In The Aspern Papers, Henry James wrote rather gloomily “When Americans went abroad in 1820, there was something romantic, almost heroic, in it, as compared with the perpetual ferryings of the present hour when photography and other conveniences have annihilated surprise,” and this is far, far truer today with the universal availability of countless indifferent images through the internet. It sometimes feels – as it did to James – that when we arrive somewhere new it is already second-hand, that we are robbed of the exhilaration of first encounter by the pervasive imagery that already clutters our imagination.
There are odd exceptions to this, and one of which I am particularly aware is Iraq. I lived in Baghdad in the late 1980s, working for the British Council, at a time when public photography was not encouraged. Strolling through central Baghdad with a camera was uncomfortable and unwise, especially in those days when cameras were larger and more visible than they have since become. The photographs I did take are striking in their discretion and their partiality: children growing up in an Adhamiyya garden, cricketers in the Embassy grounds, picnics at Ukhaider and Hatra. Photographing even in uncontroversial places had to be handled with great care. Snapshots of Ur could not show the anti-aircraft battery on the ziggurat, nor could views from the spiral minaret at Samarra hint at the chemical weapons plant in the city below.
My resulting, and small, photograph album is a parable of Iraq at that time – resolutely private and introverted, more than slightly paranoid, strong on vulgarly showy monuments like Qaws al-Nasr with its massive crossed swords, and the perversely beautiful Nasb al-Shahid, the Martyrs’ Monument, with its great, cloven turquoise dome. But random street shots are few and snatched. At Karbala for Ashura in 1989, perhaps the only kuffar there (that’s a story for another time) my diplomatic companion and I thought ourselves safe to take a few pictures, but had film ripped several times from our cameras by aggressive mukhabarat.
So photography had not, for me, quite eliminated surprise in Baghdad. Much of what I saw in Iraq was quite new, unheralded by photography. Today I have a few books of architectural photographs of old Baghdad, documentary films like the recent Gertrude Bell documentary, Letters from Baghdad, with its wonderful archive footage; or the film documentaries from the pre-Saddam period that can be found on YouTube and elsewhere. But there’s not the avalanche of images that I’d find of Venice or Cairo or Prague. Particularly since, unlike those cities, so much of Baghdad has disappeared, both physically and – as important – morally, and that creates a rarity of atmosphere, a distance unpopulated by visual memories or anticipations.
Into this rarity steps Latif al-Ani, recently ‘rediscovered’ (an odd notion) as perhaps the leading photographer of twentieth-century Iraq, who has recently had a small, lovely exhibition in London, following his success at the Venice Biennale. He is not contemporary, in the sense that his work dates from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Now in his own mid-80s, he gave up serious photography soon after the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1980, and much of his archive was destroyed by fire at the Ministry of Information during the American invasion of 2003. He worked for the Iraq Petroleum Company, the Ministry of Information and the Iraq News Agency, with privileged access to the country and its people. He took countless images of both, of which 1,500 or so survive. And while they are of an Iraq that had already slipped across the horizon by the time I first knew Baghdad at the end of the same Gulf War that ruptured al-Ani’s professional life, they are images that help to populate my imagination, to flesh out the extraordinary country which I watched slide willy-nilly towards destruction. The perception that gently infuses al-Ani’s work is that the seeds were already sown by 1958 – that the slide had been slowly gathering momentum for several decades.
And in his photographs I half-recognize, too, glimpses caught of what was in the 1980s, just after the end of the Iranian War, a more recent past. They are pictures of an Iraq that I feel I know a little, vicariously, through a fair amount of reading of memoir and history; through Egyptian friends who studied and taught at the medical school in the 1960s; through Jewish Iraqi friends who lived there then as children, and no longer do; through British soldiers and diplomats stationed there after the Second World War; and through a number of older Baghdadis who survived from al-Ani’s Iraq into Saddam’s with their sensibilities intact, and whom I was privileged to meet. In this sense al-Ani’s images provide a magical speculum, an imaginary of a lost city and a lost culture.
