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Picturing Iraq in a Bygone Era

Picturing Iraq in a Bygone Era


When his career began in the 1950s, Latif Al Ani captured scenes of Iraqi life in a more innocent time.

Women shopping in Baghdad in 1964.CreditLatif Al Ani

 

On some Fridays, Latif Al Ani walks around Mutanabbi Street, the heart of Baghdad’s intellectual life, with its bookshops and cafes. When he does go, he nurtures a faint hope that he will, amid the rows of stalls selling books, maps and photographs, stumble across an old possession: his pictures.

 

Mr. Ani, 86, is regarded as the founder of Iraqi photography, and many prints he had stored with the Ministry of Culture went missing when government buildings were looted after the 2003 invasion. Luckily, though, for Mr. Ani and those concerned with Iraq’s history, not all of his life’s work was lost.

 

When his career began in the 1950s, during what he calls Iraq’s “heyday,” Mr. Ani captured scenes of Iraqi life in a more innocent time. In the lulls between the revolutions, coups and wars that shaped modern Iraq, he captured family picnics, well-dressed Western tourists standing near ancient ruins and everyday moments. Image after image, in black and white — he loves the shadows and the feelings they convey — is informed by the collisions of old traditions with modernity.

 

Mr. Ani stopped taking pictures — aside from snapshots of family and friends on his iPhone — in the late 1970s as the country fell into dictatorship. But now his work is being seen again, thanks to the Ruya Foundation, an Iraqi arts foundation run by Tamara Chalabi. His photographs are on exhibit at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam in Paris, and another exhibit is planned for next year in France. His work has also been shown in Italy, London and the United Arab Emirates. And last year Hatje Cantz, a German publisher, released a monograph of his work.

 

“He became forgotten in his own country,” said Ms. Chalabi, the daughter of the late Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi. In a foreword for Mr. Ani’s book, Shwan Ibrahim Taha, a co-founder of Ruya, wrote, “looking at his photos, I long for a place that might have continued being like Latif’s photos, but sadly is no longer possible.”

 

Paging through the book, we look down Rasheed Street, once the city’s grandest boulevard (“It was the heart of Baghdad,” Mr. Ani said. “You felt the past.”), and see American cars and men in suits. We see women gathered around a jewelry counter at an upscale shop. It could be Manhattan, but it is Baghdad. And we see pictures of modernist homes built in the 1960s, with clean lines and odd geometry, that have a Southern California vibe.

A police van in Cairo, 1964 or 1965.CreditLatif Al Ani

 

“Life was easy,” said Mr. Ani. “There was no war, no problems.”

 

To live in Baghdad as a foreigner, as I did for many years as The Times’s bureau chief, was to always wonder what the city used to be like, before the blast walls and checkpoints circumscribed the urban geography, and before so much violence altered the city’s character, and changed the relationship between citizens and their public spaces. Often, I depended on older men, like Mr. Ani — who unlike so many other middle-class Iraqis never left for the safety of foreign shores — as my guides.

 

At his age, he easily slips into memory.

 

The 1940s, when his brother, a shopkeeper on Mutanabbi Street, gave him his first camera, and a Jewish man taught him how to use it.

 

The 1950s, crisscrossing the country as the photographer for the in-house magazine of the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company.

 

The 1960s and 1970s, covering news, and traveling to Paris with the country’s young vice president, Saddam Hussein.

 

One of his favorite pictures is a simple scene, of his own family at a roadside picnic, in 1970 in Salahuddin Province — his mother, his young wife, his brother-in-law lounging on the ground, his gleaming late-1950s Pontiac in the background. “Nobody asked us what we were doing there,” he said. “No one asked, are you Sunni or Shia? That was life back then.”

 

Another favorite is a picture of a naked woman, stretching in the morning. The story of that photo, of a time when an Iraqi man and a European woman could find romance without fear, is a distillation, he said, of all that has been lost in Iraq. Her name was Anna and she was from Spain, and they met dancing in a Baghdad nightclub. The photo was taken at a lakeside resort in Anbar Province, then a place for a vacation, now famous for extreme Islamist politics and terrorism.

 

The book’s cover shows an American couple from Colorado at the ruins of Ctesiphon, near Baghdad, in 1965. At the time, Mr. Ani said, the United States in the minds of Iraqis meant movies, ideals and cars. On a tour of the United States in the 1960s he stayed with the Colorado couple, and the only color photographs in his book are from San Francisco.

 

“At that time America cared about freedom,” he said. “It was our dream to see America. Now what America means is to control and rule the world.”

 

On many days Mr. Ani spends his time at the courtyard cafe and art gallery of an old friend Qassim Sabti, himself a guardian of Baghdad’s memory who often entertains foreigners at his home over al fresco dinners of masgoof, an Iraqi river fish.

 

Mr. Sabti said Mr. Ani’s photographs show a version of what Iraq could become again, if it can move past its recent torments, of violence, radical Islam and political dysfunction. “Iraqis are people who like to drink alcohol, to dance,” he said. “We are not radicals. We are not Bedouins. We are not like Saudi Arabia.”

 

Though Mr. Ani insists his “pictures are for the next generation to see what Iraq was like,” his friend sees an immeasurably important purpose. “Haji Latif is part of our history,” said Mr. Sabti. “We are lucky to have him. If we didn’t have him we wouldn’t have this history.”