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Nuha Radi, 63; Artist's 'Baghdad Diaries' Chronicled Life in Wartime

September 08, 2004|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Nuha Radi, the Iraqi artist and author whose book, "Baghdad Diaries, A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile," was praised as a realistic portrayal of daily life for Iraqis coping with dictatorship, war and international sanctions through the 1990s, has died. She was 63.

Radi died Aug. 30 of complications from leukemia, according to Associated Press. In recent years, the Baghdad native had been living in Beirut.

Radi rarely returned to Iraq after an excerpt of her diary was published in Granta magazine in 1992, fearing reprisals by President Saddam Hussein for her candid account of the hardships Iraqis endured during his regime. The diary was first published as a book in 1998.

While best known in the West as an author, Radi was a successful painter and sculptor whose ceramic murals decorated several government buildings in Baghdad, including one of Hussein's palaces. When she turned her attention to writing, her artist's eye for detail showed in her precise observations about ordinary people under siege.

"There is no petrol, no electricity, no running water and no telephone," she wrote in a diary entry of March 1991. Food stockpiled in a freezer began to spoil when bombs knocked out the electricity.

Weeks of war caused her friends and relatives to act in peculiar ways, she wrote. An older uncle rode a child's tricycle in the driveway. A friend wore high heels to clear debris from her garden.

Modern inventions began to seem "like something from Mars," Radi wrote. When the plumbing failed, neighbors who had been staying with her turned her orchard into a loo and joked about fertilizing the orange trees. For lights, she learned to make candles using mashed dates.

All of nature lost its bearings as well, she wrote. Oranges fell from her trees before they were ripe. Dogs in her neighborhood, including her own dog, Sali, whom she had named for the Surrealist artist Salvador Dali, sensed the air raids before they began.

"Some of them actually cry with fear," she wrote of the frightened animals. She said the birds had 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."

Perhaps for the safety of her relatives in Iraq, Radi did not offer her opinions about Hussein in her diary. She barely acknowledged that it was his invasion of Kuwait that ignited the Gulf War of 1991. Instead, she recounted the jokes about him that circulated through Baghdad during his regime. ("In a meeting he asks his ministers what the time is; someone answers, 'Whatever time you say, sir.' ")

She was openly hostile toward the United States for its role in the Gulf War. Of former President George H.W. Bush, who ordered Operation Desert Storm, Radi wrote, "We are a third-world country well-known for not having too much common sense. Why could he not have negotiated a peace instead of annihilation?"

To her, the United States seemed indifferent to the suffering of the Iraqi people. "We didn't have anything to do with the Kuwaiti takeover, yet we have been paying the price for it," she wrote. It hurt her to see her friends being treated like "bad guys."

Critics gave Radi more credit for depicting life in wartime than for her political insights.

"A likable personality emerges in these pages ... but she is not a thinker of much moral complexity," a reviewer for Newsweek magazine wrote last year after Radi updated her diary for a new edition of her book.

"However narrow its focus, 'Baghdad Diaries' offers an unfiltered perspective on a widely misunderstood world," wrote a reviewer for the Washington Post in May 2003.

It was Radi's unfortunate distinction to spend much of her life dodging wars and coups in the Middle East. Her father was the Iraqi ambassador to Iran and later to India. She grew up abroad, where she was educated in private schools and learned English at a young age.

After the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, her father retired from the diplomatic corps. When the Ba'ath Party seized control of Iraq in 1969, Radi's parents moved to Beirut, which became a second home for her.

Never married, she is survived by her mother, brother and sister.

After graduating from the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, Radi taught at the American University of Beirut until the start of a civil war there in 1975, when, to escape the violence, she went to Baghdad. She returned to Beirut in the mid-1990s and was buried there.

When the Gulf War broke out in Iraq, she used her art to show how ordinary people were affected. Last year, some of her works were part of an exhibit in Jordan titled "Embargo Art." Radi used broken mufflers and exhaust pipes to create sculptures of people. It captured an attitude she often expressed about Iraqis "refusing to die and rising up again and again."

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