Karl Sharro







Baghdad Under Siege


Returning to Baghdad after 10 years of absence, one assumes at first glance that the city has not changed much. Indeed, there has been little physical change since the second Gulf war ended, and Iraq was placed under economic sanctions. Nevertheless, beneath the deceiving exterior the city has experienced a radical change in its economy, its society, its culture, and its spatial practices. In a sense, a new Baghdad has been born, a Baghdad that inhabits the same physical structure of the pre-sanctions city, yet one which is markedly different in many aspects.

The sanctions economy.

The most obvious change for those who knew Baghdad in the 80’s is the emergence of a hybrid economy, which on the micro level is an unregulated free market economy with many particular characteristics, but retains on the macro level the characteristics of the socialist, state planned economy.

In monetary and currency exchange terms, the previous restrictions have all been lifted, and there are practically no controls on the exchange of foreign currency. In parallel, there are practically no taxes on imports whereas previously all imports were heavily taxed. However, the United Nations controls what can go into the country based on possible military uses, which is a very flexible definition that even includes pencils, while the Iraqi authorities ban the import of products that they consider dangerous, a definition that includes books, films and intellectual products in general.

These two factors, in addition to the diminished purchasing power of the average Iraqi which makes foreign imports very expensive, cause the most peculiar characteristic of the sanctions economy. Under these conditions, objects acquire infinite trading value and they are continuously recycled. This activity occurs in specialized markets in used items that proliferate all around Baghdad, such as Al-Moutanabi street used books market and other “specialized” markets. As a result of financial need, people are forced to sell household objects to survive, and doing so they have to make do without some basic items such as sinks and pots and pans. Although this is a tragic situation, the interesting remark is that there are people who are buying these items, and this generates this economic activity which occurs around a limited number of objects that are continuously recycled in these markets, and in a sense acquire more a trading value than their actual use value.

In addition to the used-objects markets, another type of markets has emerged in the last few years, basically as a result of opening the borders to cheap foreign products and the average Iraqi’s need to supplement his or her income with different sources. So people started transforming parts of their houses into make-shift shops usually by knocking down the walls of their living rooms that give onto the street and thus creating a store front. Through this simple transformation, new bustling popular markets have emerged in what used to be quiet residential streets.

These informal developments on the level of micro economy have resulted in significant transformations to the street life of Baghdad and defined new modes of economic exchange that have their spatial impact on the city.

1984 and Political Baghdad

George’s Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most popular English language books in Al Moutanabi street used books market, at any given day, one can see several copies with different salesmen. (Most of these salesmen are intellectuals forced to sell their books for money, but there are also illiterate salesmen who sell books by the kilogram!) Re-reading 1984 to the backdrop of Baghdad yields many interesting observations. The most obvious similarity between the book and Baghdad is political iconography. The images and representations of the Iraqi president are repeated endlessly in Baghdad, replicating the frequency of Big Brother’s images in 1984. However, this endless repetition of images, like an Andy Warhol silkscreen, voids the images of any significance and they become endless repetitions. So Baghdad becomes inhabited with icons that do not communicate, they only dominate instead.

In addition to the images of the Iraqi president, several large scale public monuments have been built in different parts of the city, such as the Victory monument, which is a 6-story high replica of Saddam Hussein’s hands holding two swords that form an archway. Beneath are hundreds of helmets for Iranian soldiers from the Iraq-Iran war in the 80’s. The hallucinations of power and victory of these monuments contrast violently with the lived reality of people in Baghdad. The parallels with 1984 are numerous. On one level, the division between the world of the “party members” and the world of the “proles” in 1984 resembles the schizophrenic situation that exists between Baghdad of the official text and Baghdad of the people. This spatial-ideological division finds its appropriate metaphor in the world of the proles, the messy unregulated world which is nevertheless subjugated by the party, similarly to the situation of the citizens of Baghdad who in the last 10 years have been relieved from the socialist pretensions of the regime, yet made to understand the logic of power much more powerfully.

