I would like to introduce you to Taghlib AbdulHadi AlWaily, Iraqi architect and urban planner, author and advocate for the revitalization of Baghdad’s Historical City Centre (BHCC).
He is the founder of Turath, a heritage organization and is the man behind the Ihea'a initiative to revive and develop Baghdad's historic centre.
He also happens to be the person I fondly refer to as Baba.
Taghlib has been actively working on the goal for reviving BHCC for the most part of my adult life. However, his passion for the heritage area of Baghdad’s central core goes back to before I was even born.
Sitting down with him to talk about his life’s work, which involves the monumental 580-page book titled “Baghdad 21st Century” which he authored in 2017, Taghlib took me through his roots as an urban Baghdadi and the foundation for his passion for this lifelong project.
BHCC is a heritage-rich strip along the Tigris river located between the two gates (Bab Al Sharji and Bab al Muatham), which is made famous by it’s spine, Rasheed Street. Our conversation started with his early childhood memories, and the journey that brought him back full circle to the essence of his work: In order to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been (to quote Maya Angelou).
This refers not only to Taghib’s own journey, but extends deeply into our collective heritage as Iraqis. I’ve noticed that recently, Baba has had many memories resurface, and the stories flow. My inherited nostalgia adds new layers to its already complicated existence.
With the iPad in his lap, we time-travelled via Google Maps along the bus route he would take from the tender age of twelve across Bab Al-Sharji and the area of the entire historical city centre. The swath of land along the banks of the Dijla (Tigris) is Baghdad’s most prized heritage area, home to centuries old architectural marvels such as the Abbasid Palace, Madrasat Al-Mustansiriya, Al Qishla, the famous souks and the hidden alleyways or darabeen.
This area also holds much of Taghlib’s memories as a teenager and young adult growing up in Baghdad in the 1960’s and 70’s, what many of our parents refer to as the Golden Years. As he traces his fingers over the digital screen, he takes me through the coffee shops, riverfront, souks, snack shops, and cinemas that line Al-Rasheed Street.
Taghib refers to these spatial memories as City Memory, a phenomenon that is very much a part of his vision and planning strategy. He defines City Memory as the intangible, collective as well as individual memories that make up identity, both on a planning level, as well as on a national identity level. Taghlib believes that in order to see Baghdad into the future, we must revive the city’s past.
[Taghlib] “All the spaces we’ve moved within have memories associated to them. Our schools, the playgrounds, the souks, the waterfront, the streets we frequented… they are stored within us. Even as we leave the city, these memories resurface and form our thoughts, our opinions, our personality.”
Think about what Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem’s old city means to the Palestinian, or the Al-Hamidiyah souk in the old town in Damascus is to the Syrian, or the Grand Bazaar and its alleyways in Istanbul. This is what Baghdad’s historical city centre (which is still an abstract concept) can be.
For the past thirty years until today, Rasheed Street and its surroundings have been overtaken by wholesale markets that provide the entire city of Baghdad with their needs. This small area is overloaded with activities that have made the heritage sites suffer needlessly, as a result of outdated poor city planning strategies. Instead of restoring heritage homes and precious architectural masterpieces, the Mayoralty of Baghdad opts to either tear down dilapidated buildings or do band-aid painting work on facades, without consideration of strict worldwide heritage standards. No wonder my father barely recognized his favourite street in Baghdad upon his return after almost thirty years in the diaspora.
[Sundus] When did your passion for the Historical City Centre of Baghdad become clear to you?
[Taghlib] “When I came back to Baghdad in 2003. I went to Al-Rasheed Street and was in shock. I started to think ‘Why did this happen to Baghdad? What is the problem?’ I’ve been to many cities and spent a lot of time in their city centres, visiting historical areas. When I started on the Al-Rasheed Street project, I got the opportunity to go deep into the study of the area and research the underlying causes of it’s decay. I put my hand on the neighbourhood’s wounds and was able to assess them properly.”
Its not easy writing an article about my father. I know his story too well. I know what it has taken for him to have arrived at this stage in his story. I have witnessed all of his trials and tribulations, his struggles and his triumphs, his migrations and his homecomings. Arriving here, I can safely say that the twists and turns of his life has always led him back to Baghdad, both metaphorically and physically. Perhaps that is the case of the exile, always in two places at once, particularly when that place becomes impossible to return to.
But I digress. I can take this article in a million different directions, like a Turkish drama with secondary characters like the Iraqi Government official, the American contractor, the corrupt politician, the bribed policeman and the seedy businessman. I bite my tongue because I don’t want to talk about the agony, corruption and injustices my father has faced through his life, as much as I want to talk about these things. If I am anything like my father, I will be the decent and honourable warrior, who fights by doing rather than by pointing fingers at why nothing is being done.
Let me begin again. To me, and to many who know my father, Taghlib AbdulHadi AlWaily is synonymous with Al-Rasheed Street.
Baba has always worked with one goal in mind: Baghdad. This become seven more significant when I estimate the weight of his losses when it comes to this city. Speaking from the home he shares with my beautiful mother, Sawsan, in Montreal, Canada, we couldn’t be farther from the city that has ignited so much perseverance in my father. He hasn’t been back to Baghdad in almost a decade, and the relationship ended badly. After working for 5 straight years on the Al-Rasheed street project, a highly competitive and contested planning contract with the Municipality of Baghdad, they unjustifiably shelved the project unexpectedly and the rest is history.
In fact, the rest is history. The history of one of the most significant areas in Baghdad is continuing its decay, at the expense of its residents, and its future generations. Going, going, gone.
