Iraqi Poets, Philosophers Ponder Freedom

Article excerpt

Byline: Maya Alleruzzoand Willis Witter, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BAGHDAD - Writers, poets, artists and philosophers, silenced under Saddam Hussein, marked a bittersweet first year of American rule yesterday, sipping tea and blowing fragrant tobacco smoke from shared hookahs at one of the city's favorite watering holes.

The Hasan Amji cafe sits in a part of Baghdad known for its popular used book fair, where everything from English and Arabic college textbooks to Tom Clancy thrillers can be found on the blanketed road. The weekly sale still draws huge crowds each Friday, despite the threat of suicide bombers.

The Hasan Amji cafe became a hangout for writers in the 1950s, much like the Algonquin Hotel in New York.

Today, writers who stayed out of sight during Saddam's rule have once again adopted the cafe as a hangout, proud of having subsisted for years on menial jobs while turning down handsome commissions to glorify the ousted dictator.

"A literary man has to be free, not to sell his talent, but to dedicate his talent to the truth," said Adil Ali Safer, 39, a writer of short stories and plays.

Mr. Safer recalled visiting the cafe from time to time when Saddam ruled, using a child's name as a code to curse the dictator in hushed tones.

"I'm sorry that so many literary people devoted their talent to praising the former regime," Mr. Safer said over a cup of thick, sweet Arab tea, the strongest drink on the menu.

One year ago today, the U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq and quickly deposed Saddam.

Now, however, it is not always easy to find people who do not blame the Americans for lawless streets and random bombings, power blackouts and a general tardiness in getting basic things to work.

But the Hasan Amji cafe, where the residue of tobacco smoke coats the peeling yellow walls, is one place to find people still celebrating Saddam's demise.

Mr. Safer had only kind words for President Bush. …