A cool, gentle breeze blew off the Tigris River, drifting over the white-washed walls of the Hawar Art Gallery. With his friends, Maher Samarai paused to appreciate the moment, then pondered Baghdad on the eve of what looked like certain war.
As an Iraqi, the city is his capital. As a resident, it is his soul. And as it stands on the verge of violence, Samarai spent long moments staring out at the towering palm tree that leans over the gallery, its fluttering fronds providing shade and the reassurance of something normal.
"For a week, I can't sleep. Really," Samarai finally said, methodically thumbing his string of blue worry beads. "I worry about the bridges, the homes, the beautiful buildings, our artistic scene that we built after 1991 that is going to be smashed. A lot of artists have left for cities outside Baghdad, and there is no guarantee we will gather again."
Baghdad has become a city of lives interrupted. It is still deeply scarred by the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led air campaign to drive invading Iraqi troops from Kuwait returned Baghdad to the Third World. It is a city traumatized by 30 years of Baath Party rule. And it has become seized by dread as a 48-hour deadline before a U.S. attack ticks away.
President Bush's promise to Iraq's people that their "day of liberation is near" drew only smirks and disparaging insults from Samarai's group of friends, as they sipped sweetened lemon tea. "They're going to burn the forest to kill the fox. That's my idea," Samarai said.
Samarai and his friends recalled the words of Lt. Gen. Stanley Maude, the British commander who entered Baghdad in 1917 to end Ottoman rule. The phrase, famous among Iraqis, translates as "We came as liberators, not as conquerors." Maude soon died of cholera and was buried in Baghdad. The British, they noted, remained in Iraq and in control of its oil for decades.
"That's exactly what Bush said. Exactly the same sentence," Samarai said. "It's a flashback to when Iraqis were still without shoes, without clothes, and the oil went directly to other people's pockets. You can't trust the Westerners."
Sitting around the gallery's patio, the more immediate worries of Samarai and his friends revolved around Baghdad. To many Iraqis and other Arabs, the capital is perhaps more an idea than a reality, with a past richer than its present. The painters, sculptors and ceramists at Hawar looked beyond the city's concrete overpasses and wide boulevards, past the teeming, Shiite Muslim slum that takes its name from the Iraqi leader, President Saddam Hussein, and the urban sprawl that makes it a Middle Eastern Los Angeles.
In doing so, they waxed longingly about its soul, of the medieval caliph Harun Rashid, of the poet Mutanabi, of the philosopher Hallaj. They talked of its Sumerian and Babylonian past. And they indulged in hanin -- an Arabic word that means longing and nostalgia -- recalling the artists and singers who brought a renaissance in the 1960s and '70s to a city that had become a backwater.
To all of them, Baghdad remains an exception. It rivals Damascus and Cairo as one of the Arab world's great capitals, they said, but is separated from them by a desert. It was once the seat of the Arab world, but has thrived from the cultures of neighboring Iran and Turkey.
"The city is in my blood, the ruins of its palaces, the mosques and the river," Samarai said, over the soft strains of the call to prayer. "When I think of Baghdad, just the shadow of Baghdad, I think of gold and turquoise tiles. These two colors symbolize Baghdad."
Karim Khalil interrupted him. A sculptor born here, he said Baghdad was its painters and singers in the 1960s. It was the Tigris River that weaves through the city. It was the palm trees that lie like a blanket across gardens and farms on its riverbanks.
"Baghdad is me," he said.
"Bush is not coming because he loves Baghdad," Khalil went on. "Americans don't care about Baghdad because it is not their city. They don't care if they destroy or demolish it. Baghdad is our city."
His friend, Salman Radi, joined the conversation. "We all expect war is coming," he said.
Radi said he feared it would be like 1991, when bridges, buildings and, most painfully, a civilian shelter were destroyed. He remembered the stench of rotting bodies. "And now," he said, "they come again."
Radi lit a cigarette. He said he had quit for two years, but started again three days ago.
"We don't know the truth, we don't know what will happen," he said, after taking a long drag. "There's fear inside me, for a long time. What will happen? All I can say is that I don't know. Tragedies, I'm sure. But I don't know."
That uncertainty pervades the city, where streets began emptying and stores were shuttered today in anticipation of an attack.
Some of the artists groped for symbols of resilience, in a gesture, it seemed, to reassure themselves. One spoke of the palm trees that remain a dominant motif in Iraqi art. The desert winds bend them, push them to the ground, but they never break. Another spoke of the Tigris as a measure of national character. Whereas the Nile provided life to Egypt with its floods, he said, the surging Tigris wreaked destruction. Resisting its torrents made Iraqis that much stronger, giving them a well-deserved reputation for toughness.
"It's like slavery," Samarai said. "We can't stand foreigners to run our country. It is horrible for us. What makes me really nervous is that when I was listening to Bush's speech, he talked and I couldn't smell any truth."
A friend, a female artist sitting nearby, got up to leave the gallery. She discreetly set down a clip for an AK-47 assault rifle on the table in front of him. She left without saying a word.
"I borrowed the gun from a friend of mine," he said, in answer to his friends' stares. "I worry about thieves. I just bought a new car and a new computer and they're expensive. If I have to fight for my house, I will."
At those words, Saad Hadi, an art critic and journalist sitting next to him, shook his head.
"So many crises have visited Baghdad, and we have faced them," he said. "The soul of Baghdad will remain.
"Baghdad is not a real city. It may be the only city that stands between reality and imagination. Paris and London, they are real cities, but when you mention Baghdad, what comes to mind are the legends. Perhaps they'll add something new to the legend of Baghdad."