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Optimism ebbs among Iraq's intellectuals

Many of Baghdad's intellectuals kept their optimism during the worst years of the war. But now, they are reconsidering their country’s own experience with overturning a dictatorship.
Image: Artificial flowers and two pictures of Hadi al-Mahd, a murdered journalist, accompany the corridor of the radio compound where he hosted a popular radio show in Baghdad.
Artificial flowers and two pictures of Hadi al-Mahd, a murdered journalist, accompany the corridor of the radio compound where he hosted a popular radio show in Baghdad.Mauricio Lima / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

In a note to friends brimming with defiance and poetic musings, citing as inspiration Jesus, Imam Hussein, Gandhi, Che Guevara and the Buddha, Hadi al-Mahdi prophesied his own murder.

“I will sleep in peace. I want to rest so long, and dream of my name written on my grave, dream that my son will come and visit me, even once, my son who does not speak Arabic well. I hope that he will be able to read his father’s name, the lover of freedom and its martyr.”

That letter was written in June, and by September he was dead from an assassin’s silenced pistol, another journalist killed in Iraq. But perhaps none of the killings has resonated so deeply in a nook of society that welcomed war with such eagerness.

The murder has reverberated through Baghdad’s community of journalists, artists and writers, spurring a moment of deep introspection for a cadre of secular intellectuals, many of whom fled repression under Saddam Hussein and returned to their homeland after the invasion with the hopes of being the liberal conscience of a new nation.

Many kept their optimism during the worst years of the war. But now, as the American military leaves and they witness scenes of triumph from homegrown revolutions in neighboring Arab countries, they are reconsidering their country’s own experience with overturning a dictatorship.

“For me, I was still optimistic a year ago,” said Ali Sumari, a newspaper editor and film director who returned to Iraq in 2003 from Jordan and was a close friend of Mr. Mahdi’s. “Even during the sectarian war, I thought things would settle down. Nowadays, I am starting to fear that Iraq will never become a stable country.”

Optimism, hope
In Iraq, where there is sometimes little distinction between a journalist, an artist and an activist, Mr. Mahdi, 45 when he was killed, hosted a popular radio show, becoming a powerful voice for those disenchanted with their government, often criticizing officials by name and receiving frequent death threats. He also produced films and wrote plays and columns, and became a leader of a small band of protesters who since February have gathered most Fridays at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest against the government.

Just as former political opponents of the government followed American tanks into Iraq, intellectuals did too, hoping to shape an architecture of ideas to buttress their new democracy. Their experience has been starkly different. The politicians returned to preside over a state, the journalists to suffer under tactics that they, and human rights activists, say mimic those wielded by the former government.

In February, Mr. Sumari was arrested alongside Mr. Mahdi after a protest against the government in Baghdad. The two were beaten and interrogated and accused of being sympathetic to the Baath Party — the worst kind of insult in Iraq, especially for two men who had fled the country under Mr. Hussein’s Baathist government.

“You can accuse me of anything, even of being a terrorist, but don’t call me a Baathist,” said Mr. Sumari. “You humiliate my humanity.”

Those thinkers and writers who returned represented a powerful counternarrative to the exodus of this country’s educated middle class, many of whom have yet to come back, leaving a fissure in Iraq’s social structure between an often corrupt political elite and a vast underclass.

Mr. Mahdi had fled to Syria and then Denmark, where his children remain. Mr. Sumari had been in Jordan. Another close friend, Ahmed Hussein, a newspaper editor, lived in Syria, Lebanon and Canada before the American invasion. He was a college mate of Mr. Mahdi’s in Baghdad, and introduced him to his first wife.

When he returned, Mr. Hussein said: “I was very optimistic. I thought Americans were smarter than they turned out to be.”

He had communicated on Facebook with Mr. Mahdi just hours before he was killed, discussing an upcoming protest. “Hadi was not only optimistic, but a dreamer,” he said. “He thought Iraq would become liberal and secular. Even until his last days he was dreaming this dream.”

'Iraq is in its worst time'
Other friends of Mr. Mahdi’s never left, and recalled jubilant scenes of reunion after the fall of the government on Mutanabbi Street, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare of booksellers’ stalls that is a hub of intellectual life in the old quarter of the capital.

“We were so happy to have him back in Iraq,” said Karema Hashim, a friend of his since the 1980s when they both worked in cinema and media in Baghdad. “And he was happy to be back because he thought it was liberated.”

Ms. Hashim, who manages a fine arts high school in Baghdad, spoke recently outside a mosque during Mr. Mahdi’s funeral, near a table where men were setting out plates of fruit for the mourners. She was dressed in black, a tissue in her hand to blot out the tears. “I was so happy because all of my friends came back to Iraq,” she said. “We were full of power and ambition.”

Now, she said, “Iraq is in its worst time. I know I’m going to get killed one day.”

Another friend, Satar Muhsin, came to intellectual life after the fall of the government. “The best years of my life I wasted in the army under Saddam,” said Mr. Muhsin, now a bookseller on Mutanabbi Street. “It was war, it was killing, it was hunger and fear.”

He met Mr. Mahdi in Najaf at a conference featuring the liberal Iraqi writer and cleric Ahmed al-Qabbanji, and the two bonded over Mr. Qabbanji’s message. “His idea is that Islam is not the solution,” he said. “The modern state of technocrats and secularism is.”

For some, Mr. Mahdi’s murder has elevated the level of fear so high that they are even reconsidering their work as journalists. Mr. Sumari said he might stop writing temporarily.

“We’ve become so afraid of what we do and what we write,” he said. “We’re changing where we meet, we’re not sleeping at home.”

Mr. Mahdi was the 93rd journalist murdered in the last decade — many more died from indiscriminate acts of war — and in not a single case has anyone been brought to justice, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This story, "Optimism of Intellectuals Ebbs in Iraq," originally appeared in The New York Times.