Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Visiting Scheherazade in Baghdad

An interesting related bit of contemporary news comes from the nyt:


Sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat’s statue of Scheherazade and King Shahryar. (Photo by: Marko Georgiev)

August 27, 2008, 10:53 am
Visiting Scheherazade in Baghdad
By Erica Goode

BAGHDAD — When Mushta Abdul al-Amir is weary and the difficulties of life in Baghdad become too much for him, he comes to the park on Abu Nuwas Street to visit Scheherazade.

She is always there, always waiting for him, her hair flowing down her back, her mouth curved into just the hint of a smile, her bronze hands gesturing gracefully as she spins tales of thieves and sailors and magic lamps for King Shahryar, who reclines in front of her.

“It changes your mood,” Mr. Amir, 33, said as he stood by Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat’s famous statue recently. “It transfers you to another world and gives you comfort, especially with the psychological pain inside because of the situation here.”

In the “Thousand and One Nights,” Scheherazade used her narrative skills to escape execution: King Shahryar had a nasty habit of marrying a different woman each night and having her beheaded the next morning.

But over the last five years, her statue has survived dangers that even the most inventive 9th-century queen could not have imagined.

(Photo by: Marko Georgiev)

Bombs have fallen around it. It has been attacked by looters, who cut off King Sharyar’s left hand with a blow torch. Gun battles have erupted nearby. In 2006, a man was killed in his car just down the street.

The plaza and gardens around the statue, already in disrepair after more than a decade of United Nations sanctions before the American invasion, deteriorated until they were barely recognizable. Laughter and chatter no longer drifted through the air from the cafes and fish restaurants on Abu Nuwas. Scheherazade’s many admirers were too fearful to pay a call.

But in recent months, violence has become less commonplace and Baghdad has attained some degree of peace, however fragile. In May, government workers cleaned up the flowerbeds around the monument and replanted them. They repaired the broken paving stones in the plaza.

On a hot afternoon last week, the flowers were in bloom, people strolled through the park and Scheherazade and King Shahryar all but gleamed. Earlier in the day, an Iraqi policeman, Majin Hassan, noticed that the statue was dusty and decided to take a hose and give it a bath.

“It is not one of my duties but I thought I should clean it up,” he said, adding that in the last few years, he had avoided coming to the park.

“I wasn’t able to look at them,” he said. “They were looking sad.”

Mr. Hassan enthusiastically retold the story of how Scheherazade had used her wits to stay alive, interrupting her tale each night at a point so suspenseful that the king could not bear to kill her before hearing how it would end.

“Basically, this story, it is the Iraqi story,” he said. “The Iraqi people, they decided how to be still for a long time and to struggle against the danger and risk.”

Mr. Ghani, who left Iraq after the invasion and set up a studio in Amman, Jordan, said in a telephone interview that when he designed the sculpture in 1972, “I was imagining that I was standing myself in front of her and she was telling me a story about what was going on in Baghdad.”

He said he hoped that each person who visited the statue would feel the same way, “that she is telling him the true stories.”

The loss of King Shahryar’s hand saddened him, as did a clumsy replacement hand affixed to the statue two years ago, the jagged white seam still visible. He hopes someday to return to Baghdad to repair the damage himself, he said.

Most artistic representations of Scheherazade, Mr. Ghani noted, depict her as subservient to the king, sitting by his legs, for example. He wanted instead to portray her as a strong woman, he said, who commands King Shahryar’s attention and shows “how powerful women can be.”

Now, unveiled, confident in her sensuality, she stands in the park surveying her city, a relic of a lost time when Baghdad was energetically secular, eager to try things on, bursting with new ideas, new ways of thinking.

Iraq has vastly changed. But Scheherazade remains the same, spinning her tales, using her wits, hoping to avoid the chopping block.

“Since 2003, the statue has been crying hard tears,” said Mr. Amir, as he gazed at the Persian queen and her husband. Now, he thinks, “the statue is laughing.”

Photo by: Marko Georgiev

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