Famed architect returns to shattered Baghdad

(mmorning.com) Two decades before U.S. Marines pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad square, the dictator had destroyed a monument in the same place: the magnum opus of one of Iraq’s greatest architects.

The elegant arch entitled “The Unknown Soldier” was a Baghdad landmark for more than 20 years. Now its designer, Rifat Chadirji, 82, has returned to rebuild it in the hope of resurrecting some of his beloved city’s former glory.

He has been commissioned by the government to reconstruct the statue, a modernist brick monument modeled on the ancient arch of Ctesiphon south of Baghdad, and is working on the preliminary blueprints.

The statue’s journey follows the same tragic trajectory as Iraq, from the country’s military coup that overthrew the monarchy in July 1958 to the nightmarish decades of war and sanctions under Saddam.

The statue was commissioned by nationalist leader Abdel Karim Qassem in 1958 and officially inaugurated in Firdos Square the following year to glorify the first anniversary of the coup that overthrew the monarchy.

Over the next 20 years Chadirji, who comes from a well-known centuries-old Baghdad family and was educated in England, built several of the city’s landmarks in a modern style inspired by ancient Iraqi motifs.

“His goal was not to repeat the past but to translate the spirit of the past into a modern context”, says Caecilia Pieri, a Paris-based scholar who has written a book on modern Baghdad architecture.

But as Chadirji built newer and more innovative buildings the country’s politics grew more and more volatile, with one coup giving way to another in the 1960s and the rise and radicalization of the Iraqi Baath Party in the 1970s.

Chadirji was jailed in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison shortly before Saddam came to power in 1978. He remained there for 20 months and wrote about the experience in a book called “The Wall Between Two Darknesses.”

In it he relates the story of his release: shortly after taking power Saddam told his lieutenants he wanted to hire Iraq’s greatest builder to prepare the capital for an international conference.

When they told him Chadirji was in Abu Ghraib, the dictator had him brought to the presidential palace in his prison fatigues.

Chadirji moved to Beirut a few years later and lived abroad during most of the devastating 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, the decade of international sanctions, and the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam.

Bulldozers destroyed the statue soon after Chadirji’s departure, when Saddam built a new Unknown Soldier monument — a massive, garish, clam-shaped building near where the dictator would hold mass rallies and military marches.

Chadirji’s monument was replaced by a statue of Saddam, one of thousands erected across the city, the same statue that was torn down on April 9, 2003, in what became an image of the fall of Baghdad.

When Chadirji returned to Baghdad earlier this year the violence unleashed by the invasion had mostly been brought to heel by U.S. and Iraqi forces, but the scars of the past run deep across the capital.

The telecommunications building today stands derelict over the Tigris River with jagged, gaping holes left from the U.S. bombing of Baghdad in 2003.

The elegant traffic circles in downtown Baghdad that were once symbols of a new, forward-looking Iraq are today clogged with traffic, guarded by police and army checkpoints and decked with snarls of barbed wire.

“I cannot believe what has happened to the buildings in Baghdad; everything has been almost completely destroyed”, Chadirji said.

“The proper rebuilding is only half of the project; the other half, which is more important, is to keep it and take care of it, because it is part of the memory of the people and the society.”

Chadirji studiously avoids any talk of politics, past or present, and he remains optimistic that Baghdad’s former beauty may one day return.