AT ITS oldest spot, a small dusty strip of dirt road near a mosque, the neighbourhood of Bab al-Sheikh dates from a time, more than 1000 years ago, when Baghdad ruled the Islamic world. At that time, orchards and palaces of Abbasid princes unfolded in stately splendour not far away.
Ten centuries later, Bab al-Sheikh, a maze of snaking streets too narrow for cars, is less grand, but still extraordinary: it has been spared the sectarian killing that has gutted other neighbourhoods, and Sunnis, Shiites and Christians live together here with unusual ease.
It has been battered by bombings at its edges, but the war has been kept from its heart, largely because of its ancient, shared past, bound by trust and generations of intermarriage.
"All of these people grew up here together," said Monther, a suitcase-seller. "From the time of our grandfathers, same place, same food, same everything."
Much of today's Baghdad emerged in the 1970s, when the nationalisation of oil drew Iraqis from all over the country to work.
The city's population more than tripled in 20 years, and new neighbourhoods sprawled east and west. The war and civil conflict seem to have taken a heavier toll in those areas than in some of the older neighbourhoods.
No one knows this better than Waleed, a rail-thin Bab al-Sheikh native who 10 years ago moved his family to Dora, a new, middle-class neighbourhood in southern Baghdad.
In Dora, residents were from all over. That never seemed to matter until the basic rules of society fell away after the American occupation began. The only bulwark left against complete chaos was trust between families - and in Dora there was not enough.
"We didn't know each other's backgrounds," said Waleed, sitting with Monther in a barbershop in Bab al-Sheikh, rain spitting on the street outside. Neither man wanted to be identified by his last name out of concern for safety.
"Here, he can't lie to me," he said, jabbing a finger in Monther's direction. "He can't say, 'I'm this, I'm that', because I know it's not true."
In Dora, he said, he did not have those powers of discernment. And he paid the price: his son was shot to death on October 9, 2006, while trying to get a copy of his high school diploma.
Waleed moved his family out of the area immediately.
"My first thought was this neighbourhood," he said. "My grandfather is from
It was safe enough, in fact, to walk through the warren of narrow streets, nod at elderly women sitting at street-level windows, linger in a barbershop and make long visits to Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish homes.
On a recent Friday, a large Kurdish extended family relaxed at home. The living room was dark and cool, tucked in an alley away from the afternoon sun. Abu Nawal, the father, recounted how a group of men from the office of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came to a local cafe, proposing to set up shop in the area.
The cafe owner pointed to a sign, which stated in dark script that all discussions of politics and religion were prohibited. The men were then asked to leave.
"The guys in the neighbourhood said, 'If you try to make an office here, we will explode it'," said Abu Nawal, a shoemaker whose family has lived in the neighbourhood for four generations.
Some time later, Sunni Arab political party members came and were similarly rebuffed. "They wanted to put their foot in this neighbourhood, but they couldn't," said Abu Nawal, who asked not to be identified by his full name for the safety of his family.
He said he despised the poisonous mix of religion and politics that was strangling Iraqi society.
NEW YORK TIMES
A calligrapher works on the restoration of Bab al-Sheikh's Qailani Mosque
Click to view image: '119482-calligraphy_1411_wideweb__470x2130arab.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|