April 17, 2003
An Art Center Left in Ashes
AGHDAD, Iraq, April 16 — Amal al-Khedairy stood amid the ruins of her elegant waterfront home and cursed the people who had rained the bombs on her.
This was a full-throated, almost lunatic fury, sharpened by the Western-educated voice that carried it. For years, Ms. Khedairy ran Baghdad's most luminous artistic center, one that flourished in the face of the dictator, a place dedicated to bringing the worlds of Occident and Orient together.
Today, in the rubble and shattered windows of Ms. Khedairy's home and the ransacked remains of her cultural center, the aspiration seemed all lost.
"This is our American liberation!" spat Ms. Khedairy, 70, as she waded through the half-burned books of her second-story library. "I never thought you would do it. I went to the American School. I believed in your moral values. And every night you bombed. Every night, I ran through the streets, an old woman in my nightgown. Look at my library!"
As this city of 4.5 million people grapples with the destruction all around it, Ms. Khedairy's rage seems emblematic of a whole class of people who might be expected to be more sympathetic to the American cause. Ms. Khedairy spent a lifetime admiring Western culture, learning its English, conjugating its French verbs, all the while trying to sustain her native culture in an Iraq under the iron fist of Saddam Hussein.
But somewhere, in the cacophony of bombs and the orgy of looting that followed, Ms. Khedairy and, it seems, others among Baghdad's cultural elite became angry about the war, seeing in its destruction a vulgarity that only pushed the country deeper into degradation. Even today, even in Baghdad, there are people unused to chaos, and chaos now it is.
Ms. Khedairy's anger may seem odd in a country where people were routinely tortured to death by Saddam Hussein. She is in fact a neophyte to politics in a land where everything long ago became political, and her anger is by no means confined to Americans. She is equally angry with Iraqi looters.
But what seems clear in her confused emotions is that the war has dragged her from a comfortable way of life under Mr. Hussein. Of the compromises involved in that, she did not speak. She had, she said, refused all invitations to join parties or committees. Art and culture provided her refuge during the Hussein years. But they were no refuge against bombs and the chaos that followed, and so her anger spills over.
"I want you to come and see what they have done to my institute," she said to an American visitor, desperate, tugging. "It's all gone: the paintings, the piano, the carpets, the music. All looted by these animals. Our liberation!"
Ms. Khedairy's house is in the Suleik neighborhood, one of the Baghdad's wealthier enclaves, known for the intellectuals who inhabit it.
In a city of flat, squat buildings spare of trees and greenery, her home is a luxurious island: two levels, floor-to-ceiling windows, a garden full of jasmine and bougainvillea and date palms. The Tigris River meanders past her backyard.
The house is full of culture, or it was. There are recordings of Beethoven and Wagner among the antiquated LP's, and collections of Turkish and Arabian music as well. A handcrafted wooden grille forms one of the walls of the sitting room, and the books range from Oriental architecture to French literature.
But the house's curse, and Ms. Khedairy's, is its proximity to the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, which lies just across the river. Night and day, for weeks, the bombs fell here, most of them finding their target, some of them not.
The result is that the entire back end of the house is splayed open to the world. The windows are shattered, the rain has come in, and the LP's and books have been blown apart and scattered.
For weeks, Ms. Khedairy said, she often left her house when the bombing started, dashing to a friend's house blocks away, where she felt safer. Every day, she said, she would return to her garden to water her palms and plants, so determined was she to preserve something in the ruins.
This was not the first time Ms. Khedairy had returned to her home, not the first time she had seen the wreckage. Perhaps it was the unexpected entrance of an American into her home that set her emotions tumbling. Today was the day of her rage: she ranted and wept amid the ruins of her house, picking up a tattered book here, a record album there.
"We will kill them all one day, Rumsfeld and every one of them," she said, referring to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "Look at what they have done to my library."
Like many residents of Baghdad, Ms. Khedairy has now spun any number of conspiracy theories about the intentions of the Americans. She is convinced, for instance, that the bombing of her house, the ransacking of her cultural center and the looting of the national museum are evidence of an American plan to deface Iraq's culture and carry its treasures out of the country. This, from a graduate of London University, a professor who taught the literature of Britain and France.
Such theories are rampant even among the city's educated elite. Today, for instance, the chief doctor at one of the Baghdad's larger hospitals spoke about the presumed designs of the Americans on the Iraqi nation.
"Tell me," said the doctor, who asked that he not be identified, "Why do the American troops allow the looting? These people are cowards, the looters. All the soldiers have to do is fire one shot, and the looters will go away. They are cowards. And the Americans do not do this. Why?"
Ms. Khedairy's neighborhood has not yet been looted, but she thinks the day is near. Since the bombing ended, a group of her neighbors has stood guard over the houses, armed with guns, keeping the thieves away. But the Americans have begun to move closer to the neighborhood, and Ms. Khedairy is convinced that the looters will be allowed to roam freely through her home.
"They follow the tanks," Ms. Khedairy said. "The Americans come in and they let the looters do as they wish. That is what they did at the museum. That is what they did at my institute. My neighborhood is next."
Not all of Ms. Khedairy's anger is directed at foreigners; she has saved a good deal for her fellow Iraqis. As she arrived at the steps of her cultural center, she surprised a half dozen Iraqi men picking over the last of the artifacts and paintings that had not been stolen.
"My God, I'll kill you!" she growled, and the young men scampered out the door. In her anger, Ms. Khedairy picked up a piece of broken pottery and hurled it into the back of one of the men. "How could this nation produce such sons?" she wailed.
The devastation wrought by the looters is indeed complete: the books and sheet music lay scattered across the floor, the lamps and fans torn from the ceiling. Upstairs, a recent exhibit of artwork by Iraqi and Japanese children lay in tatters.
Ms. Khedairy paused before a decorative wrought-iron door, one of the few things left that still appeared intact. She fingered it, studied it, swung the thing on its hinge.
"I will have to save this," she said, "before someone takes it."