Nida Kadhim's eight statues of physicians from the Abbasid era – a golden age that spanned five centuries beginning in AD 750 – once adorned Baghdad hospitals. Along with many of his other distinctive bronze works, they disappeared in the wave of looting that engulfed the city after the US-led invasion in 2003.
But Mr. Kadhim, who witnessed firsthand the pillaging of Baghdad's heritage, is optimistic not only that there is a place for art in Iraq today but also that it can play a central role in restoring Iraqis' sense of nationhood and normalcy.
The 70-something sculptor is busy working on his next project: a series of statues of prominent 20th-century Iraqi intellectuals, artists, poets, and writers who were largely nationalist. The centerpiece will be seven images of the late Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, arguably one of the Arab world's finest poets who romanticized a unified Iraq and was a pivotal figure in Iraq's anticolonial movement from the 1920s until the 1950s.
The idea is that the bard and the others could serve as symbols of unity for a fractured nation struggling to heal the wounds of a bloody past and present.
"Jawahiri spoke of the nation; Tigris, Euphrates, the land – south, north, and center. He was loyal to his country to the last minute and that's an ideal that all Iraqis should strive for," says Kadhim, who spoke with the Monitor last week at his modest studio nestled in a leafy alleyway not far from Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts.
Kadhim, bespectacled with a shock of unruly white hair, pauses from his work, wipes his hands, and hauls out a three-foot-long clay model of the Jawahiri statue from his dark studio into the morning light. Like other Baghdadis, Kadhim receives an hour of electricity a day.
Jawahiri is depicted in his hallmark three-piece suit and embroidered skullcap. The statues will eventually be nearly 10 feet tall and show the poet in different poses and settings.
Tentative government support
He has already received tentative support for his project from the government, and the statutes will be displayed in a park on Abu Nawas Street along the east bank of the Tigris, an area named after the Abbasid "poet of wine" that was once the hub of Baghdad's nightlife with its cafes, fish restaurants, and bars.
The street was divided after 2003 with checkpoints and protective concrete slabs put up by Western security firms and media outlets occupying nearby property.
The US military in partnership with Baghdad's municipality has already spent millions of dollars to beautify the area, according to Tahseen al-Shaikhli, a civilian spokesman for the US-Iraqi security operation under way in the capital.
Artists were even hired to paint scenes of ancient Mesopotamia on the blast walls. Guards have been posted at the park to prevent a repeat of what happened two years ago when looters made away with benches and sprinklers right after another US-funded renovation.
The park remains off limits to families from outside the neighborhood and the Western tenants are balking at removing the obstacles, says Mr. Shaikhli, adding that reopening all of Abu Nawas Street would be "a tremendous psychological boost for Baghdadis."
Kadhim is not discouraged. "One day, Baghdad will return to its old self as long as there are people who create and build," he says. "It must."
Spearheading other artistic ventures
Kadhim, a former Communist and Shiite who was expelled from his job at the Ministry of Culture in 1976 and had a brother hanged for evading conscription during the Iran-Iraq War, says he's willing to forgive former regime elements who are sincere about starting a new chapter in society.
He's spearheading efforts to restore other monuments like giving the statue of King Shahrayar, lounging on the southern end of Abu Nawas, back his hand that was chopped off by religious fanatics last year because it held a wine glass. King Shahrayar was a central figure in the fables of 1001 Nights. He's helping the family of Abdel-Muhsin al-Sadoun, a prime minister in the 1920s during British rule, replicate the original statue of him that once stood in the median of a thoroughfare bearing his name. It was swept up in the looting spree of 2003 and then replaced by a dwarfish and flimsy-looking version.
Preserving Saddam-era statues, too
He's also trying to convince the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki to preserve some monuments from the era of Saddam Hussein, who had a penchant for grandiose and heroic symbolism.
Two of four massive busts of Saddam in a combination of Western and Arab military attire that once adorned one of his palaces in the coalition-secured Green Zone, renamed the International Zone, could, along with other relics of the dictator's era, go into another park along the lines of the graveyard of Soviet statues in Moscow's Gorky Park, reckons Kadhim.
"It could be something for the collective memory just to remind people of Saddam's brutality," he says. But Kadhim says that hard-line Shiites in the government, who are bent on eradicating all vestiges of the Saddam era and remain highly suspicious of plots to turn back the clock, are demanding that the US military hand over the busts sitting in the courtyard of the palace, which now serves as a base called Prosperity.
Outside the International Zone, whatever was not removed by a municipal body tasked with clearing remnants of the previous regime was blown up by mobs as happened two years ago with the "March of the Baath Party" memorial not far from the National Museum. Municipal workers were busy over the weekend painting the memorial's empty pedestal with scenes of galloping white horses and maidens.
As reconciliation evades Iraq's feuding political class, and by extension many segments of the population, Kadhim's attitude may be a glimmer of hope that it might be possible one day. He hopes Iraqis will overcome fear and "start talking to each other again."