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Everyday madness

Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile, Nuha al-Radi, Vintage: 218 pp., $12 paper

August 17, 2003|Andrew Cockburn | Andrew Cockburn is the coauthor of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

"'Live,' they kept saying, but it's not," writes Nuha al-Radi in her diary while watching CNN coverage of her native Baghdad being bombed in 1998. "There is no danger, you can lower the volume, switch it off. It's quite safe, just a realistic made-for-TV movie. It gives no idea of its actual fright, of the enormity of war."

Al-Radi, one of Iraq's most accomplished contemporary artists, knows the reality of modern war firsthand. Her powerful journal of Baghdad life in the '90s, on the receiving end of a superpower assault, is not a mere saga of bloody horrors. The destruction she chronicles is more insidious: the steady disintegration of society and culture under the impact of war and blockade.

"I woke up to the barrage of exploding bombs," she writes on the first day of the 1991 war. Within minutes, the electricity is cut. Four days into the war, Al-Radi, one of a distinguished family from the intelligentsia of old Baghdad, says that already all machinery and modern conveniences "seem to be totally alien, like something from Mars."

By Day 17 of the bombing, Baghdad has absolutely slipped out of the modern age. She describes listening to 78 rpm records on a windup gramophone. She learns how make a candle using a bottle of kerosene, mashed dates and a wick. The bombs' effects are painted not with numbing images of torn bodies or pulverized buildings but with more subtly macabre references. "The birds have taken the worst beating of all.... 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."

Dogs, including her companion Salvador Dali, whose Rabelaisian love life is a richly detailed running theme, can sense the imminence of an air raid. When the explosions begin, "Some of them actually cry with fear." Wild dogs prowl ever nearer her house. "We have killed six dogs so far," she notes casually on March 7, 1991, "and buried them in the orchard."

In the struggle for existence under enemy attack, the ferocity of Saddam Hussein's regime -- a comfortable justification in the outside world for bombing and starving ordinary Iraqis -- is mentioned in passing and thereby seems almost more horrific than it would if laboriously detailed. A servant at Hussein's palace is punished for theft by having a hand amputated and the stump thrust into boiling oil. Rumors circulate that apprehended coup plotters have been thrown to starving dogs.

Some of Al-Radi's other reports on Hussein's regime strike a surreal note, such as her account of senior bureaucrats trembling at a summons to Hussein's lair in Tikrit, only to be handed buckets and spades on arrival and sent off to hunt for truffles.

Part of the power of this marvelous chronicle is in the juxtaposition of precise details of ordinary life with a reminder that her existence and that of everyone around her is anything but ordinary. "I sold 52 kilos of oranges today [her house is in an orchard] for 1,162 dinars," she writes on March 10, 1991, adding, "There is no petrol, no electricity, no running water and no telephone."

By that time, the war had just ended. "Life is becoming boring," she writes 10 days after the cease-fire. "Before we had at least the excitement of the air raids and the bombing fireworks. Now there is silence and a humdrum existence." In fact, the horrors were only beginning, and Iraqi suffering under the rigorously enforced U.N. embargo only increased, as did Al-Radi's flashes of despair. "November 15, 1991: Everybody seems to be dying of cancer.... Apparently over 30 percent of Iraqis have cancer, and there are lots of kids with leukemia. They will never lift the embargo off us." She writes of constructing "embargo art" from auto parts, of necessity being endlessly recycled by ingenious Iraqis. Later, she writes that "parents are beating up their children because they can then be hospitalized for up to three weeks -- there they can be fed."

Eventually Al-Radi leaves, following events in her beloved Baghdad from Beirut, where she still is based. "Uday [Hussein's psychopathic elder son] has been voted 'Journalist of the Century' in Baghdad by 97%,according to Radio Monte Carlo. Phoned Ma this morning. They are battling with termites in the house again." Continual and humiliating crises over residence permits and visas is almost harder to bear than the dangers and privations of home. A fellow exile remarks, "There is a purpose and pride that you lose when you don't have a country.... In the outside world you're nothing."

Some aspects of life abroad are familiar. Deprived of electricity by U.S. bombs at home, her lights in Beirut are extinguished by the Israelis.

In March 2003, she is obsessively glued to the TV, watching helplessly as Baghdad embarks on another stage in its unending Calvary. A friend back home had a "pedicure and manicure and did her hair. She said if she was going to die she wanted to be neat."

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