When I was growing up, Baghdad sounded wonderfully exotic and ancient. After all, it was in Mesopotamia, that area between the Tigris and Euphrates, which is “widely considered to be the cradle of civilization.”
The meaning of the city’s name may be a “Middle Persian compound of Bag ‘god’ + dād ‘given’, translating to ‘God-given’ or ‘God’s gift’…A less probable guess has been Persian compound Bağ ‘garden’ + dād ‘fair’, translating to ‘The fair Garden.’ Regardless of the derivation, I had believed for some time in my youth that there was a literal Garden of Eden at one point, and it was located somewhere around there.
While the city’s roots date back to ancient Babylon, as a settlement as far back as 1800 B.C., in 762 A.D., “the caliph Al Mansur commissioned the construction of the [modern] city… Mansur believed that Baghdad was the perfect city to be the capital of the Islamic empire…In its early years the city was known as a deliberate reminder of an expression in the Qur’an, when it refers to Paradise.” So it may have been the perfect place in the three major monotheistic religions at different points.
But in the next millennium, Baghdad was captured by various groups, including the Fatimids, the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks and finally the British in 1917, during World War I. In the spring of 1941, a coup was launched against the pro-British Kingdom, replaced by “a pro-German and pro-Italian government”, but two months later, “the Mayor of Baghdad surrendered to British and Commonwealth forces.
“On 14 July 1958, members of the Iraqi Army under Abdul Karim Kassem staged a coup to topple the Kingdom of Iraq. King Faisal II…and others were brutally killed during the coup. Many of the victim’s bodies were then dragged through the streets of Baghdad.”
Baghdad prospered for a time, but war, first a nearly nine-year struggle with Iran and then a brief conflict in 1991 and a considerably longer war starting in 2003 with the United States and its allies “caused significant damage to Baghdad’s transportation, power, and sanitary infrastructure.” (And no parade for the US troops coming home is imminent.)
There was this 1987 German movie called Bagdad Café, which I saw at the time. “The film is a comedy set in a remote truck-stop café and motel in the Mojave Desert. The plot is centered around two women (Marianne Sägebrecht and C. C. H. Pounder) who have recently separated from their husbands, and the blossoming friendship which ensues…With an ability to quietly empathize with everyone she meets at the café, helped by a passion for cleaning and performing magic tricks, Jasmin gradually transforms the café and all the people in it.” It was a charming film; here’s the principal song from the movie, Calling You by Jevetta Steele, the soundtrack of a Roger Ebert dream about Illinois cornfields after one of his surgeries. The film was made into a short-lived 1990 US TV sitcom starring Jean Stapleton and Whoopi Goldberg.
Somehow, the notion of Baghdad as a place of greater understanding and cooperation appeals to me. I don’t know if the performer here is from Baghdad, but he is from Iraq, and has a wonderful, hopeful story. And there’s seldom too much hope.