Soon after more than 100 of Baghdad's artists gathered today at Hawar Art Gallery, its avuncular, irreverent owner, Qassam Alsabti, lugged out a sprawling white board. He propped it against the wall, and his helpers carted in cut-off plastic bottles topped with paint. In a break with the past -- and all its weary cliches and slogans -- nothing was scripted.
Get to work, he motioned with a smile.
And so they did. In green, black, red and yellow, the pent-up emotions of three decades of Saddam Hussein's rule spread across a public canvas. "Freedom first," one artist wrote. "For the sake of democracy," wrote another. There was bitterness at the past: "Saddam fell, Iraq did not." There was anger at U.S. forces: "Long live the Iraqi people and down with America." And in one corner, painted in red, was a portrait of a slain woman sprawled across a man's lap, a victim of war painted by Karim Khalil.
"We gave a lot of martyrs," he said, bitter at the bloodshed. "It was like an earthquake, and we're only beginning to see its impact."
For the artists like Khalil gathered in the gallery of stucco walls and stone floors, a new era had dawned in Baghdad. But for a community that prides itself on understanding the soul of the city, no one seemed to know what would come next.
Gone were the subtle battles with censorship that gave rise to an almost imperceptible language of dissent over 35 years. Gone, too, was the modicum of privilege the artists enjoyed under Hussein if they chose not to defy his rule. Ahead was hope for a newfound freedom of expression and an end to the isolation that made proud Baghdad a backwater. Some eagerly predicted a renaissance that evoked the glory of Baghdad's lusty poets and original thinkers.
There were also ominous signs for this group. Some spoke of the chaos and looting that wrecked the city, most painfully its national museum and library. Others questioned U.S. intentions. Many worried about resurgent religious forces and their ability to end the secularism that gave Baghdad an artistic liberty that has gradually receded in most Arab cities.
"We are starting from the beginning," said Alsabti, his long gray hair swept back.
Over the weekend, Alsabti sent out word to his friends and colleagues to gather at his gallery, an island of calm in turbulent Baghdad. A nationalist and iconoclast, he had an overtly political intention in mind -- to form an artists' union and begin a weekly newspaper that would take its name from his gallery -- "Hawar," or "Dialogue." But in a city with no working telephone lines, no electricity and precious few means to communicate, it was an excuse to see friends and colleagues after weeks of war.
"Thank God for your safety," one after another said as they shook hands.
Alsabti was a gregarious host. "We've been looking for you for a week," he said, pinching the cheek of one friend. "What are your losses?" he asked another. To more than a few, he divulged a ribald joke that prompted peals of laughter.
"If I had a telephone, believe me, 1,000 people would have come," he said.
But his cheer bore little resemblance to his mood. Like others, he had the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities on his mind and the destruction of its trove of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts. Many blamed U.S. forces for not intervening to stop the demolition -- deepening their skepticism of the American presence.
"When I see an occupier, am I happy? Looting the museum, burning the National Library, robbing the Saddam Center for Arts? The great America is not able to exert control over gangs of thieves?" Alsabti asked.
Alsabti was no enemy of Hussein's rule. He said he stayed in the Baath Party until 1994, when he left by shouting vulgarities at the local boss. He was small fry, he said, and escaped trouble. Like some other artists, he recalled the government's patronage -- state-sponsored exhibitions and subsidized supplies in the heady 1970s. While few Iraqis could afford a $150 exit tax, artists were exempted from the charge when they traveled abroad. They were coddled and, in turn, created one of the Arab world's most vibrant art scenes.
Others with Alsabti were less sentimental about Hussein's rule, but no less angry about the U.S. presence and the war that preceded it.
"It's the Mongol invasion all over again," Khalil said, sitting with his friends, Salman Radi, a sculptor, and Saad Hadi, an art critic.
"The first thing I want is for the Americans to leave," he said. "They came to liberate us, we thank them, now they should go."
Already, he said, he was hard at work on a new sculpture of marble. It portrayed a man -- unsubtly representing the United States -- attacking a woman symbolizing Iraq. He hoped to have the three-foot-high piece finished by week's end.
"There may be gratitude for overthrowing Saddam, but the fall of Saddam is not the end of the story," Hadi said, shaking his head in agreement. "The chains we had were of iron. Now they may be of silk."
Radi, a 40-year-old who started smoking when the war began, disagreed.
"All the Iraqi people, without exception, were anxious and eager for the Americans to arrive," he said. "Even if the devil came, they would shake hands with him to get rid of Saddam Hussein."
As he spoke, Hadi looked down at a book on the table, shaded by a palm tree. It was a tattered work on Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, written in 1901 by Julius Wellhausen and translated into Arabic. Like many seated at the gallery, Hadi had been taken aback at long-banned Shiite celebrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands this week to the holy city of Karbala.
For much of Hussein's rule, Baghdad was a symbol of secularism, with a free-wheeling night life, women's rights and, at times, brutal repression of religion, which the Baath Party early on saw as a cause of Arab stagnation. In later years, in a desperate search for legitimacy, the government pandered to Islam. It shuttered nightclubs, emblazoned the words "God is greatest" on the flag and touted its religious credentials by initiating the construction of two of the world's largest mosques and lavishing gifts on prominent shrines.
Hadi and the others said they believed the religious forces unleashed in the 1990s would come to dominate Iraq's landscape in coming years. Already rumors were swirling around the gallery that an Islamic party had seized the Baghdad fashion house.
"Religious extremism is the biggest threat," Hadi said. "It will come to the surface."
The prospect of a new source of censorship was unsettling. For decades, Iraqi artists -- those willing to engage the state -- had searched for cracks in the system. Some like Khalil chose not to push the envelope. "You can express without declaring," he said.
Others sought more creative ways to maintain their independence -- in the words of Hadi, "by symbolism and hints."
For much of the 1990s, Iraqi theater was a forum for sometimes titillating criticism, a rare outlet for dissent in the state's suffocating repression. In one memorable play in 1998, "Playground of the Hypocrites," an Iraqi was detained and asked to sit down by his interrogator. He was then told to confess. But, he asked, where is the boiling oil, the whips and the ceiling fan he should be hanging from? When told there was nothing of the sort, he warned his interrogator, "They're going to fire you."
Radi said he, too, tried to play along the edges. In 1996, he completed a sculpture of a tattered chair, fallen to the ground. Its back was iron bars, its legs were broken. It was meant to represent power, and it was rejected for a state-sponsored exhibition.
Now, the artists said, those rules are gone, and many at the Hawar gallery seemed overwhelmed. They complained about the bewildering explosion of parties, organizations and movements in Baghdad that they knew little about. They mentioned words like "globalization" and worried about what it meant for a country isolated since U.N. sanctions were imposed in 1990.
They said they longed for modernity -- the Internet and cell phones -- but felt unsure about the impact of newfound freedom.
"For decades, we were used to watching ourselves. Now you can think with words," said Mohammed Thamer, a poet. "But to talk loudly and to think loudly takes time. Freedom needs practice, and it takes practice to be free."
To Thamer and his friends, sharing sweet lemon tea, the shadow of Hussein still loomed large. He remained, in spirit at least. Some of them joked that the statue pulled down in Firdaus Square after U.S. forces entered Baghdad was, in fact, a fake.
"I don't believe Saddam Hussein's gone," said Mohammed Rasim, a painter. "He's like God. Not because he's good. But whenever we opened our eyes, we saw him, his picture, his sculpture, songs about him, poems about him. He was everywhere, even in dreams."