It’s not top of the list when it comes to city breaks, but Leon McCarron was surprised—and heartened—when he visited Baghdad, a city that once upon a time was the center of the world.
“We’re going to one of the most interesting places here,” says my guide Mustafa as he drives through the streets in his silver Mini-inspired car. “You’ll see what this city is really like when we get there.”
We park up outside an old mosque with fading blue turquoise tiling and an ornate stone doorway, then walk along a broad boulevard of busy stores, people spilling out onto the road. Behind a man selling sugarcane from a wooden cart is an arched entrance to a smaller, narrower street that’s fully pedestrianized—or perhaps so busy that no vehicles dare enter.
“Welcome to Al-Mutanabbi Street!” said Mustafa. We’ve arrived in the middle of the weekly book market—Mustafa promises this will say “more about the city today than any news report.”
Even with an open mind, this was not the scene I had expected on my first visit to Baghdad.
Mustafa leads the way, and we push through crowds that obscure my view completely. Finally, when the congestion clears, I see that all around are books, laid out on the pavement, piled up on small tables, and lined neatly in the windows of the shops behind. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people wander through the market, perusing and haggling.
Baghdad has long been associated with culture. Built on the banks of the Tigris, one of the two great rivers of ancient Mesopotamia and modern-day Iraq, the city sprang up in the 8th century as the new capital of the Abbasid Empire.
Then, for a few hundred years, it became the center of the world. Goods from East Africa, India and China were transported along the Tigris, and furnished this burgeoning metropolis. The innovation and manufacturing of paper helped Baghdad write its own place in history as a hub for learning—the tale of A Thousand and One Nights is perhaps the best remembered work from this time—and soon the capital was known for its pre-eminent poets and philosophers, scholars and scientists, architects and astronomers. The other great empires of the time looked on, enviously.
The city’s subsequent history hasn’t been so kind. Its inhabitants have endured successive invasions, famine and war, and there have been centuries of almost unspeakable suffering and misery.
Not so long ago, it was still seen as perhaps the most dangerous city in the world. The years of brutality and oppression under Saddam Hussein were followed by the US invasion in 2003, and a decade of sectarian violence and insurgency. Then: ISIS.
It is not, at first sight, a pretty city … But the real beauty of the city comes upon closer inspection.
In late 2018 when I arrived, the threat of the Islamic State was all but vanquished (at least in a territorial sense), but still present was the now-perpetual atmosphere of uncertainty and unpredictability that clings to Baghdad like a fog. The greatest surprise of all, then, may be simply that the city can seem so normal.
It is not, at first sight, a pretty city. Much has been written of the architectural vision of the Abbasid caliph (ruler), Abu Ja’far Al Mansur, who designed a great circular city with outer walls 24 meters high and four grand gates that shepherded arrow-straight roads though to meet in the center.
These days, especially under a gloomy gray winter sky, darkened further still by dense smog, the city appears as a haphazard jumble of highways and intersecting neighborhoods. Years of conflict have damaged much of the infrastructure. There are checkpoints and large concrete blast walls along the major thoroughfares—although a lot fewer than there used to be, I’m told. But the real beauty of the city comes upon closer inspection.
Mustafa Nader, a young journalist from the city and my host there, has devoted much of his work to trying to show off this beauty. “It is safe,” he declares as we walk through the book market.
With us is his brother Ali, and my French colleague, Sylvain Mercadier. We’re the only visible foreigners around. “Everybody is too busy having fun to notice you,” said Mustafa. “And even when people do see you, they’ll just want to say hello and welcome you to Iraq.”
This too is true—we’re approached periodically by small groups of friends asking for selfies, or asking what we think of Baghdad. When we say we’re enjoying it, they seem delighted. “Go tell everyone else you know,” says Khalid, who I meet on Al-Rashid street, close to Mutanabbi. “We need some better stories from here, you know?”
Mustafa takes us for a walk along the banks of the Tigris and into a park named after the poet, Abu Nawas. We stop for tea and I lose horribly at a game of chess to a suave man in a crisp pinstripe jacket. Mustafa buys a new battery for his watch, and we take a few wrong turns down small side streets looking for a particular bakery that Ali wants us to see.
“This city has so much great stuff going on. Artists and music and writers, and all of the history. We need more people in Baghdad to talk about that, and more people outside to listen.”
The experience is akin to so many others I’ve had traveling in the wider region—wandering slowly down busy streets, exchanging friendly greetings with those interested in why I’m there, and generally enjoying the gentle passing of an afternoon.
That evening, Mustafa drives us to the Armenian church and the National Museum, and past the fortified Green Zone, the enclave of foreign correspondents and officials since 2003. Mustafa has heard a rumor that they’re finally going to open it up to the public soon (a month after I left, an experimental removal of the blast walls began).
It’s developments like this that give Mustafa hope. “This city has so much great stuff going on. Artists and music and writers, and all of the history,” he says. “We need more people in Baghdad to talk about that, and more people outside to listen.”
We eat dinner in a fast-food restaurant in one of the city’s many glitzy shopping malls, where young men with glisteningly gelled hair and finely trimmed beards walk laps and exchange glances with heavily made-up, glamorously dressed women. This, too, could be anywhere else in the world.
I spent a week in Baghdad and traveled around freely. I never felt unsafe and yet, of course, there are many concerns that one should consider. The sectarian divides are still present, and the militant threats have not disappeared.
It can still be a volatile and unpredictable place, and the framework for foreign tourists to arrive en masse, or be guaranteed a safe journey (I was permitted to be in the country to cover a story elsewhere) isn’t there yet.
While a sense of ongoing darkness threatened to envelop the nation over the last few decades, both Baghdadis and international observers alike have expressed optimism for the future, beginning with democratic elections in 2014 and amplified by the expulsion of ISIS from the country last year.
It will take someone much wiser (and braver) than me to predict what will happen next in Baghdad, but it certainly feels like there is much to hope for in the coming years.