2 Nov
Fanciful Gardens Emerge in a City of Tan and Gray

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive


Joao Silva for The New York Times

Muhi Mohammed Hussein trimmed an eagle-shaped topiary sculpture at the entrance to his home in Baghdad on Friday.

Khalil Abbas says people come to his nursery from all over Baghdad and the rest of Iraq now that security has improved.


Top of FormNew York Times      November 1, 2009


BAGHDAD — Khalil Abbas has worked with plants since he was 7 years old, and his tree nursery could be a barometer of Iraq’s changing fortunes. During the 1970s, when Iraqis enjoyed a flood of oil money, customers flocked to him to supply elaborate gardens, buying plants imported from Jordan and Syria, Mr. Abbas said. Then after the American invasion of 2003, business came to a halt.

“When the situation was dangerous, people from other neighborhoods were unable to come here, and we couldn’t go there,” he said.

On a recent morning Mr. Abbas, 58, sat in an office that was surrounded by sicus palms, ficus trees, gardenias, fruit trees and other plants. As security has improved, he said, people have been buying plants again, coming to the nursery in the Jadriya neighborhood not only from other parts of Baghdad but also from around the country. Business has multiplied eightfold since 2005, including brisk sales in small sicus palms, which cost about $350.

“A lot of people are getting money from the government,” he said, “so it’s not just embassies buying. Now regular people buy as well.”

Gardens remain one of the few flourishes of public ornament on Baghdad’s otherwise brown streets, defiant displays of foliage amid concrete blast walls and security checkpoints. And in its middle-class neighborhoods, Baghdad is a city of surprising topiary sculptures: leafy ficus trees are carved in geometric spirals, balls, arches and squares, as if to impose order on a chaotic sprawl. The trees provide a startling counterpoint of color and contour to the uniformly tan and rectilinear houses and walls surrounding them.

“This is our kingdom, our home,” said Mohammed al-Khalidy, an electrical engineer, standing in his garden, where ficus trees carved like deconstructed snowmen flank the street.

Mr. Khalidy has worked for American agencies, and he said that as a result he had received death threats and that three cars had been destroyed at his home. His windows still bear masking tape X’s, to prevent them from shattering easily.

“This is where we have our relaxation,” he said, speaking English. “There is no safe location where we can go.”

Even during the high periods of sectarian violence, he said, he and his family entertained guests in the garden. “Of course,” he said. “What can we do?”

During the worst years, he said, it was difficult to buy plants, so the family used clippings to fill out the garden. Even when car bombs were exploding in the neighborhood, his mother insisted on watering the garden daily. “We didn’t change,” he said.

For Falah Mohammed, standing beneath a massive topiary arch by his driveway, the improved security in Baghdad has brought its own problem: he cannot find a gardener with enough time to take care of his trees. His quiet street is lined with neat gardens.

“The gardener used to come every day,” said Mr. Mohammed, who runs a flour factory. “Now he only comes two times a month because he has too much work.”

Mr. Mohammed said he never had trouble getting plants, because he lived near enough to Mr. Abbas’s nursery. But the costs of maintaining his garden have risen.

“Before, it was very cheap, $10 a visit,” he said. “Now he’s asking $100 to come two times a month.”

Topiaries are not traditional in Iraq, said Salwa Nori, an agricultural engineer and garden designer. She said that she closed her business for two years during the violent times, but that since late 2006 it has been growing.

“It comes from Europe or wherever people travel, and they bring it back,” she said. “And now it comes from the Internet and satellite channels.”

Though Iraqis began experimenting with topiary gardens in the 1990s, they have become popular only in recent years, and only in wealthy neighborhoods.

“Right now, the provinces are getting interested, it’s not just the capital,” Ms. Nori said. Still, she said, even in Baghdad, “There are a lot of beautiful gardens but the people are out of the country” because of the violence.

On a battered street in the middle-class neighborhood of Zayouna, Muhi Mohammed Hussein trimmed an elaborate plant sculpture in the shape of an eagle in front of his home. Flanking it were bushes shaped like corkscrews, flowers and straw baskets, which he said took him four or five months to create using wire frames to form the shapes.

When sectarian violence was at its peak, he said, people in Baghdad were not interested in his work, so he left for Dubai and the northern city of Erbil. But now there is a place in Baghdad for his creations, he said.

“Iraq has suffered for a long time, so now I’m trying to give a smile back to Iraq with beautiful plants,” he said.

For Mazen Hammad, who works for the Ministry of Health, his garden was a refuge from the violence. Mr. Hammad talked among hedges carved like the battlements of a castle.

“When the situation was bad, I took care of the garden more than when it’s good,” he said. “When you take care of the garden, you forget the war. But when the situation is good, you’re too busy with work.”

Mr. Abbas, who runs the nursery, said a recent trend was for people to buy seedlings, intending to carve their names into the leaves when the trees grow up. Iraq’s topiary gardens, he said, are just beginning.

Not far from his nursery, the wrecked frame of a building testified to the effects of a car bomb, but amid his trees Mr. Abbas was serene. Still, he said, he does not like to see a beautiful tree overshadowed by an ugly concrete blast wall. “It’s a big disaster,” he said.