Iraq was won when George W. Bush was still in office, but you know it’s mission accomplished when the hacks at the New York Times have been reduced to kvetching about the ‘tacky’ decor of buildings:
In downtown Baghdad, a police headquarters has been painted two shades of purple: lilac and grape. The central bank, a staid building in many countries, is coated in bright red candy cane stripes.
Multicolored fluorescent lights cover one of the city’s bridges, creating a Hawaiian luau effect. Blast walls and security checkpoints stick out because they are often painted in hot pink.
Baghdad has weathered invasion, occupation, sectarian warfare and suicide bombers. But now it faces a new scourge: tastelessness.
Iraqi artists and architecture critics who shudder at each new pastel building blame a range of factors for Baghdad’s slide into tackiness: including corruption and government ineptitude, as well as everyday Iraqis who are trying to banish their grim past and are unaccustomed to having the freedom to choose any color they want.
“It’s happening because Iraqis want to get rid of the recent past,” said Caecilia Pieri, the author of “Baghdad Arts Deco: Architectural Brickwork 1920-1950.” “They see the colors as a way of expressing something new, but they don’t know which colors to use. The Arab mentality is that you have to be the owner of your building, and you do what you want with it. But there are no government regulations like in Paris or Rome. It’s anarchy of taste.”
For decades, Saddam Hussein’s government ruled over aesthetics in Iraq’s capital with the same grip it exercised over its people. A committee of artists, architects and designers approved the color of buildings as well as the placement of shrubs. With many beige brick buildings, and color used sparingly — most often on mosques — the city’s appearance was uniform and restrained.
But the committee, like Mr. Hussein’s government, fell apart after the United States invasion in 2003. Some years later, when Iraqis started rebuilding as the violence declined, there was no central arbiter. Bright colors started appearing, and places like the Trade Ministry were done up in pink, orange and yellow.
“It’s something to feel ashamed of,” said Qasim Sabti, one of Iraq’s most famous artists. “It is the ugliest the city has ever been.”
Government officials say they do not have strong enough laws to police the look of Baghdad, as Mr. Hussein once did. The officials also contend that many agency leaders, with money to spend on renovations and architectural face-lifts, are hiring the cheapest, most inept contractors and pocketing kickbacks and unspent funds.
“We don’t have a strong enough deterrent to stop it,” said Najem al-Kinany, the official in the Baghdad mayor’s office in charge of design, who formed a public taste committee a year ago after receiving a flood of complaints about the city’s appearance. “Before 2003, the subject of public taste and choosing what was appropriate was much better than now.”
……“Right now, when I have an exhibition at my gallery nobody comes from the government, only the art students and other artists,” Mr. Sabti said. “Taking care of the look of the city has stopped because the people who have come to power were living in villages with animals. So how did they develop their taste?
……“Saddam was also a villager,” he continued, “but he was smart enough to depend on the qualified and professional people who understood art.”
……Sabti said, Baghdad will just have to scuff its way through one of the ugliest periods in its history. “There is no worse era than this time,” he said.
There’s no worse era than this time??
Sure, Saddam Hussein was a brutal,WMD-weilding, mass-grave producing psychopath but by gawd, he had fashion sense. The hoi polloi lacks culture. Tsk. How gauche.
The State-mandated color scheme was much more palatable. See what happens when the unwashed masses are left to their own devices?
In 2004, Sabti and his fellow artistes groused that although Saddam was an oppressive bastard, things aren’t much better for Iraq’s artist colony.
“There was no culture” under Saddam Hussein, declares Hassan Hafidh, a wiry 53-year-old journalist. “There was only police. There was only the leader, and we were the servants.
“We clapped for him through our tears.”
……But Saddam pressed artists, writers and filmmakers into service of his regime, ordering portraits and murals that celebrated his military victories and punishing anyone who dared write about victims of his slaughter. Those who remained independent found themselves hobbled by poverty and international isolation.
“This was a land of many civilizations and cultures,” says poet Salam al-Haidari, 50. “This was a center of culture. … He destroyed that.”
……But not everyone at Hafidh’s small cafe table is as satisfied with life after Hussein. Qadhim Ahmed Qadhim, a poet and Spanish-language professor, leans in with a question about the U.S.-led occupation.
“Tell me,” Qadhim asks a visitor. “They could bring tanks and helicopters to Baghdad in days, but they can’t bring security in nine months?”
Without waiting for an answer, he digs deep into his memory for a wisp of Western poetry. Was it Whitman, he asks in English, who wrote something like, “Battle does not express anything but the wickedness of men. And a victory is nothing but an illusion of the mad.”
Just a side note: I looked through quotes on the internet, and the only one that comes close to Qadhim’s reference is this:
It was Grandfather’s [watch] and when Father gave it to me he said, Quentin, I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire. . . I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
—William Faulkner, The Sound & the Fury
The book has nothing to do with war; it’s a story about the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are struggling to deal with the dissolution of their family and its reputation. Quentin’s speech is given on the day he commits suicide.
In any case, that so-called “illusion of the mad” helped to create our Democratic Republic. It saved Europe from Nazism and subsequently, staved off the Soviet empire. It also resulted in a new environment—thanks to U.S. Soldiers—where Sabti and his Bohemian artisans can freely create as much “art” as they’d like without fear of Saddam or al Qaeda.
Iraq still faces a number of issues under its fledgling democracy. There’s more important things to worry about than the silly elitist bullshit espoused by Sabti.
BTW: Here’s a sample of Qasim Sabti’s “artwork”:
The ‘scourge’ of pink, orange and yellow buildings look a hell of a lot better.