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Nostalgia for the Good Old Days in Pre-War Iraq

Robert Worth's watercolor memory of pre-war Iraq: "Their Iraq was Basra before the first Gulf War, when it was full of cafes and canals, still known as 'the dark land' because of its thick canopy of date palms. It was Baghdad when people still strolled down Abu Nawass Street on Friday nights and sat out watching the sunset drinking beer and eating mazgouf."

Liberals often dismiss talk of the "good old days" as benighted and possibly dangerous nostalgia, often pointing out with self-satisfaction that they often weren't so wonderful (sexism, racism, depredations of robber barons, etc.). But Robert Worth's brief reminiscence "From Another Time," pinned to the fifth anniversary of the invasion and overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein, let old Iraqis indulge in the good old days in Iraq before the American wars.



Not long ago, in Beirut, I met an Iraqi, a broken-looking old man with warm brown eyes.



"You were in Iraq?" he said, his face lighting up. "When?"



"I got there in 2003," I said.



Instantly, his eyes dimmed, as if to tell me the country I saw was not the one he knew. I have seen the same look on the faces of many other Iraqi exiles. Their Iraq was a different place: not peaceful, exactly, but a world away from the shattered place I spent time in.



Their Iraq was Basra before the first Gulf War, when it was full of cafes and canals, still known as "the dark land" because of its thick canopy of date palms. It was Baghdad when people still strolled down Abu Nawass Street on Friday nights and sat out watching the sunset drinking beer and eating mazgouf.



I came to feel an intense nostalgia, while I was there, for the Iraq I never saw. I became friends with a number of older Iraqis, who told me long wonderful stories about what Baghdad was like in their youth. Their living rooms were full of art and antiques; they drank Scotch, discussed novels, listened to friends recite poetry and play the Oudh. Sect meant nothing to them; the spoke proudly about how their parents had scorned religion. They showed me yellowed photographs from the 1950s of their parents and aunts and uncles in Western-style suits, the women unveiled, or proudly posing at graduate degree ceremonies.



Worth didn't question whether those older Iraqis were Sunni or Shiite (Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq from 1979 to 2003, was a Sunni and favored fellow Sunnis indoling out jobs and other privileges). He didn't wonder if the Iraqiswere relying on nostalgia-tinged memories, as a reporter might with someone reminiscing about, say, America in the '50s (What about conformity? What about racism?). Althought Worth's essay is more journal entry than straight news story, a little journalistic skepticism would have provided a more well-rounded tale.



It's not the first time Worth has implied naiveté about evil regimes. Back in February 2002, Brent Baker reported on a Worth essay on the Cold War that suggested America was wrong in its fight against Communism. That essay began:


As President Bush toured Asia last week, some world leaders worried publicly that the war on terrorism was starting to look suspiciously like the last great American campaign - against Communism.


It is hard to miss the cold war echoes. Once again America's allies are being told that the world is divided starkly into zones of good and evil, darkness and light, and that ''the United States and only the United States can see this effort through to victory,'' as Vice President Dick Cheney told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations two weeks ago.


After quoting Attorney General John Ashcroft as saying,


a calculated, malignant, devastating evil has arisen in our world. Civilization cannot afford to ignore the wrongs that have been done


Worth asserted (quoting a leftist historian):


It is not hard to see in Mr. Ashcroft's language traces of what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as 'the paranoid style in American politics.'