Not so fast, though. Luckily for us, Taghlib doesn’t take no for an answer. His goal remained: Baghdad will have its day when the residents can walk through its most historic area and marvel at its beauty, even if it doesn’t happen in his lifetime. Baghdadis (and tourists, inshallah) will be able to work, live, celebrate and enjoy the city’s iconic centre, where we can revel in it’s rich history and plant seeds for the future. This is a vision that is outlined in Taghlib's book, which lays down the foundation for Baghdad’s past, present and future in a 7-part visionary strategy.
After his experience working as an architect and planner in post-invasion Iraq, I thought my father was going to write a tell-all book about his life story, exposing the corruption of his industry and those who practice injustice as a game. A dangerous game that has affected millions of families, including our own. Instead, he made this beautiful offering full of knowledge of the past, assessments of the present and a vision for the future of Baghdad’s Historical City Centre.
[S] When was the moment that you knew you wanted to write this book?
[T] When I realized there was no point in dealing with the Mayoralty of Baghdad. They stopped responding and there was no hope in completing the project. I revised the materials we had gathered and I thought it would be a pity for it to stay on my hard drive, and my mind. People should have access to it, and use it.
I watched Baba as he worked tirelessly on this book for 4 years after leaving Baghdad in 2011. I saw him pour all his knowledge and vision into it-all the research, the analysis, the maps, the plans, the perspectives, and the feasibility studies. He documents Baghdad’s rich history, the present state of the area, and renderings of what a possible future can look like. Taghlib details plans for relocating the wholesale markets, building a modern transport system, leveraging solar energy, conducting waterfront maintenance, creating public spaces, vitalizing small business, encouraging community engagement, and gifting the city’s citizens with City Memory installations. He used his imagination in the best capacity as an architect and urban planner, by imagining a different way forward.
Taghlib believes that the unity of Iraq symbolically rests in the historical city centre of Baghdad. Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, and a significant cultural player on the world stage, has had to toss in its towel as of late. With revitalization projects in historical city centers around the Middle East under way or even completed, as well as projects restoring the devastation of historical Mosul, Basra, and the religious centres of Najaf and Karbala, Baghdad’s historical city centre is still waiting for her day.
Taghlib believes this is no coincidence. The strength of Iraq lies in the unification of its people, a quality that most neighbouring countries and world powers have been trying to keep fractured because - lets face it - a weak Baghdad means a stronger _______ (fill in the blanks).
[T] “That's why its the time to emphasize and revive our heritage. You must lift the peoples awareness with the past that unites them.
The idea that Iraq is too unstable or doesn’t have the budget to do these projects is absolutely wrong. You need to strengthen the society. It is important. Baghdad needs a city centre where people can gather, where culture can be emphasized…where people can unite on a specific idea.
[S] “When was the last time you felt that Iraq had a sense of unity?”
[T] “Always. The youth have always had the spirit and potential for unity, but no one is giving them the opportunity to keep them on this track.”
Looking back at the monumental events of the October Revolution, where tens of thousands of mostly young Iraqis took to the streets to demand a better future, I realize that this spirit of unity that my father speaks of is a defining force in the new generation of Iraqis. As difficult as it is to reflect on this time given the many disappointments they have faced since the people of Iraq took to the streets chanting “Nreed Watan”, the fact is that the youth who experienced it felt the power of unity. It will live in them forever.
Witnessing, let alone experiencing, such a revolution changes you on a molecular level. I think of the youth. Even for myself, a transplanted Iraqi on Mohawk land in Turtle Island, or Canada, witnessing the revolution marked me forever, and I made sure my own children knew intimately the incredible revolution that was happening in their country, even if they’ve yet to set foot on it.
The Iroquois people, indigenous to the land on which I am now living, have a belief that everything that we do must consider “that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own” (from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass). Now is the time to start planting the seeds for the next generation to enjoy its fruits. The October Revolution was a seed powered on imagination, and we will only see its fruit’s as the next seven generations mature.
[S] “Do you think you will see any of your ideas, vision and design in your lifetime?”
[S] “Is that OK with you?”
[T] This is why I wrote this book. This is my contribution. Recently, your mother told me, ‘Your book was a part of your healing.’ I had never thought of it this way. This book, for me, was a part of my healing because I couldn’t complete my mission in Baghdad. In the end, people should know what I was supposed to do for Baghdad but was prevented from doing. I fought and I tried my best.”
Taghlib’s book is likewise a seed. It is a hefty resource for anyone who shares the same passion for seeing Baghdad’s historical city centre in her glory again.
Since I became a mother, I have had a vision of my own. One day, a young Iraqi architect and planner will come across Taghlib’s book on Al Mutanabi Street and find within it a timeless treasure. They will manifest my fathers vision, and Baghdad’s Historical City Centre will beam with culture and pride. And I will walk through Rasheed Street with my children, and tell them, “Your Jiddu saw this in his mind’s eye before anyone else saw it, and wrote a whole book about how to do it, now its here for you to live, work, celebrate and enjoy…”
Taghlib’s book can be found at Dar Al Adib Books, at Al Orfali Gallery in Amman, and in Baghdad’s Dar Al Thakira bookshop near the Sarafiya Bridge.
About the Author
Sundus Abdul Hadi is an artist and writer. Born to Iraqi parents, she was raised and educated in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. Sundus’ transmedia work is a sensitive reflection on trauma, struggle, and care. She is the author/illustrator of Shams, a children’s book about trauma, transformation and healing. Her book “Take Care of Your Self: The Art and Cultures of Care and Liberation” (Common Notions, Fall 2020) is about care, curation and community. She is the cofounder of We Are The Medium, an artist collective and culture point.