Conflict & Justice

Iraq's sculptor returns

One of Iraq's most famous sculptors, Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, has returned to the city where his works from 1001 nights are Baghdad landmarks � the 40 thieves at Kahramana square and the genie emerging from the fountains at the Rasheed Hotel. He left after he was robbed and his son was kidnapped and despite pleas from the city to come back to do new sculptures had been afraid to come back. Jane Arraf has more from Baghdad.

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Mohammad Ghani, one of Iraq's most famous living artists, recently returned to Baghdad for the first time since he left in 2003. His works � many of them from the Arabic classic �1001 Nights' are beloved Baghdad landmarks. While the sculptures are still there, Ghani found the city around them a much different place.

When the war started, Ghani, already in his mid-70s then, was in Bahrain. He came back a few months later to find his studio damaged, the National Art Museum, which contained 150 of his works looted and the city too dangerous to live in.

For years, he resisted pleas to come back, continuing his work in Jordan and Bahrain.

�I was so afraid. I didn't want to come back to Baghdad because all the news I heard said it is very dangerous but � the mayor of Baghdad phoned me and asked me to come back.�

His friends in Amman told him it was a good reason to return: ��Not for you,' they said, �but for my country, for Iraq, for Baghdad. Go back. Work. Do something for Baghdad.'�

Ghani, who's been sculpting for 60 years, said Baghdad is like a gorgeous woman going through hard times. He wants to make this broken city beautiful again.

�Suddenly I looked to Baghdad carefully � I saw everything dirty, her hair dirty, her dress dirty, face dirty� this make me very very very sad�.I never imagined it like this.�

His Baghdad is the exotic city of 1001 Nights, the famed 14th century Arabic and Persian fables that inspired the fairytales of �Aladdin's lamp,� �Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,� and �Sinbad the Sailor.�

Few in the West realize that Baghdad was once a beacon of learning, science and culture � in fact the center of the known world. To many in the Middle East, Ghani said, it still is.

�Baghdad � you know all the Arabs say Baghdad, Baghdad Baghdad; for them Baghdad is so huge, so big, so proud.�

On Abu Nuwas street on the Tigris river, Ghani crafted the legendary bronze statue of King Shahryar and Queen Shehrazad, the main characters of the 1001 Nights. In the 1990s, the statue was neglected. Ghani had designed the lounging King Sharyar to have children climb on it but it was fenced off and hidden by overgrown weeds.

Visiting it again recently, he is overjoyed to see children playing around it and Iraqis posing for photos with the larger-than-life statue. �This was Mohammad's dream,� said his wife Ghaya, who posed as the model for the mesmerizing Shehrezad 40 years ago.

Ghani caressed the giant bronze hand of King Shahryar like an old friend. There's a seam along the statue's wrist where the hand was severed � apparently stolen to melt down for the bronze. Ghani said he planned to fix it properly.

Ghani, who studied art in Rome, has been commissioned to do four new public sculptures.

One will be a fountain built around the bronze calligraphy of a poem. It's an inscription on the tomb of the poet Mustafa Jamal al-Din, buried in Damascus, that says no matter how often Baghdad is destroyed it will be eternally renewed.

Almost everywhere in Baghdad, there are the sounds of helicopters and sirens. But Ghani seems not to notice them, hearing only the nightingales that he missed while he was away. Birds, he said, don't sing in his adopted homeland. If they do, he doesn't hear them.
�In Baghdad we have gardens � they are beautiful birds,� he said.

His next project is one he said he's wanted to do since the 1970s � a sculpture of Sinbad the Sailor floating on the Tigris River, his eyes fixed on the horizon.

�You know the idea of Sinbad � he travels outside of Baghdad; he goes and comes and goes and comes seven times. Each time he got a problem when he was outside of Baghdad but he dreamed to return back.�

Ghani said every Iraqi who's left since the war is like Sinbad, longing to glimpse Baghdad again.

�Many, many many dream of coming back,� he said. �Everyone is waiting for the right moment.�

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