What has been destroyed in Iraq needs to be understood in terms of time as well as place. Al-Ani shows us a country in its moment of hope, of prosperity and of ‘normality’ (a not unproblematic concept). Buildings and people have been obliterated in the darker age since he stopped capturing images, but it is the quality of that moment he did capture that is so precious, and so utterly gone. “It is almost painful to see the photos of women at work or play and know that was Iraq back in the 1950s and not today,” as Shwan Ibrahim Taha writes in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, “We are nostalgic for a life that we did not live. This is the life whose traces we can see and feel in Latif’s photography.”* Al-Ani himself is more brutally direct. “I have such a longing for that time, knowing it will never come again;” and “The pain is almost greater because I have the visual proof of how different, how much better, things were … it’s counter-intuitive; things are meant to progress forwards, not backwards.”
Not that we should over-idealise the Iraq of the Hashemite monarchy, Qasim, the ‘Aref brothers and the early Ba’th. It was a hard, violent country, ruled by strong and violent men; and along with the architecture, the art and the striving for a substantial modernity must be set unbeautiful images like the butchered body of Nuri Pasha dragged behind his Rolls Royce, the young King Faisal II hacked up like meat, in the back of a van, Abdel Karim Qasim’s hanged corpse held up in front of the television camera to be spat upon, or the Jews strung up from lamp-posts in 1967. But it was also a country where women were just beginning to work – and as al-Ani testifies – to be photographed without the abaya. Where Gropius and Aalto, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were commissioned to design buildings and where what is perhaps the most important work of public art ever commissioned in the modern Arab world, Jawad Salim’s Nasb al-Hurriyah, was placed at the centre of a modern city. Where public housing was designed by Hassan Fathi and where, as the old quip goes, “Baghdad reads,” while Cairo writes and Beirut publishes. A country with hope and aspiration for the future, hope which continued to roll for some years after the first revolution. As al-Ani puts it, “The beginning of the end started in 1958. The retreat started slowly, and then got faster after 1979. By 1990 it was galloping, and then it flew with fury after 2003 …”
Al-Ani’s spare, square images capture the strange juxtaposition of rampant modernity and obstinate, fond tradition – and show it, on the whole, as positive, dynamic and full of promise. Pure representations of ancient Iraq, the stark, shadowed geometry of the al-Mutawakkil minaret, strange contrapuntal images of the Mirjan mosque or the palace at Ctesiphon seen from the sky as only modernity allowed and as no one except a few pilots had ever seen them (“I saw the contrast more clearly between the ugly and the beautiful. Everything was more exposed. Nothing could be hidden”), intrusions like the blithe and blinkered American diplomats posed in front of the Sassanian arch while a ragged Arab plays his ribab – all these represent with understated wit and subtlety the paradox of modernity. Perhaps the most beautiful image of all, and there are many to choose from, is the great spiral of metal being welded into shape for Building the Darbandikhan Dam, with a mountain, or perhaps a tel, framed in the heart of the metallic geometry.
But the photographer was always equivocal. He saw the slowly intensifying degradation of his country, but strove to be unpolitical, a recorder whose only criterion was beauty. He continued to photograph when “Pandora’s box was opened and ignorant people came who had no culture or understanding of the power they held.” Without comment, direct comment at least, he watched and photographed the end of his Iraq. “Iraq was also of the modern world, it interacted with it, the individual became modern. Then the retreat began. I wish we could go back to civilisation.”
The exhibition was presented by the splendid Ruya Foundation, of which Tamara Chalabi is president. In the accompanying book, she interviews al-Ali in a long, touching, even at times heart-breaking, conversation.* I was reminded of a passage in her own book, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, in which she talks of her first return to Iraq, and her anger at the hijacking by foreign occupiers and international journalists of the right to interpret and speak for Iraq,
They reduced Iraq to a desert of tanks, screaming women and barefoot children … One of Iraq’s burdens has always been the way it is presented to the outside world as patchy, Manichean, extreme. It is a nation that is portrayed either through its politics, most notoriously through Saddam and his regime, or through its ancient and glorious history, but never through its people.
And it seems to me, after an hour with the photographs of Latif al-Ani that what he does is precisely to re-integrate politics, history and people in a vocabulary of forms and tones that speak eloquently of his country, deeply imbued with the painful longing for a past that is gone beyond recall, “a fading time,” as he calls it with palpable sadness.
*Latif al-Ani, Hatje Cantz / Ruya Foundation 2017