I am in New York at Christmas time. The lights are brilliant, the crowds at Rockefeller Center take in the giant Christmas tree, and the Rockettes are already into their umpteenth performance of their Christmas extravaganza.
I would like to be thinking about things like Miracle on 34th Street and An Affair to Remember. But instead I am thinking about Iraq.
There was more bombing in Baghdad today, and dozens of people were killed. My heart wants to be light, but it is heavy.
To be in New York at this time of year, as Hanukkah candles and Christmas trees light living rooms, and as the U.S. begins its withdrawal — from a country it has already impregnated with destruction — is a tricky thing.
From my flat in Washington Heights, on the edges of the sanitized Manhattan dream, I think of Senghor’s poem, To New York.
Now is the time of signs and reckoning, New York!
Now is the time of manna and hyssop.
You have only to listen to God’s trombones, to your heart
Beating to the rhythm of blood, your blood.
But what I really want to read again and again is Iraqi poet Saadi Youseff’s 1995 poem, America, America.
America: let us exchange gifts….Take your blueprints for model penitentiaries and give us village homes. Take the books of your missionaries and give us paper for poems to defame you. Take what you do not have and give us what we have. Take the stripes of your flag and give us the stars. Take the Afghani Mujahideen beard and give us Walt Whitman’s beard filled with butterflies. Take Saddam Hussein and give us Abraham Lincoln or give us no one.
Me, with my American loyal-to-the-crown, post-revolutionary Ditmars roots, my Canadian passport and my soul absorbed in Iraq, what I really want at Christmas time, is for Iraq and America to exchange gifts, not violence, greetings of peace, not epithets of rage and recrimination.
While so many here have transformed this distant land where their soldiers have died into a place they have “helped” rather than destroyed, a kind of welfare state rather than a war zone, New York is still the cultural capital of America, and there are encouraging signs.
I am here, after all, as part of an advisory committee for the upcoming exhibit City of Mirage: Baghdad, 1952-1982, from Wright to Venturi at the Centre for Architecture. There are plans for associated programming — a poetry evening, Iraqi theatre, and I hope to organize a panel on Baghdad — from utopia to dystopia — from a model of cosmopolitan urbanism once called “city of peace” to a place where, a mere 8 years since the invasion, walls now separate neighbourhoods divided along sectarian lines.
I am also here to find a publisher for my next book — Ancient Heart — a political travelogue of ancient sites in Iraq — in the hope that presenting Americans with an alternate view of the nation — as the cradle of civilization rather than as a miserablist war zone — will somehow help to undo the damage done.
I am the first to admit the absurdity of this. I am tilting at windmills. And as I ride the subways of New York, listening to Leonard Cohen’s Last Year’s Man on my iPhone, and clutching a bag with a map of ancient sites, I feel less like Don Quixote and more like a Babylonian Willy Loman.
But I am convinced of the power of this map. If applied correctly, it may just transform people’s consciousness. I want Americans to see Iraq for what it is, to recognize the depth and soul of the land they invaded, not just as another terrorized place to be abandoned but as part of our world heritage.
Most maps of Iraq in the American imagination are divided into three neat sectarian sections, or filled with strategic punctuations on the evening news. My map shows Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham and the home of the Sumerian ziggurat. There is a Burger King there now, and a military base.
Iraq, now a country of widows and orphans, is the land where language was invented. And architecture. There is a power in that. I think of this when I take in Gonoud’s Faust at the Metropolitan opera. The Des McAnuff production is full of references to bargains with Satan, the atom bomb, soldiers returning home, and uncertain redemptions. I am reminded that in the original version of the Faust tale, he was an architect, and then an alchemist, before becoming a doctor. The devil is in the details.
I think of my friend Muafaq al-Taie, the 70-year-old Iraqi architect who took me on a tour of sacred sites in Baghdad last year, in the midst of sectarian war zones, garbage dumps and displaced people’s camps. It reminded me of the last scene in Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston sees the Statue of Liberty half submerged on the beach. I think of Muafaq as I walk along the banks of another river in another great city, that has had its own taste of terror and destruction.
Muafaq has been busy working as an adviser to the mayor of Baghdad, trying to come up with a new masterplan for the city, partly based on Frank Lloyd Wrights’ plans from the 1950s when he designed a new opera house on the banks of the Tigris, and inspired by Arthur Erickson’s late-1970s plans for a new cultural district in what became the “green zone.” Erickson’s project was foiled by the 8-year conflict with Iran, when cultural funds were drained for the war chest.
As I walk through the streets of New York, admiring its great architecture, its theatres and cultural life, I remember Baghdad, a city that once had all these things, in a land where culture began.
America, let us exchange gifts.