Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Parks in Baghdad

This puts the managing of parks in our town somewhat in perspective, and deepens the realization that for many people, this is work that has a value much beyond that of a simple job.

An incredible man, doing incredible work, in impossible circumstances in one of the most glorious of park history nations where once existed the great hanging gardens of Babylon.

In Baghdad, a quest for a green zone
City's parks supervisor plants an arsenal of trees and flowers to soothe the scars of war.
By Hannah Allam - McClatchy Newspapers
Published 12:00 am PST Tuesday, December 26, 2006

BAGHDAD -- The flowers appear overnight, and in the unlikeliest of places: carnations near a checkpoint, roses behind razor wire and gardenias in a square known for suicide bombings.

Sometimes, U.S. armored vehicles hop a median and mow down the myrtle, leaving Baghdad parks workers to fume and reach for their trowels. When insurgents poured kerosene over freshly planted seedlings, landscapers swore a revenge of ficus trees and olive groves.

It's all part of a stealthy campaign to turn the entire capital into a green zone.

Jaafar Hamid al Ali, the Baghdad parks supervisor, leads the offensive. He's got a multi-million-dollar budget, along with 1,500 intrepid employees and a host of formidable enemies. There's the fussy climate, salty soil and nonstop violence that killed 30 of his workers in 2006. Every fallen gardener, Ali said, is a martyr in the struggle to beautify Baghdad.

"My principle is, for every drop of Iraqi blood, we must plant something green," he said. "One gives disappointment, the other gives hope."

Ali, 62, cuts a dapper figure among Iraqi bureaucrats. One recent chilly afternoon at his headquarters at Zawraa Park, the only operating park in Baghdad, he wore a knee-length houndstooth overcoat, a navy Yves Saint Laurent jacket and spit-shined shoes.

Someone had scribbled a flower on the nameplate that hangs on his office door.
Ali is a French-educated former professor who can recount by memory the history of flora in Iraq. The supposed site of the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon lies just 50 miles south of where he works.

Ottoman rulers established the first official public parks, some of which remained open well into the 1920s, Ali said. In the 1930s, the Baghdad city council built a few more parks and for the next four decades worked toward a goal of allotting 160 square feet of green space for each resident. By the 1970s, they'd reached 85 square feet per person.