In so many ways, Nuha al-Radi, a renowned Iraqi artist and diarist, was ageless. Her quick quips offered running commentaries on all matters political and absurd, and her art was rendered with whimsy and wit.
"It was her optimism as she bore witness to others' suffering," said Wasmaa Chorbachi, a noted Iraqi-born art historian who lives in Boston.
Al-Radi's humor declared itself through her sparkling dark eyes. Tucked behind her ear, a fresh flower -- which she never failed to find, even in the most desolate places -- reminded everyone that she had come from afar, from some perfumed garden in Mesopotamia. It was her signature protest against the turbulence of war and exile in what she liked to call the "Muddled East."
Al-Radi, 63, died of pneumonia in Beirut on Aug. 31, a complication of leukemia. She had been diagnosed with a rare form of the disease late last year but had kept it a secret.
Last weekend, her family and friends laid her to rest, lowering her body on a bed of jasmine into a grave in a shady forest of pines in the heart of Beirut, one of her favorite adopted homes in a journey that took her from Iraq to Lebanon, Britain, the United States and Yemen, among other places.
Tonight in Beirut, seven cantors accompanied by percussionists will chant happy verses from the Koran, an old Baghdad tradition observed 10 days into mourning, at her mother's apartment by the sea in a celebration of her life.
Her sister, Selma, an archaeologist who lives in New York, traveled to Beirut when al-Radi told her she was coming down with a cold, three days before she died. "She was so inventive -- I have been looking at catalogues of her art. It is incredible," she said, adding that she planned to track down all her sister's pieces in the United States, India, Pakistan, Europe and the Middle East to have them photographed for a book.
I first met al-Radi in the fall of 1990, just after Iraq invaded Kuwait but before U.S.-led forces retaliated. I was trying to learn the sentiments of Iraqi artists and intellectuals, and met her through an Iraqi architect. Over tea in her living room, she talked about her fear that Iraqi civilians would face reprisals, and about her exhibitions in London, New York and Washington. One hour into the visit, my eyes fell on a brochure on her coffee table.
I suddenly realized that I owned one of her works. It had been a housewarming gift, a green ceramic tray inlaid with saffron, mauve and tangerine, the hues of Iraqi sunsets, with yellow-orange braided-serpent handles. I made an instant connection with a woman who had intimately experienced two cultures and whose experiences had become a study in the art of survival.
In 1992, the British literary magazine Granta published her wartime journal about the daily travails of family and friends as they struggled through power cuts, fuel shortages and other privations. The chronicle describes the resentment that built up against the United States, even among privileged Baghdad residents, who joined the rest of the population in its aversion to the punitive consequences of sanctions and bombings. The journal was published as a book in 1998, and a revised edition was reissued in the United States in 2003.
Last year, she again found her way to Baghdad after a seven-year absence. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in April, she kept a journal for 28 days, excerpts of which were also printed in Granta. She described people digging up mass graves in their sad searches for their lost relatives, and U.S. soldiers kicking up dust. The only "shiny things are the hundreds of new mosques -- huge, bulbous growths," she wrote.
Al-Radi was relieved to find her 83-year-old mother and her frail aunt Naera still in fighting spirits at their riverside house. They had left the safety of their home in Beirut to spend the days of combat in Baghdad, out of solidarity with its people. (Her mother walked into a bank during a robbery, and one day, she blurted out to an American officer, "We don't want you.")
Her writings were sometimes droll. Umm Hussein, the caretaker of al-Radi's property in Baghdad, kept walking into swarms of honeybees in the long grass. "It's a good thing she's covered from head to toe," she wrote.
But al-Radi's impressions were also sadly prophetic: "If Iraq is going to be the showcase for the democracy that's going to hit the muddled east, miracles have to happen."
Al-Radi was born in Baghdad in 1941 and spent 10 of her formative years in India, where her father was the Iraqi ambassador. When the British-backed monarchy that had ruled Iraq was overthrown in 1958, he retired from the diplomatic corps and the family returned to Baghdad. Al-Radi moved to London, where she studied ceramics at the Byam Shaw School of Art. When the Baath Party took over Iraq in 1969, the al-Radis moved to Beirut, where she enrolled at the American University of Beirut, where she eventually taught art.
Childhood friends such as Wassim Tchourbachi, a relative of art historian Chorbachi, suspected al-Radi knew she was dying. In her diary, she wrote about taking a tour of Baghdad to see her artwork, which was scattered in hotels and banks. With an American television crew, she entered a Hussein palace where one of her murals adorned a wall. "It was a forbidden area then as it is now for us Iraqi mortals," she said about the place.
The panel, an earthly paradise on a 50-foot wall, "had taken a year of my life. Such a strange feeling. In history, one always reads of such-and-such a work being destroyed by flood, earthquake, war, and here it was. I am part of history."