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Marozzi’s Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood – a must-read for Middle East newbies

September 11, 2015

Baghdad Marozzi

I’ve just finished reading Justin Marozzi’s stunning book, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, in which he charts the history of the city from its foundation in AD762 through to the present day. Or almost to the present day, because events in woebegone Iraq come fast and furious.

A number of thoughts occur.

First, if we think that ISIS are being fiendishly imaginative in their methods of torture and execution, we should think again. Compared with the rulers of Baghdad from the Abbasid caliphs onwards, they are amateurs. One paragraph from Marozzi’s description of Saddam Hussain’s torturers should be enough to convince anyone of that. In fact if further evidence of the dark hand of Saddam’s “security” operatives, was needed, one only needs to read this passage:

One man stands by a wall with his head sandwiched between two wooden wedges, to which his ears are nailed. When he can no longer stand, he slumps to the floor and rips his ears off. Teeth are drilled. The corpses of murdered victims are thrown into cells to decompose in the heat of the Baghdad summer. Acid is sprayed on to bodies; snarling fighting dogs – Rottweilers and Dobermanns – are thrust into cells to attack men already weak from torture. Needles are pushed through tongues and under fingernails; feet and hands are immersed in boiling oil; insecticide is sprayed into eyes; arms are tied to an electric heater. Women are raped before husbands; glass bottles are shoved into men’s anuses; a menstruating woman is hung upside down by her feet; wires are plunged into flesh. A blindfolded man stumbles around an empty room as loudspeakers blare a continuous high-pitched cacophony to prevent sleep. One video shows Iraqis bound and kept for weeks in an airless room in which the temperature soars to 50˚C. Parents are forced to watch their frantic children running naked around a cell containing a beehive, desperately trying to escape the squadron of stinging insects. A chainsaw slices through a man’s genitals. One man has his arms broken with iron bars, another has his head crushed between the steel plates of a vice. His skull suddenly collapses with a jolt, and his brain squeezes out like toothpaste. In all the terrible history of death and violence in Baghdad, there had been nothing as perverted as this.

Which shows that whatever happened to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, his ability and inclination to destroy lives on a smaller scale was formidable, and causes one to ask where the moral line falls between a small number of mass killings and 30 years of torture and execution.

Second, I wonder if there has been any other city that has seen so many catastrophes over a 1400 year period yet still stands today. Plenty of neighbouring cities – Nimrud, Ctesiphon, Babylon and Palmyra to name but a few – never made the cut, and moulder away in the desert waiting for ISIS to come and deliver the coup de grace. Yet Baghdad has survived countless civil wars, conquests by Mongol, Tatar, Persian, Ottoman, British and American invaders, devastating floods and epidemics of plague, cholera and other diseases that regularly culled the population. At its cultural and political height, the population was over a million. At its lowest point there were as few as 15,000 inhabitants. Today the population stands at over seven million.

Third, I’m surprised that – to my knowledge anyway – there has never been an attempt by academia to identify the factors most likely to cause perennial bloodshed in a city. In Baghdad’s case, was it the city’s location beside the Tigris river? Was it the energy unleashed by a new religion? Was it the ethnic and sectarian mix? Most likely all of these things.

Marozzi’s book tells of much more than bloodshed and disaster. He takes us through the early history of the city, when Baghdad became the epicentre of an explosion of learning and invention not seen again until the European Renaissance, for which it was the main inspiration. The failure of the enlightened Arabs of the 8th-12th centuries to kick on and lay the foundations of the industrial age is one of the great “might have beens” of history. Was it vulnerability to invasion, the triumph of orthodox Sunni thinking at the expense of the rationalists or the scarcity of resources – minerals, metals, arable land – that existed in abundance further east and north? Again, perhaps all of these things.

But those who have grown up to think of the Muslim world in terms of grim-faced videos of suicide bombers, women in veils scuttling in the shadows, book burners and lynch mobs would be surprised by Marozzi’s description of Baghdad under the early caliphs – a place of scholars, inventors, scientists and artists. Where wine, women and song, at least among the elite, coexisted happily with piety and good works. Even today, the city’s literary tradition survives in the bookshops to be found in the back-streets, eagerly patronised by Baghdadis whose love of coffee and conversation is of a different order than that to be found in a high street Starbucks in my own country.

