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Chicago: Present-Day Paradise, Future Magic

The great Iraqi writer Mahmoud Saeed was imprisoned in Iraq six times between 1959 and 1980. He left Iraq in 1985 and has lived in Chicago since 1999. He wrote this essay on the eve of his departure to spend a semester as the first writer-in-residence at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.—The Editors

Chicago awarded me its love, the way beauties do, because she is a playful, mercurial, liberated, enchanting maiden. From icy weather of twenty degrees below zero to heat over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, from wind gusts strong enough to uproot trees to a gentle breeze that refreshes the spirit, Chicago is a city of contrasts with a beguiling lake, skyscrapers, endless woods, wealthy people who amass huge treasures of gold, and groveling vagrants who bed down on the earth and cover themselves with the sky.

Cities are like women, and just as each woman has her own thrilling scent, so do cities. Some cities open their arms to you the moment you enter as if they were a passionate girl who won’t leave you till she has cheered you up and taken whatever she wants from you. Other cities are reticent; they slap and rebuff you, leaving you feeling jaded and vanquished.

I live near the lake, at Belmont and Clark. In just a few minutes I can reach the most beautiful spots in Chicago: the lakeshore and the Loop. I do not allow Sunday to escape, because on such days Chicago lays bare her delights the way a striptease artist delights her fans with her body’s charms. There are continual festivals, parades, private and public sales, beauty pageants, animals, aviation shows, and many varieties of food. She is a captivating, passionate young woman overflowing with vitality and so insistent that the man who loves her never has an hour of rest.

When the weather is fair, I hurry out—before it storms! Chicago changes its weather the way a dancer changes costumes between her routines. When I feel annoyed, I leave my apartment and walk along the street a little. Then my feeling of annoyance changes to delight.

As I walk down Clark Street, a teenage girl catches my attention with the fresh, contrasting look of her attire: a black leather jacket bedecked with silver medals, buttons, and tassels, an extremely short skirt, long white socks partially covered by red stockings that rise to her knees, and a red blouse with a collar of shocking violet. Her hair is a number of colors: black, fiery red, blue, and intense orange. All these colors set off a face that is extraordinarily lovely, with a pure white complexion and large ebony eyes. Her male escort is wearing a Star Trek costume, but his hair is cut to resemble a Roman helmet. He clasps her hand lovingly because he fears she may turn into a space creature and escape, vanishing into the sky.

When I walk along Clark Street, I’m always reminded of al-Rashid Street in Baghdad. There is something distinctive about both streets, where you find clothes that mirror fashions from around the world. What you don’t find on al-Rashid Street, though, is Clark Street’s variety or number of restaurants. This street is a delightful sorcerer whose afreets slip as agilely as the jinn into creatures’ bellies to stimulate them to fill its elegant restaurants. In addition to famous American specialties like steak, hamburgers, and hot dogs, Italian pizza is next door to Japanese sushi, Indian roasted chicken, Pakistani biryani, Arab and Iranian kebab, Moroccan couscous, African fried dishes, and Chinese duck. There are so many different types of food that a person could not list all of them in a day or even a week.

Every month I steal some hours from my schedule to spend at Truman College, where I have met some excellent, kind-hearted instructors. I have never asked an American about this college’s history and why it was named for Truman. I’ve meant to ask a thousand times but haven’t. I always forget. Was it his idea to found it? Did he contribute something to it? The services that this college provides its students are extremely significant.

Around the world, Truman’s name is associated with a chancre, because the two accursed bombs that he dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki tarnished the history of the twentieth century. All the same, I am fond of Truman College and some of its professors, whom I consider my brothers. As a lover, I overlook many things, even when my intellect balks.

I enter Starbucks, drawn inside by the aroma of fresh coffee. We Arabs are easily swayed by women and coffee! Is that peculiar to us? Bedouins and villagers around Mosul make the best coffee in the world. They have a long, complicated procedure for preparing it, and the coffee they make has a splendid taste, even though it is bitter. Their ancestors named coffee al-qahwa, which was a word that had previously been used to refer to wine. Since Arabs love wine, they appropriated this word. Then versions of this word spread throughout the entire world. I remember how, more than thirty years ago, I met a Swiss engineer who stopped in Basra to ask which road to take to Baghdad. I invited him to drink Turkish coffee in al-Badr Coffeehouse overlooking the Shatt al-Arab. That was in the afternoon, and the waterway was broad and flowed slowly. Hundreds of small wooden boats (lanajat) were moored near the coffeehouse. They were loaded with thousands of tons of dates before returning to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The engineer declared that the view there on the river bank was very lovely but that the taste of the coffee was even lovelier and more delightful; he hadn’t tasted anything like it before.

