Dreaming of normality...


By Paul Eedle

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One of Ali Talibís pictures: a man sitting in one of the old quarters of Baghdad.

I'm sidling up to the issue of what Iraqis think of Saddam Hussein. I haven't even tried the direct approach of stopping people and asking them. There's only one answer they can safely give - the guy's great. And maybe they'd mean it, but how would I know?

So I've been edging around, trying to keep chance conversations going long enough to start to build a little trust, hoping we can meet again and say more. And I've been trying to find other ways to test the mood - like art.

An exhibition of photographs which opened today at a concrete-walled gallery next to the College of Fine Arts seemed to me to sum up a desperate longing to be ordinary again, for UN sanctions to be lifted so Iraqis can just get on with earning a living and buying their children new clothes for the holidays and seeing the doctor when they're sick just like normal people.

Ali Talib's photographs catch moments of people's lives in the oldest parts of Baghdad - a blacksmith hammering red-hot metal, an old man stitching a traditional blanket, a little girl in a red dress emerging from the narrow entrance of a house. It is a quiet world of narrow alleys half lit by brilliant sunlight and half lost in deep shadows - a world apart from the Baghdad most people live in of multi-storey public housing blocks with numbers rather than names and dusty, noisy streets. They're peaceful, timeless images.

Ali is a young man in his 20s and his whole future as a photographer depends on sanctions being lifted and a normal economy developing where an artist can make a living. I asked him what he was going to do for work when he finished his five-year fine arts course in a year's time and he said: "I hope that the siege will end so that everyone in Iraq can take their normal place."

If not? "Photography will always be my hobby."

He said he shot modern subjects but he sounded much more passionate about his photographs of traditional scenes and nature.

"When you go into an old house you feel the magic, because it has been built over generations," Ali said.

Picture Picture

Two more of Talibís pictures at an exhibition in Baghdad. One the left, a traditional smithey. On the right, and old man making a blanket.

Driving back to the hotel, I'm overwhelmed again by the other Baghdad - the Baghdad of sanctions, political rhetoric, dust and noise. Several streets are blocked off by police and others are packed with buses and trucks carrying thousands of men in green military uniform to a parade in the Square of Celebrations, a vast floodlit open space dominated by a concrete arch in the form of two swords held by the hands of Saddam Hussein.

So where would you choose to be, if you were an Iraqi? Taking photographs in the dappled alleyways of the old city and making a reputation as an artist, or jammed into a truck with Saddam's Volunteers spending half a day attending a parade? There's only one safe answer to that, of course.


5 April 1998


 Art and Escapism
 At Ease