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A Bright Light for the Arabs Goes Dim

Baghdad's cosmopolitan world of culture, art and intellect has withered, trapped between a totalitarian regime and the world's indignation.


BAGHDAD — Sajeda Mousawi describes herself as a mother and a lover, someone who yearns through her poetry to celebrate the sublime and beautiful miracle of everyday life. She abhors sadness and suffering and tries to banish it from her mind.

Yet when she sat down to write her contribution for this year's Arab poetry festival in Baghdad, her pen couldn't do that.

Mousawi found herself dwelling instead on a tragedy--common enough in the seventh year of the world economic embargo against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In her poem "It Rained on the Books," a lover of literature is reduced to selling his library on the street in order to live.

For a country that had long been considered one of the most literate and cultured in the Middle East, the brief poem was a poignant emblem of the failed hopes and broken dreams of a generation of educated Iraqis.

"I am a woman who has sold much of my gold, my earrings, my furniture for medicine and food," said Mousawi, who has five daughters and whose monthly salary as secretary of a cultural club connected to a state-run newspaper translates to $10. "This embargo is destroying whole classes of our society."

Much has been written about the hospitals without medicine and the children perishing of hunger here, but something else also is dying between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: a cosmopolitan world of culture, art and intellect that had been one of the brightest lights of Arab society.

There were doctors and scientists, poets and painters, teachers and students, who once traveled and entertained, shared witty conversation in Baghdad cafes, enjoyed good food and middle-class comforts similar to those of Europe or the United States; they felt safely part of the larger world of intellectual discourse.

Today they are trapped between a totalitarian government and the world's indignation, pauperized by more than six years of economic embargo, feeling shunned and abandoned by counterparts abroad and humiliated by having to join the hordes in the marketplaces, where they shed a lifetime of accumulated possessions and despair of what will happen when there is nothing left to pawn.

They exist under the shadow of their leader, "his excellency, the victorious, the glorious President Saddam Hussein," who is rarely seen but is an omniscient, dominating presence. He appears every night on television; his face graces the front of every newspaper; he smiles or glowers from portraits in front of every important building.

When Hussein took power in 1979, their country, with the world's second-largest oil reserves, was flush with money from the boom '70s to spend on arts and culture. Universities were built, world-class teaching hospitals were established, and Iraq became a magnet for painters, poets and other artists from across the Arab world.

Now Iraq is a gray, sullen, isolated place of imposing monuments and vainglorious palaces, where a doctor's monthly salary is equal to the price of 30 eggs, where medical research has all but stopped and where photographers and painters cannot afford even the film or paint to pursue their art.

But if Iraqis question the wisdom of their leadership, they do not do so in their literature or their art. They especially do not mock or criticize Hussein.

Intellectuals as Targets

In a report Wednesday, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch said that U.N. monitors started 1996 with 16,100 unresolved cases of Iraqi "disappearances," more than for any U.N. member state. Intellectuals have been the pride of the regime, but they are also among the chief targets of purges.

So pervasive is the secret police, so common is informing even on one's relatives and so closely are Western visitors monitored, that in more than a dozen interviews with Iraqis from the world of the intelligentsia, only one person took the risky step of revealing the slightest unhappiness with the government.

The others did not stint in expressing despair at the country's decay but always were careful to voice it in anger at the West--particularly the United States--for maintaining the embargo that is ruining their country.

"I don't want to indulge in politics. . . . I only wonder, why does America kill my people?" journalist-poet Abdel Moneim Hamandi said, with evident sincerity, in a typical refrain. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali eased the sanctions slightly, giving the go-ahead for Iraq to resume oil exports to buy food and medicine for its people.

Rather than try to work in the crumbling shells of their institutes or test the limits of their artistic license, many of Iraq's most respected thinkers have fled, swelling the ranks of refugees in Jordan and elsewhere, free to work but pining for their old Baghdad haunts.

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