The parks are the most beautiful thing about Chicago. I go early one morning in the summer to a park that overlooks the lake for the Air Show. I choose a seat with a view of the vast waters over which the sky’s expanses are devoured by supersonic warplanes with their mighty roar. These come from all the world’s industrialized countries to exhibit their technological prowess. My heart pounds when I watch them, because I’m afraid two will collide, killing an innocent pilot. This is the most beautiful day of the year. It is impossible to find a seat to Chicago that day on any mode of transport unless you have booked at least a month in advance. After the American invasion of Iraq, however, I could not bring myself to go to that park. From my nearby apartment I heard the roar of the airplanes and felt the terror of our Iraqi children when they were bombed by planes like these. Then I cursed myself for having enjoyed watching these terrifying things!

In the fall, Chicago becomes the most beautiful city in the world with its fanciful display of colors. I could never have believed that I would see a tree with leaves that blaze fiery red, violet, and orange or brilliant green, vivid yellow, and so on.

Beside the great lake, two beautiful and everlasting battles occur. The first is in the sky, between the fountain’s spray, which reaches extremely high, and the clouds. The second is on the earth, where suddenly countless splendid gray squirrels appear, leap about, frolic, and dart away to consume whatever crumbs of bread a loafer throws them before the swarms of lovely pigeons can land on them. I tarry a few minutes to watch this contest. Innocent animals are motivated primarily by a will to live.

Chicago’s Loop, all by itself, absorbs my attention, and its expanse dominates my time and existence. Each step I take on its streets provides me with enjoyment, and its cleanliness astonishes me. Its streets could well be the hallways of a royal palace, patrolled by janitors at every moment to keep them clean. Is any other tract of land cleaner than its streets?

I feel a push from behind and almost fall. “Sorry!” A feminine laugh. I turn to my right. A young woman speeds past. She is much taller than I am and slender, beautiful, and wide-eyed. The young woman smiles. I smile. She races past me with swift steps. They all speed along here. How can they soak up this beauty when they move so quickly? I don’t know.

I look to my right; skyscrapers are clumped together in a huge, magical, chaotic yet harmonious grove. In the midst of these towering edifices, along the clear streets, you are surprised to find sculptures and statues of great genius. This one is by Picasso. Who brought you here? His largest work of sculpture stands in front of the Daley Center of the City of Chicago. The sculpture’s very beautiful dark-brown color obliged the architect to surround it with buildings that are the same color, thus creating a whispered poetic rhythm that reaches the viewer’s heart. Then he feels a powerful, artistic elation that makes it impossible for him to move. How could this Communist artist, who hated capitalism, have adorned Chicago with such a splendid sculpture? His genius seems to have created a work that fits Chicago especially well by refusing to contemplate failure. When he refused the check that the City of Chicago sent him, did he mean to strike at capitalists in order to help them understand that man does not live by money alone? Or—did he wish to immortalize in America not only his art but also his generosity and elevated morality? Many wealthy people in America and elsewhere in the world lack both of these.

Chicago’s Loop is filled with artistic treasures donated by artists who lived and died in countries far removed from this city. Inside the James R. Thompson Center on Randolph Street there is a marvelous sculpture, and outside it there is a second huge one in white and black that is wretched. I have tried in vain to learn who created both of these. I found two bronze plaques near them. These listed the names of city officials, but I found no reference to the artist’s name. Why do you suppose they preferred to commemorate the names of a few dozen individuals who had no role in creating these sculptures and omitted the artists’ names?

