- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

BAGHDAD — Writers, poets, artists and philosophers, silenced under Saddam Hussein, marked a bittersweet first year of American rule yesterday, sipping tea and blowing fragrant tobacco smoke from shared hookahs at one of the city’s favorite watering holes.

The Hasan Amji cafe sits in a part of Baghdad known for its popular used book fair, where everything from English and Arabic college textbooks to Tom Clancy thrillers can be found on the blanketed road. The weekly sale still draws huge crowds each Friday, despite the threat of suicide bombers.

The Hasan Amji cafe became a hangout for writers in the 1950s, much like the Algonquin Hotel in New York.

Today, writers who stayed out of sight during Saddam’s rule have once again adopted the cafe as a hangout, proud of having subsisted for years on menial jobs while turning down handsome commissions to glorify the ousted dictator.

“A literary man has to be free, not to sell his talent, but to dedicate his talent to the truth,” said Adil Ali Safer, 39, a writer of short stories and plays.

Mr. Safer recalled visiting the cafe from time to time when Saddam ruled, using a child’s name as a code to curse the dictator in hushed tones.

“I’m sorry that so many literary people devoted their talent to praising the former regime,” Mr. Safer said over a cup of thick, sweet Arab tea, the strongest drink on the menu.

One year ago today, the U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq and quickly deposed Saddam.

Now, however, it is not always easy to find people who do not blame the Americans for lawless streets and random bombings, power blackouts and a general tardiness in getting basic things to work.

But the Hasan Amji cafe, where the residue of tobacco smoke coats the peeling yellow walls, is one place to find people still celebrating Saddam’s demise.

Mr. Safer had only kind words for President Bush.

“He did good to get rid of the former regime. It’s as if a huge boulder was removed from the chest of the Iraqi people,” he said.

So what did the first year of life without Saddam mean to those in the cafe yesterday? “Freedom, just freedom. Not money. Not work. Just the freedom,” said Abdul Hady Finjan, 51, a poet.

The war “got rid of Saddam, his government and his Ba’ath Party. The Ba’ath Party had cut the rope of any relationship between the Iraqis and freedom,” he said. “We need freedom to write, to talk, to think. Freedom is like a bird, but our bird isn’t flying now. We need a bird with wings.”

Abdul Jabbar J. Awith, 58, attended the University of Oregon in Eugene in the early 1960s and today he is a math professor at a local university.

Asked to describe freedom, Mr. Awith answered: “Marvelous. So nice, so lovely, like beautiful music but with slow dancing.”

He added, “In America, when they built their society, it took more than 200 years to settle everything. In Iraq, we have to do the same within our habits, our experience, which is not the same as the Americans. But the principles are the same.”

Sitting on a bamboo cushioned bench playing backgammon with a friend, he continued: “Freedom means to me as an ordinary person, to feel that you live in civility, love people, work with them, live with them, cooperate nicely with them. And when you disagree with anyone, you try to settle the problem with him nicely, kindly, lovingly, like any good gentleman.”

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