Secular vision of a prominent Iraqi family

The Chadirji family – several of whose members helped shape modern Iraq – renew an uphill bid to promote their ideals.

sam Dagher
Architect: Rifat Chadirji (l.) and his wife, Balqees (r.), live part time in the Mediterranean village of Halat, Lebanon.

Kamil Chadirji's home in Baghdad is one of the last vestiges of a bygone world.

It was here that Mr. Chadirji's grandfather, also named Kamil, a prominent lawyer, journalist, and founder of Iraq's National Democratic Party (NDP), would gather artists, writers, and intellectuals to talk about their visions for an independent and modern Iraq.

But in the new democratic Iraq, these secular visionaries have been pushed to the edges, sidelined by a society that is swayed more by religious clerics than by academics and people like Kamil or his father's contemporaries. Five years into the war, most of these people live outside Iraq. Some who left before the war have chosen not to come back.

Now, some of the Chadirjis are making modest attempts to reassert these ideals through political work, writing, and contributions to design and architecture in a atmosphere they say is dominated by hard-line Islamist parties.

"There is more to Iraq than turbans and clerics. We represent an educated middle class that led the country during its birth and made some impact," says Kamil, who is a deputy minister of municipalities and public works.

"Things will not get better by escaping. I will not leave Iraq so that a cleric can take over my place," he adds, though Kamil's wife and two sons live in Jordan. One way he remains engaged is through his direction of the Alwiyah Club in Baghdad, a social and recreational club dating to 1924, which continues to host occasional political gatherings and conferences.

He is also working on turning his grandfather's house – which has one of the largest private libraries and art collections in Baghdad – into a museum.

The Chadirji family has had ministers and governors among their ranks in pre-Baath Iraq. And family members have taken various routes to communicate their vision of Iraq. They do not like to be labeled as privileged Sunnis and speak first of being Iraqis.

In perhaps his boldest step, Kamil's father Naseer is trying ­ against great odds – to rally the country's splintered secular forces, gathering the signatures of nearly 800 prominent Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities on a petition calling for the separation of state and religion. Although he was a member of the first governing council created by the Americans following the 2003 invasion, his NDP, like many other secular parties, failed to win seats in parliament in the December 2005 elections. Others, like the party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, have seen their alliance of communists, liberals, and secularists unravel.

"This appeal is the first spark," says Naseer. He, his wife, Amira, and Kamil are the only Chadirjis living in Iraq. The family's homes on Taha Street are protected by armed guards; nearby is a combat outpost established by the US and Iraqi military.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament and a family friend, says the Chadirjis' efforts are important. "If secular parties work together, they can make headway. People are fed up with religious parties," says Mr. Othman

Othman says that his Kurdish parliamentary bloc, the second largest and allied to ruling Shiite and Sunni Islamists, would be the first to rally behind the secularists should they organize better. Othman blames the US for abandoning secularists in Iraq.

But politics is not the only realm of the Chadirjis. Rifat Chadirji, another son of Kamil senior, is considered one of the country's foremost architects and designers. Since 1982, he has lived with his wife, Balqees, a novelist, in London and in a home he designed overlooking the Mediterranean in Halat, Lebanon.

He has written 12 books and is working on another about the ever-shifting urban and architectural landscape in Iraq.

Rifat studied architecture in Britain and returned to Iraq in 1952 to start his own practice. He was determined to fuse Western modernity, inspired by the German Bauhaus movement and the works of The Architects Collaborative (TAC) , based in Boston, with Iraqi traditions as a symbol for Iraq's democratic ambitions.

"He was among the first generation of foreign-educated architects who came back to build a new Iraq," says Caecilia Pieri, a Paris-based scholar.

His many works include the Central Post, the Telegraph and Telephone tower, still damaged by the bombardment of Baghdad in 2003, and the nearby Federation of Industries building on Khulani Square, with its distinctive facade that evokes the famed bay windows of southern Iraq amid a thoroughly modern structure. He also tried to express this same mix in furniture and abstract photos from his travels capturing scenes of the daily lives of average Iraqis.

The whims of the Baath regime landed him at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison in 1978 and the whims of Saddam Hussein got him out two years later. Mr. Hussein made him his architectural adviser and tasked him with rebuilding Baghdad as a utopian metropolis in time for a major conference in 1982. Rifat had two choices: accept the commission or stay in prison.

At one point, Rifat was managing 70 projects. Then the Iraq-Iran war started. Rifat left and has never come back. He was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University for one year and ended up staying in Cambridge, Mass., for nine years. "I was told Saddam wanted to make my name eternal," says Rifat during an interview at his home in Lebanon.

The Iraqi government now wants to rebuild Rifat's avant-garde monument to the unknown soldier in Firdous Square. The monument was demolished in 1982 to make way for a statue of Hussein, which was brought down by US soldiers in April 2003.

Rifat takes it in stride. "For more than 2,000 years there has been no stability in Iraq. We have either had tyrants or feuding gangs," he says. "Every new group that comes demolishes everything and starts over again."

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