Among hundreds of eye-catching sculptures in Chicago are the statues of Native Americans on horseback across from each other (Congress Drive and Michigan Avenue). The artist brilliantly portrayed qualities of the Native Americans—their forcefulness and exaltation. I have not been able to discover the name of this artist either. The siting of these two statues is excellent too, because hundreds of thousands of vehicles pass there every day. The presence of these two statues forces an urgent question on the spectator: Why has this noble, hospitable, powerful, tolerant, and amiable people been virtually wiped out? Is the erection of statues like these an expression of regret and an apology for a genocide that lacked any justification?

Many glorious and enormous statues in Chicago catch the eye and compel a person strolling the streets—like me—to approach them. They represent art’s boon for mankind but are also linked with civilization’s curse, represented by the crushing traffic congestion and the limitations on parking. What is an old man like me to do to see art up close? He needs to spend an entire day to see one sculpture or statue, taking a bus or a Chicago "L" train and then continuing on foot for at least an hour. For such reasons, you find that many residents of Chicago see these statues—if at all—only by chance and know nothing about them.

I used to ask myself all the time whether art has any value if it is isolated from the people and if it remains far removed from the general public. In Rome, Paris, Bonn, Berlin, Sofia, and Baghdad, you find that the statues are placed near pedestrians, in the center of the city. You can see more than one in half an hour. You can read something about the creator and the process of creation. Cervantes sits like a god on a high monument in one of Madrid’s squares and looks down on his charming creations: Don Quixote and his scrawny horse, Sancho Panza and his donkey, the princess in her fabulous attire, the tavern-keeper, and so forth.

More than ten thousand years ago, ancient Iraqis recorded a statement that everything was created from water. This maxim was adopted verbatim when the Torah was written down. Then it was repeated in Christianity and Islam. Iraqis love the Tigris River to the point of almost worshiping it, despite its destructive floods. They have allocated a few kilometers of its riverbank to create one of the most beautiful streets in the world with gardens, restaurants, bars, promenades, and amusement parks. There you greet the water, eat from the water, and enjoy the water. Every restaurant has a tank of water that contains dozens of live fish. You select the one you want and enjoy watching this fish cooked before you in a unique way. From their ancestors who lived more than ten thousand years ago, Iraqis have inherited al-masquf: fish cooked on a skewer planted beside a blazing fire. In only a few minutes your fish is presented to you as a delicious entrée.

The Iraqi love of water has inspired me to learn about the rivers of every city I visit. I was delighted to learn that Chicago has a large river with multiple branches and canals. You see them on the city’s flag but cannot see them on the ground, because industry has commandeered them, and they have become reclusive, private aristocrats. The worst thing engineers have done in Chicago has been to kill the river. You could live for years in Chicago without realizing that a river is only a few meters away from you! Woods and densely clustered skyscrapers screen it from view. I was lucky enough to see a video about the Chicago River, which differs from the Tigris. It is narrow and unassuming, buildings have grabbed it, and it screams for help. Even so, 911 does not respond to its call and cannot help, because powerful and mighty individuals have slain it.

Who committed this crime?

It was the giant docks from which river boats are loaded with freight and raw materials for shipment to the rest of America and to foreign countries. Those docks have gobbled up most of the river’s banks, leaving only an insignificant portion for a few giant hotels.

Thus the ordinary resident of Chicago cannot see the river at all, and that is the exact opposite from my country. For us Iraqis, the river is a simple, unassuming, popular being that belongs to everyone, even though it is the unrivaled master of the city. You see it when you cross one of Baghdad’s numerous bridges. You see it only steps away when you sit in a coffeehouse built on its shore. You see it from the hundreds of restaurants on both banks. You see it when you enjoy a beer in a bar or drink juice or coffee.

I never tire of looking at the skyscrapers. Before I moved to Chicago, I would wonder what was beautiful about a skyscraper. Cement, steel, glass—these materials just block the view. Then I discovered the error in my calculations. The skill and genius of the architects of these buildings have produced joyous beings that are marvels of harmony and beauty. Seen from afar, these buildings, which compete with each other with their height, degree of ornamentation, and unique style, enchant me. I spend an untold amount of time gazing at them.

