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Iraqi calligrapher given ghoulish tool for Qur'an artistry - Star Tribune, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Iraqi calligrapher given ghoulish tool for Qur an artistry Stephen J. Glain, Boston Globe Published June 29, 2003 BLOO29
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2003
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      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
      Saddam's blood."

      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
      Persian Gulf.

      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
      in blood."

      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
      U.S. forces.

      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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