I was born in Basra many times, in all of the stories that I heard about it-in the stories which were told around me when I was a child, in the images I formed of it during my first trips there with my mother, and in all of the experiences I lived through there in later years. Later I left Basra to roam in exile like a sailor circling the earth, until, with the years, the picture I had of it became a mix of truth and illusion, of reality and fantasy, of the original and invention. I have asked myself on several occasions whether it was Basra itself which left me no other option than to fashion it in this manner, for is there a port in the world that doesn’t do what Basra does? Or is it the imagination, my imagination, which took from the city-a spiritual harbor which has no equal-certain characteristics, then mixed them with all of the stories I used to hear, until I had built upon it another Basra which allowed me some consolation in life, which made me breathe its air, still preserved in my lungs, that pumps the blood in my writing? And now, after all of these years, and after all of what has happened to Basra and to me and to the people there, I know that Basra cannot be other than this, a mix of nostalgia and an impossible return to a city and a time which has passed.
In my childhood, before I learned to speak, when I used to think in pictures, it was the city which would come to me, not the other way around. Before we would go there, I would see on my usually silent mother a look of great happiness, because we were traveling to my grandparents’ house in Basra. There were only one hundred sixty kilometers between the city of ‘Amarah, where we were, and Basra, but in those times, before the paving of the exterior roads, that distance resembled the trips people make today to other countries. As I said before, my mother usually tended toward silence, but my great-grandmother Matinrad (who was both my mother’s and my father’s grandmother, since they were first cousins) would tell me stories about Basra. She had left Basra to live with her eldest daughter, my grandmother Farja, in ‘Amarah, claiming that she was fleeing the tyranny of her daughter-in-law.
Basra would come to me in the stories my great-grandmother told, and seemed to be coming from another world altogether. Did Matinrad know or not that with everything she said about Basra she was sowing in me the first seeds of desire to travel? With every story she told, I would imagine her waving farewell with her handkerchief as I left for Basra. At that time, it didn’t occur to me to ask myself why every one of Matinrad’s stories were connected to the sea. I didn’t know that she was talking in the way of the people of Basra, and that all Basrans have one foot on land and one in the water. The sea is in front of them and Shott al-‘Arab is behind them. Matinrad’s familiar stories (which would become familiar to me as well, many years later, when I had grown up) foreign to me at that time, linked Basra to a strange, faraway world which merited adventure. At that time it was impossible for me to imagine Basra without the characters that crowded Matinrad’s stories: Mas’oud Bik the Belgian, the first salt merchant, who was not really Belgian, but whom people let use that nickname because he had traveled to Belgium to apprentice in the shipmaking workshops in Antwerp, and came with the first two steamships to arrive in Basra in 1858; the Frenchwoman “Madame Dieu la Foi,” the first woman tourist from Europe to visit Basra. According to my grandmother’s stories, she was on one of the steamships belonging to the Leng company en route from Basra to Baghdad when it ran out of coal, and she suggested to the French captain that they use the sesame seeds they were transporting as fuel in order to reach Baghdad. There was the Kaiser of Germany who visited Basra accompanied by his wife, Augusta, and who wore an Arab headband over his suit of crusader’s armor; the thug Jawad Ghaltta, who stole the Prophet’s hairs that were in the mausoleum of Imam Hassan of Basra (the hairs had been sent to him by the Ottoman sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid as a gift in 1866)-not for the relics themselves, but for the gold box which contained the heavy bottle where they had been placed. My grandmother says that was the end of Jawad Ghaltta, for the people stormed his house and cut him to pieces. There was Shaykh ‘Abdulrahman the Drunk, who didn’t know alcohol or drunkenness until late in life, when the telegraph line arrived in Basra for the first time. He started talking in one of his sermons about this amazing invention, and how a person could tap on a wire and be heard in Istanbul, and the people thought he must have secretly been drinking and had no idea what he was saying-he later succumbed to drinking in despair when he was unable to distance himself from the accusation. There was Saba’a Abu ‘Aitta, who established the first nightclub in Basra, and who brought young men who wore women’s clothes to dance there, the most famous of which was a very handsome boy named Na’im, a Christian from Aleppo, who enchanted Basrans something incredible, and one night while he was dancing, one of his passionate admirers shot him, and he died before they could