A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment, amid the Bullets of `Democracy'

By Fisk, Robert | The Independent (London, England), December 23, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment, amid the Bullets of `Democracy'


Fisk, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


JUST BESIDE Baghdad's cloth market are two noble wooden doors set in a massive and ancient brick wall with the first words of the Koran inscribed on the top. There is only one God but God and His Prophet is Mohamed. Because classical Arabic today remains the same language as that in which the Koran was written, there is always a slight surprise to see words written so long ago in unmistakably the same spelling and sense.

When the Caliph abu Jaafar al-Mansour bin aldahar Mohamed al- Nasr had those words inscribed on the al-Mustansariyah university wall, we were writing in the early Middle English which would soon resemble the English of Chaucer.

Indeed, Chaucer's pilgrims would have appreciated the peace and architectural glory of Baghdad's oldest university. From the moment I pushed open one of those noble doors, the roar of the market - the street hawkers and the men staggering under the weight of carpets and linen strapped to their backs, the taxis and trucks - fell away.

The four great walls of the university square surround two pools, and birds fly into the courtyard from the blue-domed mosque next door. The intricate designs of each wall, the product of Islam's prohibition on the human form in religious art, speak of an age of Arab enlightenment scarcely a hundred years after the Crusades. If we live today in "New Iraq" - and I'm not at all sure we do - then this is "Old Iraq".

Each door-niche around the courtyard was home to a scholar who would, according to legend, spread gossip and back-stab the scholar teaching in the next niche, a fine academic tradition which we in the west maintain in most of our universities. Science and theology were taught together in al-Mustansariyah, a tradition which lives on in Arab bookshelves where religious books and volumes on nuclear physics and chemistry are often placed on adjacent shelves.

There is even a little library off the courtyard where you can buy old PhD theses on Islamic art - there's an excellent treatise on Islamic bridges and minarets submitted to Edinburgh University in 1975 - and second-hand copies of Wilfrid Thesiger's explorations, and even a 1957 account of Nasser's relations with the Soviet Union which demonstrates how pitifully the language of Egyptian nationalism aped the prose of Pravda and Izvestia.

A female keeper walks up to me in the square outside and makes a familiar plea.

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A Glimpse of Old Iraq, Age of Arab Enlightenment, amid the Bullets of `Democracy'
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