And until recently, it was a city in which large communities of Jews and Christians played their part as merchants, politicians and servants of the rulers. For most of its life it was not an exclusively Muslim city. In 1917, British intelligence sources estimated that the city contained 101,400 Turks and Arabs, 80,000 Jews and 12,000 Christians. Sadly, not so today. Both minorities – the Jews harassed and expelled in 1948, and the Christians subjected to bombs and persecution after the fall of Saddam – are vastly diminished.

Those who seek historical parallels will learn that Baghdad’s dark moments of recent times – the looting that followed the 2003 invasion, the bombardment of the city, and the vicious outbreaks of sectarian violence – have been repeated so often that recent events are entirely unsurprising. This is a city, surpassed only perhaps by Jerusalem and Istanbul, whose earth, bricks and mortar are soaked in blood. And there seems no prospect that the cycle will end when the current agony subsides.

Yet the story of Baghdad is also one of spirit, resilience and renewal, and it’s beautifully told by Justin Marozzi. Here’s a description of life in the court of Harun Al-Rashid, the most famous of the Abbasid caliphs:

Night after night, Harun and his court, joined by scholars, poets, diplomats, generals, musicians, judges, sportsmen and the latest favourites, assembled in the palaces to feast and lay waste to the royal cellars, indulging in the ruby-red wine of Shiraz, bewitched by the graceful young women of the harem who were selected as much for their musical talents as for their beauty. As the poet Muslim ibn Walid wrote in characteristically risqué verse, ‘What is this life but loving, and surrender to the / drunkenness of wine and pretty eyes?’

We hear of royal banquets with platters of gold and silver set with precious stones, heaving with the finest delicacies, ‘egg-apples and stuffed marrows, filled vine-leaves seasoned with lemon, cakes of bruised wheat and minced meat, sliced fillet of mutton cooked in tomatoed rice, a stew of little onions ….. ten roast fowls and a roast sheep, and two great dishes, one of kunafa and the other of a pastry made with sweet cheese and honey; fruits of every kind: melons, cucumbers, limes and fresh dates.

Pondering the lithe bodies swaying gracefully before them, Harun’s guests tucked into the porcelain bowls of halva perfumed with orange juice, and sprinkled with cinnamon and ground nuts. There were crushed raisins infused with essence of rose, lozenge-shaped, sugar-coated baklava, wrinkled figs, bulging grapes, bananas and breadfruit and, hidden among vases of roses, jasmine and tulips, mountains of almond cakes covered in syrup that dripped down chins and produced sticky smiles.

Cup-servers brought the men golden jugs and basins filled with scented water in which to wash their hands, rinsing them in ewers encrusted with rubies and diamonds before giving them scent of aloes in small golden pots. Wine was served in goblets of gold, silver and crystal. Eunuchs refreshed guests with musk and rosewater from jewelled gold sprinklers. While the drinking bouts raged until dawn, the girls sang and strummed the lute, entertaining their guests with the playful scarf dance and the languorous dance of the sabres.

Decadent? Of course, and not, I think, a lifestyle what would be endorsed by my country’s longest-serving monarch, or by the roundheads of Jeremy Corbyn, who looks set to become the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. But this was the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights, a far cry from the court of the kings of Wessex, who in the same era were ensconced in smoky thatched huts eating burnt cakes off wooden platters and quaffing tankards of beer.

Marozzi, who spent much of the past decade as a journalist in post-Saddam Iraq, has written a book that serves two constituencies of opinion equally well: those who believe that the Arab world has a genetic predisposition towards cruelty and violence, and those who treasure the region and its contribution to humanity. I belong to the latter group, yet the bloodshed is hard to ignore at a time when the whole area seems to be in flames.

But whichever way you look at the region, Baghdad, City of Peace, City of Blood is a rich resource for anyone struggling to make sense of the extreme wealth and the heart-rending violence that dominates most of the headlines about the modern Middle East.

From → Books, Middle East, UK, USA

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