Between Tyranny and Bombs: A Review of “Baghdad Diaries”

BAGHDAD DIARIES: A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile
By Nuha al-Radi
Vintage. 217 pp. Paperback, $12

[NOTE: The Iraqi painter and author of this book, Nuha al-Radi, died not long after her book was published on August 30, 2004 in Beirut.]

Try to imagine yourself or your family living in Baghdad over the past decade, enduring tyranny, privation and wars. What if your family came from the old ruling guard but the quality of your life had only eroded under President Saddam Hussein’s regime? Would you blame him and his cronies for your plight, or blame America for the twin punishments of sanctions and bombings?

The answers to these questions may help explain why at least some Iraqis today seem so ungrateful to the United States. Not long after being liberated from Iraq’s homegrown dictatorship, large crowds began demonstrating against the subsequent U.S. military occupation. The mood soured faster across Iraq than leading U.S. officials or news commentators had expected, but readers of this book will see through a window into Iraq that they missed.

Born in Baghdad during the Second World War, Nuha al-Radi is a Western-educated Iraqi who retains an Eastern outlook. A world-renowned sculptor, ceramist and painter, she is a survivor from a once-thriving cultural community rooted in ancient Mesopotamia, which remains among the most respected artistic traditions in the Arab world. While she was pinned down in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of Baghdad, and afterward, while she was in exile in both Eastern and Western countries, this artist stopped working with her hands to speak with her head.

Anyone comfortable with the jingoism passing for journalism on many American television networks may find some passages in “Baghdad Diaries” as hard to digest as green, moldy bread. But if one is wondering how millions among the audience of the Qatar-based satellite television network, Al-Jazeera, today see Iraq, the raw and often bitter passages of this artist’s diary are a good place to start:

“Everyone was preparing and hoarding foodstuffs in their freezers, never imagining that they would bomb us out of electricity. Now the big question is whether to keep the freezer and fridge doors open or closed. If they stay open the rubber seals will dry out, and if closed they smell.”

Nuha al-Radi’s story begins in 1991 with the last Gulf War. She is an unmarried woman, living near her mother and struggling to get by. Another central character is her dog Salvi, named after the Spanish painter Salvador Dali. The artist says they are “well-to-do” Iraqis who live not far from the Mansur neighborhood, where Hussein was filmed walking among supporters in the street after the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The author’s late father was an ambassador back when Iraq was ruled (briefly) by British-backed kings, and her family, like others associated with the old monarchy, waned under Hussein’s regime. “Ma says she feels like Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” writes al-Radi, “except that we are far from starving.”

This is an impressionistic chronicle, and anyone looking to learn more about the rich ethnic and religious mosaic that is Iraq will not find it here. Although its author does not say it, “Baghdad Diaries” is told from the point of view of Iraq’s traditionally privileged minority based in the capital. Compared with most other Iraqis, this elite has long managed to live reasonably well even under so-called revolutionary regimes.

Some of the author’s friends and acquaintances had low-level jobs in Hussein’s government. One of her friends worked for Uday, the more notorious of Hussein’s two sons, and was told to wear “a smart dress and make-up” for work. Another friend’s nanny worked inside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. “She said that when someone was caught stealing, they gathered the staff together, brought in a doctor who chopped off this guy’s hand, and immediately dunked it into boiling oil to cauterize it.”

This grisly account is told without commentary; al-Radi saves most of her outrage for America’s apparent disregard for the plight of the Iraqi people. “We didn’t have anything to do with the Kuwaiti take-over, yet we have been paying the price for it. Meanwhile Our Leader is alive and well — or not so well, we do not know. We’re living,” she goes on, “like Peter Sellers in [the 1968 film] ‘The Party,’ refusing to die and rising up again and again, another last gasp of the bugle.”

Al-Radi’s narrative possesses a disarming charm. Her snapshots of the strangulation of Iraq play out in the smaller details of daily life: “The birds have taken the worst beating of all. They have sensitive souls which cannot take all this hideous noise and vibration [of bombing]. All the caged love-birds have died from the shock of the blasts, while birds in the wild fly upside down and do crazy somersaults. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died in the orchard. Lonely survivors fly about in a distracted fashion.”

Al-Radi looks at Iraq like a woman who insists on viewing a canvas only through a magnifying glass, intimately describing its texture while failing to see the wider scene. But however narrow its focus, “Baghdad Diaries” offers an unfiltered perspective on a widely misunderstood world.