THE MAN WHO INTRODUCED ME TO WESTERN classical music, to the poetry of Shelley and Pound, to exotic treats such as Mosul chutney or Welsh laver bread, was an Iraqi named Solhi Wadi. He was a talented composer and conductor, whose patrician parents had left their native Baghdad for my native Damascus in the early part of the last century, when movement between these two ancient Arab capitals was still an easy and civilized undertaking.
In the modest walk-up flat that Solhi inhabited with his Welsh pianist wife Cynthia, there was a life going on that was strikingly different from that to be had in the city’s other households. While most Syrians of his class were hemmed in by strict social conventions and passionately devoted to the business of amassing wealth, this Iraqi émigré was a free spirit, who amassed books instead. The shabby rooms were piled high with paperbacks of the poets he loved. I recall a well-thumbed edition of Rilke’s elegies in English transla- tion, the pages stiff and swollen from having fallen into the bath once too often. The German poet’s stirring salute to the angel of inspiration still rouses me – perhaps because of its faint evocation of the Qur’anic Gabriel. I can still see Solhi reading the lyrical lines in his chaotic kitchen, as he filled quaint little pottery dishes that an artist friend had thrown, with pickles or pistachios:But it was Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” that Solhi loved the most. He knew the poem by heart, and said it with a strong delicacy that the Welsh poet would have felt was absolutely apt. I liked to think that his ghost had crossed the earth, to sit in that room on those balmy nights, and watch his words take their extraordinary effect on this Iraqi man, whose eyes filled with tears as he recited:The poem’s evocation of a carefree child in a beautiful natural setting, who was “honoured among foxes and pheasants”, and watched “the spellbound horses walking warm”, reminded Solhi of his own childhood on the family farm outside Baghdad, which he continued to return to, again and again, despite the difficulties and dangers that such a journey came to pose. When I met him, the well-educated and genteel Anglophile elite that his parents had belonged to had long been devastated in his country. The military coups brought rough men to power, put there by Anglo-American machinations. The Baath Party, in two different, warring guises, took hold in both Iraq and Syria, with American arms, money and blessing.
It soon became impossible to cross from one country to another without risking arrest, or worse. Border officials were nasty, suspicious and corrupt. It made for unhappy travelling.
Then the Iraq-Iran war began, and Solhi ‘s country commenced the slow but violent unravelling that shows no sign of abating. The Americans plied their favourite dictator with weapons and logistics, and urged him on. The dead piled up in obscene numbers on both sides, in a war that should never have been fought in the first place, and must remain a horrible blot on the United States’s record in the region.
Then came the second “Gulf War”, and the murderous sanctions that followed, killing off an entire generation, a million Iraqis. Letters still arrived from cousins who had survived the wars, but reading between the lines, Solhi understood that they were going hungry. They were proud, those put-upon men and women, proud but going hungry.
Solhi’s amazing spirit began to wilt. He still composed, conducted, taught, cajoled bureaucrats into finding money for his beloved students, but there was a misery in his eyes that he no longer bothered to hide. He took longer walks with his Borzoi dog, Boris, who could still make his master smile. He who had been adamant to teach only Western instruments m the conservatory he had founded, now introduced the zither and the poignant Iraqi lute. He still read poetry, but silently, to himself.
Solhi’s adoration of poetry marked him out as a true Iraqi. Although Arab culture since its beginnings has always been infused with a love of verse, poems – in any language – seem to have a particularly devastating effect on Iraqis, who are an emotional, nostalgic people. Perhaps something in their landscape makes them so. The two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the majestic date palms that border them, retain an ancient and mysterious sadness that cannot but melt the hardest heart. The poets of Iraq, the singers of Iraq, the instrumentalists and the story-tellers, all become touched with this indefinable sorrow, and communicate it to their listeners. Iraq’s greatest poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, was the embodiment of this quality, and expressed it in every word he wrote.
It was no neat coincidence that as American tanks rolled into Baghdad, bringing back the ugliest of colonial servitudes the area has ever known, Solhi, who was conducting, fell off the stage. A massive brain hemorrhage downed him, robbing him of movement and speech. This free spirit could not bear to watch his country be put in chains.
I loved him enough to hope that he cannot understand what has actually happened to his Iraq. How it has been dismembered, robbed, destroyed, brutalised and corrupted. How six hundred and fifty thousand people have been murdered as a result of those tanks rolling in. How its mighty rivers now run black with blood, the blood of people just like Solhi Wadi.