Iraqi calligrapher given ghoulish tool for Qur'an artistry - Star Tribune, USA
- Iraqi calligrapher given ghoulish tool for Qur'an
Stephen J. Glain, Boston Globe
Published June 29, 2003 BLOO29
BAGHDAD -- Abbas Baghdadi clearly remembers the day in
1999 when Saddam Hussein's agents gave him the order
that would burden him and his faith.
"They came to my office and told me I would write a
Qur'an for our great president," Baghdadi said from
behind the desk where he worked as Saddam's official
calligrapher. "They didn't tell me I would write it in
So began the clash of Baghdadi's piety and his art
during the two years it took to complete the project.
Writing in blood is heretical to Islam, an insult to
the Prophet Mohammed, who preached that blood, like
anything else from the human body, can decompose and
is therefore impure.
At 7 a.m. each day, often for 16 hours at a time,
Baghdadi dipped a metal nib into what he was told was
a jar of Saddam's blood and painstakingly reproduced
the verses of Islam's holy book. He worked under a
lamp held together with duct tape as a security
officer sat quietly but menacingly in a nearby chair,
a handgun resting on a coffee table for emphasis.
When Baghdadi took breaks for exercise or to visit the
mosque across from his small office, he was required
to enter the time and destination in a logbook.
"Even then, they followed me everywhere," he said of
Saddam's henchmen. "Even when I left to pray."
Committing a sacrilege for Saddam's vanity was the
most profound of many slights Baghdadi, 54, suffered
as a senior member of the dictator's Bureau of
Culture. He is one of the most celebrated
calligraphers in a region where the mingling of florid
writing and painting is a high art.
Baghdadi's work is bought and sold for thousands of
dollars and displayed in royal courts and salons
throughout the Arab world. He has been invited to give
lectures and open galleries from Istanbul to the
Yet Baghdadi, a gracious, garrulous man who during a
recent interview wore a short-sleeve, checked shirt
and trousers rolled up just above his ankles, has
never ventured beyond Baghdad. Under Saddam, he was on
24-hour call to write up the odd presidential order,
thank-you note or state proclamation.
As he embellished the words of the Qur'an for the
leader, Baghdadi commanded the regime's undivided
attention. Every two weeks, someone would arrive with
a set of freshly filled vials. His work was delayed at
times when the United States launched airstrikes while
policing the no-fly zones against Iraq, and Saddam
apparently felt compelled to hoard whatever spare
blood he had available.
At first, Baghdadi said, he was unaware he was working
with anything other than red ink. "But I became
suspicious after it kept clotting," he said.
To thin the blood, Baghdadi stealthily added distilled
water to the vials when the security officer was
preoccupied. He said he sometimes worked for days
without sleep, hunched over a tinted glass table that
illuminated each page from a fluorescent light below.
Before completing the Qur'an in 2001, Baghdadi was
instructed to add the following clause -- in black ink
-- on the final page: "May God forgive us for writing
Apparently, according to Baghdadi, someone at the
palace summoned the courage to educate the dictator
about a key point of Islamic law. The Qur'an was then
taken to Saddam, who signed it.
A few weeks later, Baghdadi was whisked to the palace
for a brief audience with Saddam. The two men shook
hands. "It was over in a minute," Baghdadi said. "That
was good, because I was having an anxiety attack."
He never saw Saddam again in person.
Baghdadi's profane work was unveiled at a formal
ceremony in 2001. Whatever outrage it might have
provoked was smothered by the peals of state-run
The Qur'an was displayed under glass in a museum of
Saddam iconography in the capital -- a trove of
elaborate gifts, bejeweled weapons and enormous
paintings received by the dictator. It vanished in the
looting that gripped Baghdad after the city fell to
Since scripting Saddam's Qur'an, Baghdadi has been
lecturing and running an impoverished institute for
young artists that he formed in the 1970s. He is keen
to write another Qur'an -- this time in his favorite
black ink made from soot and tree resin -- and hopes
to qualify for an endowment under a new government.
"There is no greater artistic experience than to write
a Qur'an," he said. "I have written several Qur'ans,
and each time I learn something new about the science
of its verses, its unique meter and rhyme."
While he is grateful to the United States for removing
"the great devil," he said he resents an occupational
authority that has yet to restore electricity and
other basic services more than two months after the
fall of Baghdad.
"Because there is no electricity, I don't have enough
light to write," he said. "I have to leave my office
by 7 p.m. because the streets are not safe after dark.
How can you work like this?"
Baghdadi still can't travel outside Iraq. Essentially
grounded under Saddam, he had no use for a passport.
With Iraq's former government dissolved and nothing to
replace it, he has nowhere to apply for one.
Two months ago. he was invited by the governments of
Egypt and Syria to open galleries of his work, but
with no travel documents, he was forced to decline.
"I want nothing more than to see my work displayed in
other countries," Baghdadi said. "But I still can't
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