I also spend a limitless amount of time in a lakeside park where I watch children enjoy their golden years—before they grow up and before their struggle to earn a living exhausts them. Children are gods. Gods claim that they created us and that they can always create something new. A child, likewise, can express his genius in play and create his happiness at any time and in any place. Children race after each other, slide on slick surfaces, swing, hang from monkey bars, and make a racket. Here in Chicago, children play in parks equipped with the latest and most amusing amenities. In other countries, though, I’ve seen children in poor areas play with rocks, broken branches, and bones, because luck hasn’t provided them splendid entertainments like Chicago’s.

On one occasion when I needed to return to my apartment in an hour for an important engagement, I decided to spend just half an hour in the park. I sat on a bench while I watched two kids play. Then a younger child crossed onto their turf, chasing a beetle that he intended to catch. He hesitated, however, and provided it an opportunity to flee. His mother was watching and smiling. Meanwhile an old woman, who was sitting near me, embraced an extremely small dog with a coat of several colors: yellow, gray, brown, and white. It had wide, bulging eyes and long white whiskers. It gazed profoundly at anyone who approached. Its teeth were white and tightly aligned and its lovely leash was gold-colored. It did not budge from the warmth of the old woman’s chest, and she hugged it as if it were her son. I don’t know how a year-old girl discovered this dog, but she approached it with tottering steps. Her young mother, from behind, leaned forward and held out her arms to keep the child from falling. The girl was warbling happily, like a nightingale, to greet the dog, which was gazing fondly at her. The old woman welcomed the child and shared a laugh with the young mother. When the child was close to the dog, she held out her little hand, but her mother pulled her back. “No! No, don’t touch him.” But the old woman replied, “Let her. He won’t hurt her. Let her.” The child’s fingers approached the hair of this dog, which emitted a soft growl that sounded like a song and then looked at the girl’s mother. So the mother gave the child permission to stroke the dog’s back, and she chortled. I suddenly remembered my appointment and realized that I had spent more than an hour there.

I will miss Chicago and its snow, which makes everything white and shiny. All the components of Chicago relinquish their shapes, colors, and peculiar characteristics. They grant snow the right to shape and color them white with tremendous recklessness. Naked trees are clothed with snow, and so are the electric wires, chimneys, roofs of buildings, streets, vehicles, and then those small, insignificant items that don’t attract much attention like brooms leaning against walls, children’s wagons parked near doorways, a girl’s shoes left on the fence, canopies over entrances, and chairs.

I once saw a bicycle that—together with its metal chain, lock, seat, handlebars, pedals, and warning bell—had become a mound of snow.

I will miss the beautiful squirrels. One day I watched a squirrel emerge from his small redoubt atop a light pole, prance calmly the entire length of a long electric wire, descend to the ground, climb the fence that separated our building from another, scamper across the yard, which is at least ten meters wide, as quick as lightning, climb the next wall, disappear for a time I don’t know where or for how long, and then return. Now he scaled another light pole that was more than twenty meters from the pole he had descended and returned to his hideout from another direction, traversing more than two hundred meters on an excursion that took at least half an hour. When he got back, he had something in his mouth. Looking more closely, I saw that it was a pinecone. I don’t know where he got it, because I hadn’t seen a pine tree in my field of view from my lofty perch. Perhaps he knew of one somewhere.

I was on Lake Street one autumn evening when I turned right and saw that the entire lakeshore had become a gleaming white. I wondered whether it had snowed without me noticing. Perhaps. I paused at the entrance to a nearby park and then walked a little. Five minutes later I witnessed something amazing and indescribable: millions of seagulls were standing beside each other. From a distance they seemed a white expanse coated with more white—like snow. I realized then that seagulls, like us, spend the night in some certain place they select as a private bedroom.

I will miss the city of life, statues, sculptures, parks, astonishing autumns, gray squirrels, and the dancehalls, bars, coffeehouses, and restaurants of Clark Street, the glorious Loop, and the numerous museums. More than all of this, though, I will miss my wonderful friends whom I have met in this generous city. With boundless good will they have helped me and dispelled my feelings of loneliness: Allen Salter and his family, charming Jackie, dear Aziz, Mary Schmich, Mike Zapata, Davis Chin, Gabe, Susan Harris, Meg, and many others. I will see them, and Chicago, when I return in December.

Translation of شيكاغو جنة الحاضر وسحر المستقبل. © 2014 by Mahmoud Saeed. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.