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Can Baghdad's Rasheed Street save its name, glory?

Once a cultural and economic hub, Baghdad's Rasheed Street will need a lot of work and investment to return to its days of glory.
Iraqi men gather and socialise at Umm Kulthum Cafe on Rasheed street, the oldest street in the capital Baghdad on January 20, 2019. - Behind the dilapidated storefronts and collapsing colonnades of Rasheed Street lie the treasures of the Iraqi capital's cultural boom years but with young Iraqis listening to modern music and spending hours in hipster-style coffee shops, the boulevard that bustled non-stop in the 1970s is at risk of being passed over. (Photo by SABAH ARAR / AFP)        (Photo credit should re

BAGHDAD — Adjacent to the Tigris River, Rasheed Street has been called “the memory of Baghdad” by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. But efforts to revive the once bustling street — or even to maintain its name — may prove to be an arduous task.

The Iraqi government has worked doggedly to restore the old glory of Baghdad, which has been the target of more bombings and explosions than its residents care to remember. The city is slowly returning to normal as dozens of security checkpoints and roadblocks are removed, enabling the flow of traffic. Construction of the new central bank, designed by the late Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid on the west bank of the Tigris River, is expected to be completed within the year.

The renovation of Rasheed Street, on the other side of the Tigris, is also on the agenda, both for the country’s political elite and grass-roots groups. Prior to the removal of the road blocks and walls around this business and cultural hub, a group of Iraqi parliamentary representatives from Baghdad visited the street Feb. 27 to oversee the process that would open the street to traffic after 15 years. A few days after the opening, on March 14, a group of university students organized a modest clean-up campaign to draw attention to the historic street.

But some believe the street name needs to be changed first. Sami al-Askari, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly and the State of Law coalition, challenged the name "Rasheed" because it refers to Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rasheed, whom Shiites hate because he killed the seventh Shiite Imam Musa al-Kadhim, according to Shiite narratives. Askari tweeted March 31 that the name be changed, provoking many responses both for and against the change, though no official step has been taken to change the name.

Opened in 1916 under Ottoman rule, Rasheed Street was the first street in Baghdad to be electrically illuminated. The capital’s first cinema, al-Zawra, was also built there, alongside theaters, cafes and bookstores. The street was home to Baghdad’s cafe society, where writers, artists, politicians, intellectuals and admiring students could listen to music or enjoy tea at cafes such as Hassan Ajami, al-Zahawi and, famously, Umm Kulthum. Most of these cafes were opened in the early 20th century and remained open — even if they struggled somewhat after the 1980s, when the street entered a downfall — right until the 2000s.

“For most Iraqis, the street was a cultural, economic and touristic hub in the capital Baghdad for nearly 80 years, as well as a landmark of national identity,” Ali Hassan al-Fawwaz, the secretary of cultural affairs for the General Union of Writers in Iraq, told Al-Monitor.

Rasheed Street, "which starts at an intersection with Abu Nawas Street and extends all the way to al-Midan Square, was once home to the stores that carried global trademarks, and had offices of international companies,” Fawwaz said, drawing attention to the street's economic role.

The street’s landmarks also include some of the oldest mosques in Baghdad, such as the Haydar Khana Mosque (built in 1819), El Mouradia and Ahmadiyya (built in 1759). The Ottoman monuments, all of which are still standing, include al-Qishla building and the clock tower, Rashidiya military school and Khan al-Mudallal, an inn built in 1906.

The street has witnessed important political events in the history of modern Iraq. British forces, which entered Iraq in 1917, held their first military parade along the street in 1923. In the 1950s, it was the scene of several communist protests against the kingdom. Its claim to political fame came in 1959, when Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. Hussein was shot in the leg and fled the country.

Hussein, who became president in 1979, never warmed up to Rasheed Street, mainly because he saw it as a symbol of past rulers and the monarchy. Under his regime, the street was intentionally neglected and the cafes and shops lost their old glamour.

In the 2010s, various governments tried to revive the street. Saber al-Issawi, then the mayor of Baghdad, promised in 2011 that the street would become the capital’s cultural center once more. Three years later, the Municipality of Baghdad called upon 12 international construction companies to fix up facades, repave the sidewalks and build facilities like public toilets. An international consultancy company was contracted for $7 million to design the heritage buildings, but the plan was never implemented as the country plunged into instability once more.

"The street’s development projects were not successful, because the security and political conditions of Iraq prevented the projects from materializing," Saad al-Mutalibi, a member of the Baghdad Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor.

He explained that the development project is the prerogative of the Municipality of Baghdad, not the federal government. “The municipality is keen on rebuilding the street, but it needs to overcome the private ownership issue,” he said, pointing out that most of the buildings belong to private citizens, not the state. Therefore, any major renovations can only take place with the owner’s permission.

Nevertheless, some progress has already been made. The spokesman for the Secretariat of Baghdad, Hakim Abdul-Zahra, told Al-Monitor about a comprehensive plan developed by the Strategic Planning Committee. 

“The plan was developed in 2007 for reconstruction of infrastructure and renovation of buildings," he said. "We aimed to modernize the buildings while still maintaining their historical features.” Through the works of private developers specializing in architectural heritage sites, some of the buildings' facades were restored between 2007 and 2009, he said.

He explained that the difficult security conditions — the closure of the streets in central Baghdad, including Rasheed Street — have hindered construction and restoration works and prevented access of construction vehicles. “This is why the project completion was delayed," he said.

Fawwaz, for his part, suggested that a new plan is needed to continue the work. A specialized task force is needed, one that would not be subject to hefty bureaucracy, to renovate the street and cooperate with cultural investors, such as international donors and architects who specialize in historical restorations.

The determination to develop Rasheed Street coincides with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities' launch of the National Campaign for the Protection of Urban Heritage in January. Within the scope of this campaign, all heritage buildings will be documented and their data will be updated.

Media office director of the Ministry of Culture, Amran al-Obeidi, told Al-Monitor that the street is included in the campaign to protect Baghdad's urban heritage. “Technical teams of archaeologists and architects are studying the state of buildings, their annexes and cultural and heritage features," he said. "This includes areas associated with Rasheed Street."