Iraqi Twitter account reveals lost beauty of Baghdad

Iraqi Twitter account reveals lost beauty of Baghdad
Once the cultural capital of the Middle East, photos from archives shared by a social media account showcases a bygone Baghdad.
5 min read
06 September, 2016
One of Iraq's first cinemas was in Baghdad's bustling al-Rasheed Street [Twitter]

Bright red double decker buses, art deco architecture and stylish cars neatly line the streets – these archive photographs are not scenes of old London or Paris, but of downtown Baghdad, once the beating heart of Middle Eastern art and culture.

In the wake of the latest bombing in the Karrada district of Iraq’s capital, these images of bygone Baghdad, shared online by Twitter account @IraqiPic, are a tragic reminder of the devastating loss caused by four decades of war and violence.

The man behind the pictures, Riyadh M Ali, has amassed almost 10,000 followers since he began posting the photographs in March 2015.

Speaking to The New Arab, Ali, a 58-year-old higher education teacher living in Baghdad, said he wanted to change the world’s view of Iraq.

“There is a perception among some that Iraq is only an arena of war and terrorism, and what happened to it since 2003 to the present day is an extension similar to the past,” he said.

“I wanted to show that Iraq's past is not like the present through the images.

“The other reason is that many of the contemporary generations, inside or outside Iraq, do not know about their country. But what they see in the media, which publishes the present image. I wanted to show these generations even a fraction of Iraq's past.

“The same thing applies to foreigners, people who follow this account, I am proud that 60 percent of the followers are from around the world.”

Images of Baghdad from the mid-20th century offer a fascinating insight into a city which was once considered among the most progressive in the region.

Many of Ali’s pictures feature al-Rasheed Street, which was opened by the Ottomans in 1916, and was home to the famous Al Zawra Cinema – one of Baghdad’s first big screens.

Pictures from the 1950s also show Iraqi women, who were encouraged to study and forge careers in medicine, science and engineering, pictured at university, wearing short skirts and playing sports.

Ali added: “Perhaps there is another reason which for me is the most important; I want Iraqis and others to know that Iraq has never been the property of the nation, religion or religious denomination.

“Muslims as well as Jews and Christians have been living in peace and as one family in Iraq. There was no difference between one and the other, in Iraq, the Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, Sabeans, everyone is living the security and linking them to citizenship and love for Iraq and the Iraqi people.

“Everyone was dreaming that Iraq was advancing and prospers, unfortunately we lost this. This is not a true picture of Iraq that we have lived in the past.”

Ali collects the pictures from friends, as well as other private archives and online resources.

With such a stark contrast between the Iraq of 50 years ago compared to the rubble and ruins today, Ali said his followers’ reactions can be bittersweet.

“Reactions of readers and comments make me feel a lot happier at the same time make me feel sad,” he said.

“Happy when I see them, happy and surprised by the true picture of Iraq, and sadness when I read the sorrow and pain of the past, when they compare the beautiful days in the past with the present, full of blood and malice and hatred.

“More reactions that make me feel happy is the messages from Iraqi immigrants, especially from Iraqi Jews who are mostly elderly or their children and grandchildren, as well as Christians who emigrated from Iraq since the 1990s, in private messages or in the comments.

“I feel a large amount of longing and nostalgia in them to Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, Hilla and all of Iraq, you feel you have lost brothers.

"I love all the pictures which I publish because I love my country and I love people, and I hope to see Iraq return as it was in the past, I find great pleasure in collecting and disseminating it.”