It feels as if I have a memory of every building that falls, crushed and broken, to the ground.
In 1998 my beloved, gentle, intellectual friend Mustafa spoke to me from Baghdad, his voice cracking as he described the damage of the four-day US/UK Christmas and Eid blitz on his country - damage to Munstanstarya University, thought to be the world’s oldest; the ninth-century Abbasid Palace with its great arches, which recreate themselves in reflections, in shadows, the inspiration of the inspired nearly a thousand years ago. The list went on and on.
Barely a month later Mustafa was dead. He died on 17 January, anniversary of the start of the first Gulf War. All who knew him said he died of a broken heart, destroyed by his inability any longer to protect his family and the city he loved so much.
My pain could never be the same as it is for those who are losing their loved ones, limbs, homes, history and all that is familiar to them in Mesopotamia, ‘land between two rivers’ (the great biblical Tigris and Euphrates), the ‘cradle of civilization’. It is only a second-best pain, but it surely feels like the real thing.
The Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad has not fallen yet. It is described as swaying, shaking and shuddering as the bombs fall. A BBC correspondent broadcasting from there described it as ‘a bit of a dump’.
‘Welcome home! Welcome home!’ the staff said to me repeatedly less than a month ago, beaming their generous welcome on the eve of disaster. Jemilla, one of the employees, ran home in her lunch hour to pick flowers from her garden for my room.
Mohammed, gentle historian, who works there to earn hard currency from foreign visitors, brought me another of his precious books on the Middle East - from a dwindling collection he sells to a few selected guests for ridiculously little. He needs the money desperately, but his lifetime’s collection must go to a loving home. The Orient Express restaurant has a 1920s model of the train, lovingly restored by Mohammed.
Susan, who runs the small shop in the lobby, is a survivor of the Ameriyah shelter bombing of the 1991 Gulf War, which killed at least 405 people, leaving just 8 survivors. Beautiful, poised, generous to a fault, dispensing sweets and sweetmeats far in excess of what one spends, she suffers terrible physical scars under her jeans and silk shirt. And worse mental ones - she lost her parents, brothers and sisters in the inferno when she was five years old. She still greets, hugs and feeds visitors from the countries who decimated her young life and incinerated her family.
A short time ago the proud hotel which is the Palestine was reduced to sheets sewn side-to-middle, so thin that a wrong move could rip them. For this visit of mine it boasted new sheets, fluffy towels, flowers and a large basket of fruit in my room. A small but huge triumph, a phoenix from the ashes of the most draconian UN embargo in history. The ‘bit of a dump’ deserves a book, not an article.
Next door is the Al Fanar Hotel, long a host to peace activists. Just before I left Baghdad they had a structural survey to assess whether it would withstand vibrations from bombings. Probably not was the verdict.
The welcome equals that of the Palestine. Making a local phone call from the lobby, I asked how much I owed.
‘Nothing, it is on the house,’ said the owner.
‘Everything is on the house here,’ I replied, referring to the fact that breakfast, dinner and much else seems to be complimentary.
‘Yes, of course, unless, unless.’ he replied, pointing skywards. Unless the house falls down.
My pain could never be the same as it is for those who are losing their loved ones, limbs, homes, history… It is only a second-best pain, but it surely feels like the real thing
Five minutes drive away, along the Tigris, past evocative Ottoman buildings, riverside restaurants which serve Iraq’s most famous dish, masgouf - freshly caught fish embalmed in herbs and slowly cooked over open wood fires - is the Ministry of Information. Correspondents in Iraq have a love-hate relationship with the Ministry. The world’s media have their offices there. Permits to travel are issued or refused there, ‘minders’ allotted and many hours consumed by wheedling, pleading. Usually it all works out - and, after all, one reminds oneself during moments of exasperation, it is a country which has been on a war footing for 20 years. With or without the regime, any nation would be paranoid.
