The Baghdad of their dreams

The images have become all too familiar.

Baghdad at dawn: grainy and eerily silent for a city of more than 4 million. Baghdad in the middle of the night: rocked by earth-shattering explosions. Baghdad from the roof of a hotel: buildings smoldering, fires raging.

This is Baghdad as we now know it. The Baghdad of Saddam Hussein.

But to many Iraqi exiles who once lived in the city, there is nothing recognizable about these pictures. Ask them about the Baghdad of their memories, and their faces soften. The fear in their eyes fades to a far-off gaze, and they begin to tell otherworldly tales of a magical, romantic place.

"Baghdad is so beautiful that it's like something out of the imagination," says Beth Al-Nassir, who left Iraq with her husband, Fawzi, in 1982. "There, you walk and you see the mosques, you see the trees, you hear the birds talking."

While the television in the living room of their Rockville home broadcasts bombs raining on Baghdad, the Al-Nassirs reminisce about life in the city before Hussein seized power in 1979. Over a traditional Iraqi lunch of spiced flat bread, spinach pastries and meat pies, they vividly recall the nights they spent strolling with their families down Abu-Nuwas, a main street in Baghdad that runs along the Tigris River. They remember stopping to snack on cups full of warm, spiced chickpeas that filled the air with the scents of cumin and coriander.

"God, I miss those smells," says Fawzi, inhaling deeply, as if he detects a trace of the simmering chickpeas in his own kitchen.

Born and raised in Baghdad, the Al-Nassirs have three teen-age children, all born in the United States. Fawzi, 50, is a biostatician, and Beth, 43, is a pharmacist. Like most Iraqi exiles who openly criticize Hussein, they don't want to risk returning to Baghdad until his regime falls.

"It's so hard because life in Baghdad is all about family," says Fawzi, describing summer nights when he and his nine siblings slept on the roof of their home to stay cool, huddled together under the stars. "It was just a wonderful place to live."

Beth says her family also slept on their rooftop at night, and took naps in the cool comfort of their basement in the afternoon.

"After our nap, we would get dressed up and go out and walk all over the city. Sometimes we would walk two or three miles - all the time stopping to see family and friends."

Younger Iraqi exiles also paint Baghdad as a peaceful, pleasant city - even in the early years of Hussein's rule.

"Baghdad is like one of those dreams when you wake up and wonder if you were really there," says Hind Rahim, 20, who fled Iraq with her mother and three siblings six years ago. "For me, the city is not about the political situation. It is about the memories that I carry in my head - when we walked on Abu-Nuwas and saw the Tigris in front of us, and behind us, hundreds of palm trees."

Rahim, who now lives in Silver Spring, says she and her family used to stop at one of the dozens of campfires that blazed along the river banks to eat al-mazgouf, a whole fish grilled on a skewer. Sometimes, she would sit with a circle of children and watch street performances of Aladdin or tales from the Arabian Nights.

"We always called it the Bright City because it was so shiny at night," says Rahim, a raven-haired girl with dark, sad eyes.

Others remember Baghdad as a desirable destination for Middle Eastern vacationers, drawn to the city for its ancient mosques and colorful bazaars.

Baghdad even had a booming nightlife revolved around "casinos" or dinner clubs located in many of the city's neighborhoods. Families gathered at their respective clubs to dine, hear live music or simply talk and sip cocktails while their children played and swam. (Most of these exclusive, oak-paneled clubs are now meeting places for Saddam's coterie).

Founded in 762 A.D. by Muslim leader Abu Ja'far al-Mansour, Baghdad was also called Madinat as-Salam - the City of Peace - until the Mongols sacked the city in 1258. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Baghdad earned a reputation as one of the richest and most magnificent cities in the cradle of civilization. Travelers romanticized about its opulent palaces, rose gardens and bazaars, and imagined it as the fabled city of the Arabian Nights - one inhabited by magicians, monkeys, Moors and princes. Baghdad was also the most important center of learning in Iraq with the University of Baghdad and the Al-Mustansiriyya University, which both Fawzi and Beth Al-Nassir attended.

Over the past three decades, Baghdad has been in steady decline, crippled by war, economic sanctions and the brutal dictatorship. Abu-Nuwas is still one of the city's main streets, but Iraqi exiles say it is much more subdued now, and, like the rest of the city, plastered with posters of Saddam Hussein.

"My family jokes that now the only place where they don't see Saddam is in the shower," says Fawzi.

The Al-Nassirs have seen their families only once since they left Iraq in 1982. Their only connection to Baghdad is infrequent phone calls, letters and a box full of photos. One picture, sent to Beth by her cousin, shows both girls - auburn-haired and almond-eyed - when they were young. On the back it reads, "remember me."

The Al-Nassirs are afraid to return, they say, because of the terror Saddam's regime has wrought. Fawzi's cousin, a 39-year-old businessman and father of two, disappeared one afternoon in 1983. Weeks later, when soldiers called his family to prison to pick him up, they were directed to a jail cell where his dead body lay crumpled on the floor. The guards would not even give them a box in which to carry him home. Beth's brother-in-law was taken as a political prisoner and killed at age 29, just three days after his marriage to Beth's sister.

Beth says she has spent three decades trying to forget her most haunting memory of Baghdad: several bodies hanging limply from posts in a public square, their heads covered in black hoods.

Stories like these are common among Iraqi exiles, many of whom fled their homeland because they condemned the brutality of Saddam's regime - a crime considered punishable by death.

Hind Rahim's father, a well-known poet, died of a heart attack while helping his family escape Baghdad because he refused to work as Saddam's official bard.

"This is something we can't talk about," says Rahim. "We want to say something yet we just can't - but it's always there."

Memories of Baghdad, no matter how magnificent, are almost always haunted by the specter of Saddam Hussein.

"You can be talking about love, about weddings, and even then the conversation will suddenly turn to him," said Fawzi. "We call Saddam the 'Uninvited Guest.' "

Now, of course, there is also the fear and uncertainty of Baghdad under siege. While most Iraqi exiles support the use of military action to topple Saddam's regime, they worry that extensive bombing will only further the damage done to the city during the first gulf war.

Rahim swears that she will never return to Baghdad, where her dream-like memories might give way to harsh reality. "I am afraid of going home to look for the beauty I know in my imagination," she says. "It's not even the changes that I might see in the streets, but what I might see in the eyes of the people."

When Beth imagines going back, she pictures herself driving around the city with her cousin. The sun is shining. The public squares are filled with families and stands that sell slices of watermelon.

"I am optimistic that I will go back one day and it will be better than it was when I left," she says. "When you love a place as much as I love Baghdad, you are always optimistic."

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