Page 3 of 4   <       >

By Anthony Shadid -- What Baghdad Has Lost

Today there is commerce of another sort, cheap goods disgorging into streets that no longer form intersections; the blast walls make them more a maze. Fish from the Tigris asphyxiate in a tub on a car. A pyramid of soft drinks sweats like its vendor. Girls' dresses splash yellow, orange and pink in a street of gray and brown.

Pictures stare out from the occasional cafes and even more occasional bookstores. King Ghazi's handsome gaze contrasts with King Faisal II's boyish innocence. A prince dons the sidara, a cap forever tied to an era.

In the days of those pictures, Owaiz boasted, he would eat no more than a piece of bread and a slice of cheese, then drink a glass of pomegranate juice from a stand called Hajji Zibala.

"It was like we ate an entire sheep," he said. "Now if we eat an entire sheep, we're still hungry. . . . The mood's just not there."

"Baghdad," he added, "is like a ghost to me."

******************************************************************************************************

Nostalgia is perhaps the defining sentiment in a disenchanted Arab world, punctuating conversations in Cairo and Beirut as it does in Baghdad. It marks the fact that something -- a measure of tolerance, a more libertine life, the cosmopolitanism of a confident culture -- has been lost.

Beirut had its downtown, before the civil war wrecked it, where families posed before the statue in Martyrs' Square. Now a preserve of the rich, it was once a crossroads of class, where cinemas abutted the fish market, and boutiques and banks shared space with vegetable vendors. Cairo had its downtown -- the Groppi cafe and cinemas such as Rivoli, Metro and Opera -- whose era ended with a fire in 1952 and a revolution that followed.

Not all was wonderful, of course. Cairo was far more pleasurable if you were a foreign resident, sometimes never speaking Arabic, than an Egyptian. Sightseers in Beirut could ignore a ring of misery on its outskirts, populated by disenfranchised Shiites. But few would dispute that identity, be it sect, ethnicity, even class, was more malleably defined. And nearly everyone would agree that chauvinism had yet to best tolerance.

"How do you tell that story without seeming too nostalgic for a world that in many respects we wouldn't want to bring back?" asked Mark Mazower, author of "Salonica, City of Ghosts." "That's the dilemma."

To Mazower, the nostalgia is not something singularly Arab, but rather a universal narrative that seems to capture failure as much as it does loss.

"Everybody is conscious of how difficult nation-states find it to establish stable and tolerant regimes," he said. "The nostalgia reflects the sense of their crisis today."

******************************************************************************************************

There is neither stability in postwar Baghdad, nor tolerance. But Maysoon al-Damluji stops short of blaming the American troops who have mostly left her capital.


<          3        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company