[Published here May 2, 2021]
I still remember the day we met, Baghdad and me.
It was the first day of November when I cut through a sky of easy, gentle blue to touch down at her airport. I was surprisingly calm about being introduced, despite her intimidating reputation as dangerous, scarred, broken. She’s seen a lot of ugly shit in her long, long life, everyone reminded me, and it shows. They continued: You’re making yourself miserable. You’re making your parents miserable. As my move approached, my coiffed aunts only grew more incredulous. “Baghdad?” they squealed, clutching their pearls. “But why?”
It was no coincidence I ended up in Baghdad in late 2018, searching for new beginnings in a city accustomed to having them imposed on her. From my end, I wanted a fresh challenge after several years based in Beirut covering Syria and to a lesser degree Lebanon. I wanted to write about the country I was living in, to prove to myself that I could be more than a “Syria reporter,” that wasn’t based in Syria, and to build a community in a country I otherwise had no roots in.
Baghdad’s story is longer. I’ll spare you several millennia and will give you the SparkNotes version of the last few decades: coups, wars with Iran and Kuwait, international sanctions, US-led invasion and occupation, waves of extremist (I used ‘extremist’ instead of ‘Jihadist’) violence, and now a geopolitical tug-of-war between the US and Iran, only one of which is still ruled by an unpredictable megalomaniac.
Every phase had come with a new reality Baghdad had not chosen for itself. There was no more effective reminder of that than the blast walls and concertina wire and checkpoints that had come to ring everything of supposed importance in the city. Those massive concrete barriers weighed Baghdad down, disfigured her riverfronts and blocked her sunlight. They crudely dismembered her, sealing neighborhoods off from one another and keeping her people at least 18 inches of cement away from the levers of power. And plastered flat along the concrete and hung above the checkpoints were the faces of thousands and thousands that Iraq had lost in those consecutive rounds of false “new” starts.
That is the Baghdad that met me in 2018, but it wouldn’t last long. Buoyed by the defeat of the Islamic State group nearly a year earlier and parliamentary elections that spring, Iraqis were looking forward to their first period of stability, the first chance in decades to catch their breath.
Steadily, the blast walls were lifted and checkpoints dismantled. The concrete veil enveloping the city unraveled. Baghdad timidly peaked out, and boy was she was beautiful. I met Baghdad in the sunsets on Abu Nuwas, every day a different palette smudged across her sky. I met her in the perfect embrace of hot bitter coffee and a crumbling klecha on my tongue. I met her when I remembered to look up, to catch the worn wooden shanasheel and ornate balconies hanging on for dear life against destructive development.
But of course, I met Baghdad most intimately in her inimitable inhabitants as we lived our radically different new beginnings together. First and most notably, there were my new colleagues and friends who guided me through Baghdad with unadulterated joy, as if they were introducing a new acquaintance to a long-lost friend. Driving to a colleague’s one evening, we missed the turn into his street because it had always been preceded by a checkpoint that we used as our landmark. Now that the checkpoint had been removed and the road clear, we drove a few kilometers past his home before realizing our mistake and, elated, made a U-turn.
In that first year, there were also Baghdad’s silver-haired painters with hands stained for decades with acrylic, who breathlessly tried to sell me the canvases that survived waves of theft, destruction and smuggling. There were the Instagram-obsessed bodybuilders who were proud to have opened a sleek gym where lycra-clad men and women could exercise together – something unthinkable just a few years before. And there were the female reporters, lawyers and doctors who granted me a glimpse of the informal support networks they had knitted together to face down everything from misogyny to militias.
Everyone had a story. Everyone. Those stories inevitably carried unimaginable loss, from older brothers detained and disappeared to family businesses reduced to rubble, with not a shred of accountability for back-to-back atrocities. Interview subjects, friends and colleagues generously shared their accounts with a sentiment that toggled resignation and resilience, something between forfeit and fortitude.
It wasn’t totally unfamiliar: many in Lebanon expressed the same kind of feeling, but they had had periods of respite since their mostly decades-old tragedies. In Syria, too, there was a kind of dead determination but the country was still mid-conflict. In Baghdad, I was introduced to how a people grinds on through protracted pain and keeps dreaming, creating, and growing.
It came to a head when my new beginning turned a year old and Baghad turned a new page, entering an unprecedented chapter. Flooding Tahrir Square to protest the government, young Iraqis broke boundaries both social and political to claim their rightful stake in their country and its future. I met a teenage tattoo artist sporting thick streaks of eyeliner who spent her days inking fellow demonstrators. Disapproving stares chased her as she ducked into the blue tarp tents but she laughed them off with a casual shrug of one shoulder. In a tent nearby, I was introduced to a group of young men from Sadr City who found their single-minded and restrictive upbringing no longer represented them, so they sought out political debate in Tahrir.
At its core, it was authentic and free, a profound yearning for a fresh start from a population who was cognitively responding to the fact that few – if any – of the twists and turns that had defined their generation, or that of their parents, had been by choice.
That’s why the fall was so hard. An American assassination of an Iranian general, followed by a worldwide pandemic and compounded by collapsing oil prices allowed Iraq’s political class to put a definitive end to the protest movement. Yet again, a reset imposed externally, cutting short a promising new beginning.
Friends could no longer drive through Tahrir without shaking their heads in awe, fear and disgust at how their square and their futures had been robbed from them. They had made new friends in that square, those friends had died in that square, and the pictures that had been hung up in that same square to honor them had been torn down.
It felt final – as if there was no reason to hope for another chance at a new beginning after such a crushing end. Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about emigrating. But then something happened that the pun-lover in me can only describe as divine intervention.
The Pope came to Iraq.
I’m certainly not short-sighted enough to expect that four decades of broken Iraqi institutions could be fixed in a four-day visit by the head of a broken global institution. But Pope Francis’s visit did undeniably do one thing: it proved that something seen as utterly outside the realm of possibility could, in fact, happen. Over and over, Catholic Christians attending the Pope’s services in Baghdad and elsewhere said that under Saddam, then under occupation, then in the darkest days of sectarian bloodshed, they could have never imagined the leader of their faith could actually make it to their homeland.
And there he was, reciting his homily in Italian in Baghdad – city of peace, city of blood, city of new beginnings.
A few days after Francis left, I was packing my bags, too. My time in Baghdad was ending, and it was time to start fresh, again, in Lebanon. It felt unfair to be abandoning Baghdad after having the privilege of growing up there – obviously not in the traditional sense. My new beginning in that ancient city made me a better journalist, colleague, and friend. I left Baghdad as a better person than I was when I met her. Is she better, too?