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Letter from Cathy Breen, May 24 2010

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Damascus, Syria
May 24, 2010

The other day an article caught my attention while I was at the internet shop I frequent—“In Baghdad Ruins, Remains of a Cultural Bridge.” (NY Times, May 21, 2010, Anthony Shadid) I printed the article out to take back to my room.

The piece begins with a terse official report by a Colonel Qais Hussein. Report No. 25 to be exact, dated April 4, 2010. “Material damage significant,” the Colonel writes. A car bomb was set off near the Egyptian Embassy. Seventeen people were killed, ten cars burned as well as a house in front of the embassy. Mr. Shadid describes the report as “clinical, the anonymous survey of an explosion in a city where explosions are ordinary.”

What the Colonel’s report doesn’t mention, Mr. Shadid notes, were “the hundreds of books, from plays of Chekhov to novels of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, stored in bags, boxes and a stairwell. It didn’t speak of the paintings there of Shaker Hassan, one of Iraq’s greatest, or the sculptures of his compatriot, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat. There was no note of the stone brought from an exile’s birthplace in Bethlehem that helped build the house as a cosmopolitan refuge bridging West and East.

Nor did Colonel Hussein’s report mention that the home belonged to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a renown Arab novelist, poet, painter, critic and translator who built it along the date palms and mulberry trees of Princesses’ Street nearly a half-century ago and lived there until his death in 1994.”

As I read the article later in the day, I was overcome by sadness and memories of Baghdad, especially of a dear friend named Amal. She had a family home on the Tigris River which she turned into a beautiful Cultural center. The rooms were filled with art and handcrafts, many of which she herself collected throughout the whole of Iraq. Like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s house, the doors were open to all. It was a refuge of peace and harmony, and a place of lively stimulating discussions as artists and friends gathered on the veranda or in the courtyard garden for tea. For me it was always magical.

A scholar and lover of beauty, Amal was heartbroken and inconsolable at the destruction and looting of the museums and historical sites after the regime collapse. Her own lovely center was completely gutted just days after the fall of Saddam’s regime. About 1-½ weeks after “Shock and Awe” I visited the home where Amal lived across town. The windows had been blown out due to the bombings, and everything was covered in a fine layer of dirt from an intense sandstorm. As in the Cultural center, Amal’s home hosted many lovely treasures. Her friend Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, also mentioned in Mr. Shadid’s article, had crafted the front door.

After visiting Amal, as I was returning in a taxi to the hotel, we passed the Cultural center. Noticing that the door was wide open, I quickly asked the driver to let me out.

I will never forget walking through the barren gutted rooms. The only things left were a few broken shards on the floor, the remains of a clay vessel of some sort. Then I noticed a discarded piece of paper. It was, I discovered, part of a photograph of the center, which was taken when the second floor collapsed during the first Gulf War. Amal had managed to restore the center, minus the second floor. The photograph was a shot of the before and after. I took it along with the shards to give to Amal at a later date. Over seven years have passed…and the memories are still vivid. And the explosions continue on.

After reading “In Baghdad Ruins…” I decided to go to a special place I have found, the gallery of the Syrian artist, Mustafa Ali. This is the sight that greets one upon entering the courtyard: a young woman in repose, embraced by and embracing the truck of a tree.

I just sat and let my eyes feast on the raw natural pieces of wood turned into art. The very smell of the wood was healing. Some of the pieces have delicate brass figures.

Mr. Shadid points out that Colonel Hussein’s report did not mention that the home that was destroyed belonged to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. “This is not,” he says, “a story about an outpouring of grief over its destruction. There were no commemorations, few tributes. As Fadhil Thamer, a critic, said, ‘People here have seen too much.’”

I think of Amal and all that she has seen. Her name means hope. I pray she has not given up hope.

Cathy Breen