Iraqi en­thu­si­asts search for relics of royal past


Find­ing com­fort through relics from a golden age

At the heart of a Bagh­dad flea mar­ket, nos­tal­gia for Iraq’s royal past is on full dis­play as col­lec­tors and in­vestors gather to buy relics from a by­gone era.

In­side the Moudal­lal cafe, Ara­bic for “pam­pered,” a hun­dred men from across the coun­try care­fully fol­low the auc­tion of me­men­tos from the nearly four decades of monar­chic rule that ended with a bloody coup in 1958.

“There is a feel­ing of nos­tal­gia among the cus­tomers. Take the ban­knotes, their man­u­fac­ture and qual­ity were much bet­ter be­fore, that’s why the prices go up,” says 52-year-old auctioneer Ali Hik­mat.

With a boom­ing voice, the tow­er­ing man who has worked in the cov­ered mar­ket since 1992 of­fers his goods to the high­est bid­der.

All sorts of keep­sakes are up for grabs: ban­knotes, coins, stamps, and dec­o­ra­tions.

Most date back to Iraq’s royal era, but there are also a few items from the early days of the repub­lic that fol­lowed af­ter gen­eral Ab­del Karim Kassem top­pled the monar­chy.

Noth­ing is on of­fer from the decades of dic­ta­tor­ship un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein.

“It was bet­ter be­fore”

For the Iraqis hunt­ing out their own sou­venir of the past, the pe­riod of royal rule rep­re­sents a golden age for their coun­try.

The found­ing of the King­dom of Iraq un­der Faisal I—who fought along­side T.E. Lawrence dur­ing World War I—marked the emer­gence of the mod­ern state af­ter the fall of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

The coun­try gained in­de­pen­dence in 1932 and the monar­chy lasted un­til Faisal II was ex­e­cuted dur­ing the coup.

“Of course we are nos­tal­gic for the royal pe­riod. All the main struc­tures in this coun­try were built dur­ing that pe­riod, be it bridges, dams, and the rest,” says 53-yearold Ah­mad Ka­mal, who owns a real es­tate agency in Bagh­dad.

“The royal era marks the be­gin­ning of the Iraqi state,” he says. “If we com­pare it to to­day, it was much bet­ter be­fore.”

The com­par­i­son be­tween the past and present is a po­tent one as Iraq re­cov­ers from its lat­est round of dev­as­ta­tion and blood­shed fol­low­ing the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State group.

That vi­o­lence is just the lat­est to roil the coun­try that has been through war with Iran, the US-led in­va­sion, and a bru­tal sectarian con­flict since the 1980s.

Saad Mohsen, a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern his­tory at the Univer­sity of Bagh­dad, in­sists that back un­der the con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy, Iraq was “more demo­cratic and cleaner than to­day.”

“We were far from the blood and fight­ing that we have come to know,” he says.

For cloth­ing mer­chant Hus­sein Hakim, search­ing out sou­venirs from pre­vi­ous epochs helps him to delve into Iraq’s rich her­itage. “The past fas­ci­nates me,” he says. “I’m in­ter­ested in the his­tory of my coun­try through the ob­jects I col­lect from the Ot­toman pe­riod up un­til the repub­lic, but it’s the royal era that I pre­fer most,” the 43-year-old adds, proudly dis­play­ing two ef­fi­gies of King Ghazi and King Faisal II.

Mar­ket of mem­o­ries

The weekly auc­tion in this small cafe is ex­cep­tional not only be­cause of the sheer num­ber of items on sale, but also be­cause ev­ery­thing must be sold re­gard­less of the price, al­low­ing a lucky few to snap up some bar­gains.

But the de­sire for all things con­nected with the era of roy­alty does not mean Iraqis are look­ing to bring back the monar­chy.

Sharif Ali Ben Hus­sein, who claims to be the le­git­i­mate heir to the Iraqi throne, has never man­aged to get elected to par­lia­ment.

In the wake of the 2003 US in­va­sion, he re­turned to Bagh­dad af­ter 45 years in ex­ile but his claim that “a clear ma­jor­ity” of peo­ple wanted the monar­chy back failed to gain trac­tion.

For Adel Karim Sabri, who runs the mag­a­zine My Hobby spe­cial­iz­ing in stamps and old bank notes, “the past is al­ways more beau­ti­ful be­cause it is made of mem­o­ries.”

And for many of those shop­ping at this mar­ket of mem­o­ries, scour­ing for relics ap­pears to have more to do with fi­nan­cial gain than his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est.

“They buy be­cause they have money and it’s a good in­vest­ment,” the 76-year-old says. —AFP

A man holds up a coin dur­ing an auc­tion in Moudal­lal cafe in Bagh­dad

In Iraq, col­lec­tors and in­vestors flock to a flea mar­ket full of relics of the past.

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