get him to Ghuraba’ Hospital. There was the beautiful Rahlu, the first woman dancer to come from Aleppo to Basra, a few years before the first world war; the men used to talk about her coquettish behavior which captured hearts and bewitched the eyes, and she did know how to catch men, for she would barely wink at one and he would lose his nerves and offer her all the money he had, even if he had to sell his house or furniture the next day just to get one more wink from her. Rahlu amassed a great amount of wealth before the arrival of a singer who was very widely known in those days but was not finding much work. Her name was Tira the Egyptian, and she had originally come from Egypt to visit Shaykh Khaza’al, Prince of Mahmara. She sang to him Sayyid Darwish’s song “Visit me once a year,” then she began to sing every day in the Al-‘Ashaar club, and Rahlu was eclipsed by her marvelous voice. There was the young German man Richard, who was from a noble German family and had quite a bit of money, and who lived in Basra for unknown reasons. It was said that he was gay and had come to Basra to satisfy his sexual cravings. A Christian family brought a suit against him in court, accusing him of having sexual relations with one of their sons who was a student at the school run by the Carmelite monks. There was Talib al-Naqeeb, an ambitious and charismatic youth, the son of Sir Rajab Naqeeb, one of the nobles of Basra; he gathered around him a gang of criminals who would attack anyone who got in his way, until all of Basra wouldn’t hesitate to obey his every wish-when a lawyer, ‘Abdullah al-Rawanduzi, stood up to him, he killed him in a stall of the chicken market in front of everyone. Then there was the beautiful Muwani, the official midwife who was trained by my grandmother. My grandmother would say with pride, “If I didn’t know how clever she is and how blessed her hands are, I never would have allowed her to bring you into the world.” Was it an accident then that the first child birthed by Muwani would turn into a roamer of the earth with no port at which to lay anchor?
Those were some of the Basras which I came to know through my great-grandmother, the skilled midwife Matinrad; later, I learned from “Uncle” Edward that one can discover cities through written words, and that the world is like Basra, a harbor that we move about in. Edward owned a small bookstore in Al-‘Ashaar, and I still remember that short man: his elegance was completely distinct from the elegance of traditional men who wore a suit and necktie. He bought his clothes from secondhand shops, or “lenga,” as they are called in Iraq; he chose them with care and taste; in the winter he would wrap a long red scarf around his neck, and on cold rainy days he would wear a khaki raincoat like Humphrey Bogart’s famous coat in “Casablanca.” Edward with the curly hair and the blue-black eyes, owner of a small bookstore in Al-‘Ashaar. He didn’t sell newspapers or literature-only comic books, and specialized magazines about cars and sailboats, and medical books in English. I met him when I was eleven years old, when my uncle took me to work with him in Edward’s store on my days off from school. He agreed on the spot to let me work there, on the condition that I dress like a sailor-he was passionate about the sea to the point that he requested that he be buried at sea after his death. Edward was the first to tell me this strange story about the people of Basra: “One of the caliphs of Al-Andalus sent eight hundred ninety-seven Andalusian dancers to the caliph of Baghdad. Six hundred and forty-five of them stayed in Baghdad, and the rest were sent by boat to Basra. One of them fell in love with the captain, who hid her and went with her on a long voyage, returning many years later when nobody knew them anymore. While on the ship they had had many children, who traveled the length and breadth of the earth and excelled at art. They were not only great travelers but had children and many grandchildren of their own. To this line belong the poets and artists of Basra, most of whom turn into sailors who roam the horizons.” The next day he said to me: “Starting today we will open a new book every day, and I will show you some of the pictures and tell you the name of the port, and the next day you will tell me about it, agreed?” When I asked him how I would do that without knowing anything about the city or the country, he said it had to do with my imagination and my heart, and that it would be enough that I look toward Basra. “Listen to the call of your heart, attentive ears should not listen to geography teachers,” because “the geography they talk about is lies.” We invent our own personal geography by wandering, like the gypsies, and the ports complete each other. That’s why the names of most ports in the world are familiar to me: Bombay, Aden, Kap Stadt, Lima, Agadir, Liverpool, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Naples, Marseilles, Cadiz, Porto Alegre, Sao Paolo, Cartagena de las indias. . . In this way Edward changed the course of my life and made it take another direction, for from that day forward, up to the present, I read the world and invent stories about it from traveling in and around it, floating like a sailor on the earth.
