A glimpse of Old Iraq, age of Arab enlightenment, amid the bullets of 'democracy'

Robert Fisk in Baghdad

23 December 2003

Just beside Baghdad's cloth market are two noble wooden doors set in a massive and ancient brick wall with the first words of the Koran inscribed on the top. There is only one God but God and His Prophet is Mohamed. Because classical Arabic today remains the same language as that in which the Koran was written, there is always a slight surprise to see words written so long ago in unmistakably the same spelling and sense.

When the Caliph abu Jaafar al-Mansour bin aldahar Mohamed al-Nasr had those words inscribed on the al-Mustansariyah university wall, we were writing in the early Middle English which would soon resemble the English of Chaucer.

Indeed, Chaucer's pilgrims would have appreciated the peace and architectural glory of Baghdad's oldest university. From the moment I pushed open one of those noble doors, the roar of the market - the street hawkers and the men staggering under the weight of carpets and linen strapped to their backs, the taxis and trucks - fell away.

The four great walls of the university square surround two pools, and birds fly into the courtyard from the blue-domed mosque next door. The intricate designs of each wall, the product of Islam's prohibition on the human form in religious art, speak of an age of Arab enlightenment scarcely a hundred years after the Crusades. If we live today in "New Iraq" - and I'm not at all sure we do - then this is "Old Iraq".

Each door-niche around the courtyard was home to a scholar who would, according to legend, spread gossip and back-stab the scholar teaching in the next niche, a fine academic tradition which we in the west maintain in most of our universities. Science and theology were taught together in al-Mustansariyah, a tradition which lives on in Arab bookshelves where religious books and volumes on nuclear physics and chemistry are often placed on adjacent shelves.

There is even a little library off the courtyard where you can buy old PhD theses on Islamic art - there's an excellent treatise on Islamic bridges and minarets submitted to Edinburgh University in 1975 - and second-hand copies of Wilfrid Thesiger's explorations, and even a 1957 account of Nasser's relations with the Soviet Union which demonstrates how pitifully the language of Egyptian nationalism aped the prose of Pravda and Izvestia.

A female keeper walks up to me in the square outside and makes a familiar plea. Can she call her daughter in Sweden whom she has not talked to for many months? I tell her that if the Caliph al-Nasr realised that one day a Muslim woman of Baghdad could speak from this very courtyard to a daughter in northern Europe, he would doubt the meaning of life. She agrees and I call Sweden for her and she immediately - not realising I understand her - embarks on a long conversation with the daughter about the rate of exchange for gold and the need to transport textiles into Europe at current dollar rates. I feel sorry for The Independent's accounts department and tell her she must finish her commercial dealings. I have just come face to face with "New Iraq".

So I open the great door once more and step outside into "New Iraq", where the country's new "democracy" is in action. A truck-load of linen and a line of those struggling, slaving men with carpets on their backs are being confronted by two of Baghdad's American-paid policemen. The cops have rifles and are in plain clothes and look identical to the thugs who used to work for Saddam. I suspect they are indeed the same thugs, and they are screaming at the truck driver and the bent men to clear the road for traffic.

But the men don't want to clear the road and they curse the policemen obscenely and a fat man goes up to the older of the two policemen and bashes him on the chest with his fist. The policeman grabs the fat man's collar and the younger cop, in blue jeans and leather jacket, raises his Kalashnikov and fires a single shot, the bullet whizzing up above us into the sky above the old university.

I climb the stairs of a sinister, black, multi-storey car park on the other side of the road (being the only westerner on the street here is not very comforting) and from the roof I watch the policemen being shoved and pushed out of the street, the cops walking backwards with their rifles pointed at the crowd until they move round the corner out of sight.

The sweating slaves trudge on with their carpets, the lorry-driver continues to unload his linen. Transpose the truck for a horse and cart and I suppose this is much how the market went about its work when the Caliph al-Nasr was building his academy across the road. No doubt the caliph even had guards to clear the roads. But I'm not sure what he would have made of democracy.