and a sofa were against one of the walls; leftovers of a meal remained on a tray. The man sitting behind the desk did not say much. His name was Nazim Kazar, and he was the head of the Iraqi secret intelligence. He was of medium height with dark skin, and wore sunglasses with gold rims. He had on a dark suit and held a rosary. He divided his attention equally between it and me, as if debating something.
He was lord and master of the palace Qasr al-Nihaya, the detention center for political prisoners in Iraq. He knew everything that took place within its four walls. He received visitors and delegated them to various rooms. While the government was maintaining its façade of civility and the Communist Party's main opposition was busy polishing a few bricks in the hope of securing a couple of seats in the government, this man had absolute freedom in arresting, torturing, and executing detainees in the labyrinth of that castle.
Four years later, at noon on a hot, sunny day, the master of the palace, Nazim Kazar, suffered the same fate: he was arrested, tortured, and executed by his own government.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dreaming of Baghdad"
Copyright © 2009 Hamid Dabashi.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Hamid Dabashi,
Back to Nawchilican,
Heart, What Have You Seen?,
Afterword by Ferial J. Ghazoul,