Some of the monuments of Baghdad celebrate the victory of Iraq in the second Gulf war with the United States and its allies. For in Baghdad, this war was actually won not lost. This is reminiscent of the practice of “the party” in 1984 which constantly rewrites history to make it conform to the needs of the present. In fact, the central character’s job in 1984 is to “rectify history.” In similar manner, the events of the Gulf war have been re-written in Baghdad to make Iraq the victor in that war. This re-writing is the dominant reading of the war in Baghdad, and it expresses itself  continuously in history books, through the media, and particularly through the monuments that stand guard over the city.

The parallels with 1984 reveal the second aspect of the major transformations that Baghdad has underwent in the last 10 years, mainly the transformation of the ideological space of the city, that used to express itself in socialist slogans for examples, into a space governed by the logic of power, pure and unrestrained.

The Abaya and the public realm.

In is interesting to note that although the powerful central state is present continuously in Baghdad, its basic apparatuses that do not serve the purpose of protecting the regime, have been eroded. The police force as an organization for the protection of citizens and the prevention of crime is not an operating system anymore, instead it becomes another tool of power that can be manipulated by those in the position to do so. Whereas previously the regime fought crime harshly, people were executed even for stealing, now it approaches criminal activity with a laissez faire attitude towards criminals. The reasons for this are primarily economic, the sanctions have created an under-paid, well-armed organization that adjusted to the realities of the post-war period. As a result of this, there is very little sense of personal security among citizens of Baghdad, and the crime rate is very high.

The public space in these conditions becomes a dangerous space, and it dictates how it is to be dealt with. The situation is particularly dangerous for women. Not only are they affected by the lack of security but also by the collapse of the social norms that order life within the public sphere. In these conditions, women cannot afford to be conspicuous. Thus there is great need for uniformity and ambiguity. The revival of the Abaya, a traditional black dress that covers the head and the body of women, becomes more comprehensible with these requirements in mind.

In her book “Beyond the Veil,” the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi argues that the Islamic veil is a tool that allows the Moslem woman to access the public space which is, according to her analysis of the Islamic doctrine, essentially male. She explains the use of the veil in terms of the need to protect from the woman’s presence which is considered threatening when it is not contained in the residential realm.

In similar terms, the Abaya in Baghdad becomes like the veil, a spatial tool. The Abaya becomes a requirement for accessing the public sphere, one that guarantees anonymity and homogeneity. These are essential conditions for the women of Baghdad to feel safe in the public sphere.

Thus, the large increase in the use of the Abaya is not explained along religious terms, as most Western observers have tended to conclude, rather it is essentially a spatial practice. Unlike in Iran, where the use of the Chador was required by the Islamic state, there is no such requirement by the state in Iraq, it is a voluntary decision, and thus cannot be explained in terms of religious revival alone. Additionally, even the prostitutes in Baghdad wear the Abaya, although they transform its use, they use it both to hide and to reveal. They use the same tool that other women use to become inconspicuous, in order to signal their profession while dressing similarly to other women.

The Other Baghdad

The example of the Abaya illustrates how the public space is reconfigured in Baghdad in order to adjust to the social conditions that prevail in the time of the sanctions. It is one of the indications of how Baghdad is being transformed under the sanctions, and is reshaping itself to accommodate the realities of a world in which both space and time seem to have been frozen. The physical isolation serves to enhance the sense of this suspension in space, while the lack of exposure enhances the sense of suspension of time.

In a world where recycling has become an essential condition for survival, even the morphology of Baghdad is being recycled to produce new spatial arrangements that better accommodate the daily activities of the citizens of Baghdad. A new Baghdad has been born from the within the walls of the imposing city of the pre-sanctions, a Baghdad  which is defined primarily in spatial terms.



Brown, Sarah Graham: “Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq.”  St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999.

Chan, Steve (Editor)and Drury, A,Cooper (Editor): “Sanctions As Economic Statecraft : Theory and Practice (International Political Economy.)” Palgrave, New York, 2000.

Makdissi, Saree: “Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere.” In Critical Inquiry, Spring 1997, The University of Chicago.

Makiya, Kanan and Al-Khalil, Samir: “The Monument : Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq.” University of California Press, 1991.

Mernissi, Fatima: “Beyond the Veil : Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society.” IndianaUniversity Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987.


Karl Sharro 2002