Exile at home

Zuhair Al-Jezairy reflects on Baghdad’s transformation

BAGHDAD — Renowned writer and journalist Zuhair Al-Jezairy expressed a profound sense of “alienation” while navigating today’s Baghdad, lamenting the “intentional distortion” of Rashid Street—a pivotal urban center in the capital during the twentieth century—and the fading identity of the city. In a conversation with 964media, he discussed his extensive body of work, comprising 36 books that have garnered attention in the realms of cultural, literary, and political history.

Al-Jezairy in his own words:

My latest book, “The Last of the Cities,” published by Sutoor Publishing, marks my 36th publication. It explores a poignant episode I experienced in the mountains of Kurdistan, known as the Bishtashan tragedy. This book is part of a series where I delve into personal experiences, whether from the Lebanese Civil War or other significant historical moments.

This particular work underwent two major revisions, initially in 1992 and then more recently, transforming from a diary into a condensed novel.

Returning to Baghdad feels inherent to me; it’s a tradition to spend a few months there annually, as it significantly inspires and fuels my creativity with its vivid imagery and events.

Having been absent from Baghdad for about 25 years, the post-2003 era opened a door for me, albeit amidst the city’s ensuing chaos and openness. Nevertheless, being there holds great importance to me.

My years in London, despite the city’s vibrancy and the cultural, artistic freedom it offered, hardly influenced my writing, contributing to merely three pages. I harbor no feelings of exile; my dreams seldom wander there.

Each visit to Baghdad brings a wave of alienation, as I realize the generation I grew with has dwindled to mere remnants, and the city I cherished has transformed.

Walking through the once-familiar Rashid Street, I’m confronted with the severe deterioration of its historic houses and hotels, places where we once lived, shared ideas in its cafes and shops—all now replaced by incongruous, dominating structures built by those indifferent to the area’s true essence.

Gone are the days when my friends and I would challenge each other to recall every shop on the street. Now, witnessing this clash between authenticity and distorted modernity fills me with anguish and a profound sense of loss, especially when I see a piece of heritage crumble.

Yet, Baghdad remains the heart of my personal and historical connections, a city that became a part of me since leaving Najaf at 19. Although I seldom visit Najaf, Baghdad is central to my life and work.

My reflections on Najaf materialized in the novel “Bab Al-Faraj,” but Baghdad has always been the focal point of my narratives.

The generation I knew is fading, leaving only traces behind. As memories of the city distort, a part of me clings to nostalgia, acknowledging Baghdad’s transformation. To an outsider, the city’s identity might now be elusive.

I, and others, yearn to halt this erasure. But facing the reality that developers and proponents of modernity — armed with wealth and influence — overshadow my solitary protests, I feel helplessly isolated, my pleas for preservation unheard.

The cultural domain barely registers on the authorities’ radar, overshadowed by the vast financial interests of their affiliates. This sentiment is echoed in my book “The Corrupt’s Biography,” a lamentation on the degradation encroaching upon our lives.

Zuhair Al-jezairy is a distinguished Iraqi author and journalist. Born in Najaf in 1943. He weaves narratives deeply rooted in the tumultuous landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa. Al-jazairy’s unique blend of journalistic rigor and literary depth, honed over fifty years and across nine war zones, reflects a life lived in the shadow of conflict, yet illuminated by the power of storytelling.

Zuhair al-Jezairy - photo by Safin Hamid

Zuhair al-Jezairy - photo by Safin Hamid