The Ministry too has poignant memories - the elegant, educated official who hesitantly attempted to sell me his wife’s mink coat for $50, then broke down, tears streaming down his face: ‘Oh, what this embargo is doing to us.’
One ‘minder’ is known as Little Mohammed - there are two Mohammeds and the other, of course, is Big Mohammed. The little one is quiet, wistful, can fix anything - and adores children. On one visit I went in search of him and found him more wistful than ever. No greeting, no smile, utter withdrawal. Perhaps I had offended him in some way, I thought. In desperation I asked the question one seldom asks now in Iraq - tragedy invariably lurks in the answer.
‘How is your family, Mohammed?’
‘My wife, she is fine. And my little daughter. But my son, he died 40 days ago.’
When I last left, months before, they had been celebrating the safe arrival of a healthy baby. Forty days is the mourning period and he was working on that last, agonizing, poignant day because he too needed the money so desperately for his remaining small family.
The Ministry, like the waiting hours, is no more.
Not far away, near Rashid Street (named after Baghdad’s seventh-century founder) with its ancient, evocative, bustling, now battered, balconied buildings, is the first of the telephone exchanges to be hit.
I remembered a competition with an Italian photographer to find the most unusual picture of Iraq’s President, which abound everywhere. I won the first round: Panama hat and Hawaiian shirt. He bought dinner. Next day: ‘Come with me, I have won.’ It was a building-high portrait of the President in full military dress using a bright-pink telephone. I bought two dinners.
Tragedy struck a couple of years later when the telephone was repainted black. Now it has struck again, the building obliterated, terrified families unable to check on those they love. And did those irreplaceable architectural treasures, the buildings in Rashid Street, survive the blast, or was it a vibration too far?
Down what has become known as ‘snipers’ alley’ (in fact the ‘highway of death’ where the slaughter of fleeing military and civilians by the US took place after the ceasefire of 1991) is beautiful, battered Basra, formerly the ‘Venice of the Middle East’. Sinbad left for his magical journeys from here. The Tigris and Euphrates meet at the Shatt Al Arab waterway, now ‘secured’ by the invaders.
On the front line during the war between Iran and Iraq, then during the Gulf War and now for this assault, this ancient city displays tragedy everywhere. After the 1998 bombing, empty hotels refused rooms to British or Americans at any price. Hearts and minds are going to be hard-won here.
The general hospital, which has received numerous casualties from the ongoing, unsanctioned bombings of the region by the US and Britain over the last 11 years, was built by General Maude in the 1920s during another British adventure. He is buried in the war cemetery in Baghdad.
‘Let them come, there are plenty of plots next to him,’ was an example of the tone of the response to questions about the welcome the ‘liberators’ would receive - and I didn’t even have a minder.
Another hotel which is unlikely to be welcoming for a while is the Sheraton, now ‘damaged’ as well. Overlooking the Shatt Al Arab, its rooms are pure Arabian Nights, with their rich hangings, richer carpets and slatted wooden balconies, where the birds inhabiting the Shatt wheel past as the sun falls into the water and the sky turns peach.
The birds swirl in great joyous swathes at dusk and dawn over the corniche in the northern town of Mosul too, where the prophet Jonah is believed to have been buried in the ancient mosque named after him. Christian monasteries include the Lourdes of the Middle East, where Saint Matthew is thought to have been buried and where people of all denominations, believing in his healing powers, bring their sick.
This is the region which has inspired poets: the Nineveh of John Masefield’s Cargoes. When the cargo returned with ‘sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine’, the wine was from Mosul grapes, watered by an irrigation system developed 12,000 years ago. ‘At one with Nineveh and Tyre.’ wrote Kipling. The great walls of Nineveh still stood, a fortnight ago, with their winged bulls, testament to living history. Are they there now?
In another sparkling, pink and azure dawn on the day I left Baghdad, I photographed the panoramic views of this great, vibrant city. I would, I felt certain, never see it like this again. I never will.