Now, as I write about Basra, maybe everything is getting mixed up in me, illusion with reality, fact with fantasy, but what is certain is that I am doing nothing here but conjuring up a picture of Basra as I saw it and lived in it all of those years, a third of the years of my life until I left the country. On the other hand, because I know that I am a writer, and that most of what I write is based on imagination, I know that everything I am writing about Basra takes on an ambiguous meaning for me sometimes, and if I doubted it I would start to doubt my existence as well. Am I in fact that child who spent his entire childhood in his grandparents’ house in Basra? Am I that young man who got to know Basra street by street because of his grandfather’s constant moving, every time his uncle fell in love with a girl in the new neighborhood they had moved to? The more I doubt, the more Basra seems like a blank map with no lines or features, which I must draw anew. As though it didn’t exist before except for some salty earth, with groves of date palms extending along its edges, and a wide river named Shott al-Arab. As for the rest, I must build it stone by stone: Umm al-Baroom Square, all of the different neighborhoods, the corniche, the churches, the bordellos, the taverns, the marketplaces, the cinemas. It’s easy to bestow names on this place or that, but I know that is not enough, for I must shed light, the light of the sea to be exact, on every street, on every house, on every shop, on every street corner, even on every back alley. I must give shape to those low winter clouds that passed over the tower of the Armenian church in the al-Saif quarter, then over the street cafes, until they reached the wharves where the small sailboats were docked. I must be tasteful when I arrange the furniture and draw the engravings on the old houses, not only the houses of Basra’s upperclass, but the bordello houses as well. I must accept even what I can’t stand in reality, and bring a different group of people to live there, it’s not important who. As part of this game, I must give them bodies of flesh and blood, which obey the call of their senses, and I must understand their need for love and for money, for settling down and for emigrating, two desires which generally don’t agree. I must examine their desire for the eternal, and remind them that it’s Basra that deserves eternity; I must give them internal organs and faces so that it will be impossible not to recognize them everywhere, and increase their ability to forget, and their ability to move on. Because only he who travels discovers Basra.
Now, as during all of these long years, I continue to remake Basra anew every time I conjure her up on the page. I conjure up everything that has a relationship to Basra, its neighborhoods and its buildings both public and private: Al-‘Ashaar, al-Qashl, the Chicken Market, al-Tamimiyya, al-Sa’i, al-Mishraq, the Basra Date Company, al-Mu’aql, the railway station, the port, Sindbad’s Island, the naval headquarters, Khamsa Mil, Nuhair al-Layl, Old Basra, Mahallat al-Basha, al-Saif, Nathran, Balush, the courthouse… al-Watan Street with its nightly festivities, with its nightclubs where all of the world’s sailors would gather, in Mary’s Bar and Matilda’s Bar, or at the house of the madam Hasiba and her constant cycle of girls in the brothels of Old Basra and Bashar Street. I conjure them all up as I remember my grandmother’s and Edward’s stories, as I remember my grandfather, Faraj Yusuf, an inspector at the Basra Date Company, and my tongue burns with the sweet taste of Burhi dates stuffed with almonds and walnuts, which my grandfather would bring us in two trays to save for winter. I remember Luis Carvallo, or “the Sad Portuguese” as he was called-rather as we used to call him, we the children of al-Saif and Mahallat al-Basha and Nathran and Balush, even when we got older and were teenagers, but before we were men and some of us left for exile, and others were destroyed in the war and laid to rest in their graves, before the war took the Sad Portuguese himself away from Basra with a number of his countrymen who had lived there since their great-grandfather Vasco de Gama, and had their children and grandchildren and become Basrans like us, despite the foreign names they bore: Jose and Gonzalez and Rodriguez, Amalia and Maria and Consuelo.
All of these years, I have carried Basra close to my heart; in my ear has played the music of the Zunuj, the black Basrans, the remaining descendants of the great slave revolts, whose bands move through the streets beating cymbals, clapping their hands, and dancing the hayawa. I remember the Sa’i and Mishraq quarters, where the Zunuj lived, and I know that Basra is alive. All these years, as I have recreated Basra, I have tried to make it breathe a different air, to fill a different lung than the one with which it breathes now, a lung worn out by the cold of wars and the smoke of guns, bombs, and poison gas, clogged by the dust of the sandbags which filled its streets. As long as I have talked about Basra, I have felt that it still lived. Now, as I talk to you about Basra (however much the light I cast it in appears to be one of fantasy, it is still a light gleaned from reality)-this Basra takes shape piece by piece from memory and distance, preserved in a time machine, in Najem Wali’s typewriter.
The Basra of which I speak here, is in the end, that preserved city which I have held onto for twenty-three years, spreading it timidly here and there, in my novel War in Hayy al-Tarab, in two collections of stories, Mary’s Last Night and Waltzing Matilda, in my last novel, Tel al-Laham, in all my travel stories, and in everything I have written and am writing now, as if all of those were just rough drafts preparing me for this book on Basra, that city from which I learned the first lesson that every young artist learns: the search for the kingdom of creativity outside the city walls in which he was born, then later the return to that city, by way of memory and imagination. It is useless to seek Basra on a map, for Basra belongs to those cities which are built by their cursed and fleeing sons in the virgin lands of memory, in distant lands…