To know Mohammed Ghani Hikmat (1929-2011), was to know Iraq … well, Baghdad — vibrant, dynamic, proud, and all-embracing. With a long, productive career, his work valued by museums and collectors internationally, Ghani, the sculptor, needs no introduction.
I first met Ghani in 1990 on my first visit to Baghdad. It was a propitious encounter since through him I made many good friends who helped me understand and like Iraq. Our encounter developed from a professional relationship — I first interviewed him about his work for a US magazine — to an enduring friendship with the entire family.
I remained close to Ghani and his wife, archaeologist Gaya Rahal, up to the time we last met, a year ago at their home in exile in Jordan. His son Yasser, with his wife Rana, and their children, had just left for overseas. Ghani was so sad he could not talk about it. He was rarely lost for words, so we knew this separation was very hard for him.
Whatever the misfortunes of his homeland, the absent friends, and his personal disappointments, Ghani never relaxed his enormous energy as a sculptor, and his artistic imagination never flagged. That week in Amman, he had had a hugely successful exhibition of recent work. “All sold,” he said, with some astonishment. “I have new orders from many people who were too late to buy a piece in the show. I have to start working again, immediately.”
Collectors of Ghani’s recent work are Iraqis in the Diaspora, especially those living in Jordan. He was proud that his people, despite recent hardships and material losses, continued to value art and the work of Iraqi artists in particular. Indeed, since 1990, the year when UN-US sanctions were imposed on Iraq, the Jordanian capital has emerged into something of a regional art centre — largely due to the influx of Iraqi artists driven there by lack of materials, by the closure of museums, and the decline of Iraq’s middle class who had supported the arts in their homeland.
The only time I witnessed a hiatus in Ghani’s production was during the US bombing of Iraq in early 1991. He was angry and shocked and would never forgive the Americans for that assault. During those 42 days, before he could repair his bombed studio, under siege, confined to his home, Ghani occupied himself assembling a photographic collection of his work — sketches, photographs and notes from his entire career. He set about preparing this for publication. (Indeed, within months it was printed, and is now certain to become a collector’s item. In this he recruited the help of his skilful and devoted daughter Hajjar.)
Ghani often recalled his years in Rome, and kept in touch with fellow artists there. He knew Italian so well that when conversing in English, which he did with relative fluency, he spoke with an Italian accent. Whenever lost for an English word, he quickly substituted an Italian. This Iraqi’s conversation in English was often colourfully peppered with Italian.
During his exile in Amman, Ghani resumed his work, and to a degree the family’s social life continued. Any meeting after 7pm with Ghani and Gaya was bound to be an Iraqi party. Down the street or across town, Iraqi friends were gathering, and if I was in town, I accompanied them. Invariably I was gratified by jovial and uplifting company. It was the same in Baghdad where I spent time with the Ghani family on every one of my dozens of visits there during the 13 years of sanctions from 1990-2003.
At their modest Baghdad home the atmosphere was always relaxed. I often joined Ghani and Gaya in the evenings and found myself among Iraq’s most accomplished musicians, artists and scholars, among them oud master and composer Munir Bashir, literary critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, artist Laila Al-Attar, and archaeologist Walid Al-Jadir. With others, they made Baghdad the dynamic and vital city it was. Of course, all that changed as merciless sanctions took their toll, driving people out of the country, striking down many with illness or despair.
During the day, whether in Iraq or in exile, Ghani was not to be seen. He had a strict regime: at work in his studio by 9am, an hour for lunch, then back to work until seven in the evening, even at the age of 82. He was not to be disturbed when at work. Not even Gaya ventured into the studio. Only Yasser, in the years that he was an apprentice to his father, might be in the studio with him. I was once in his workplace, only because I was to interview him about his career, arguing that it was essential for me to be with him among the mock-ups and his finished pieces while we talked.
Ghani and his family survived the sanctions, but not without difficulties.
“Never,” said Ghani, “these sanctions will never reach inside my house.” So he kept the mood upbeat, and an open door for guests, including his children’s school friends. Although those sanctions did invade even this home — nothing could withstand that brutal, cold-blooded assault. The death or departure of friends and neighbours took its toll but Ghani stayed on. It was not until the US-led invasion, bringing threats to his family and the ransacking of museums, that he went into exile. Before long though, in Amman, he was at work again.
“The mayor of Baghdad has asked me to return,” he told me in 2010. “There will be work there for me. But as long as my country is occupied, I shall not go.”
The determined mayor persisted, it seems, and finally last October, Ghani revisited his country. It was a bittersweet encounter, but the sculptor did agree to design a series of pieces for the city. Back in Amman, in his final months, as his health was failing, Ghani worked with his son Yasser to direct the details of the casting and the installation of his last works — four new sculptures to be erected in Baghdad. When they are installed, they will partner the already well-known Ghani landmarks in Baghdad to decorate this city he called his “most beautiful lady.”
Today his body rests there, a final wish of Ghani, awaiting these new installations.
Dr. Barbara Nimri Aziz, Ph.D, is an anthropologist, journalist and broadcaster, Arab activist, radio talk-show host, and founder of RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), a centre of news and information for Arab writers. During her frequent visits to Iraq, she wrote a series of reports from Baghdad which were published under the title "Bulletins Live from Iraq". She also published books about Iraq such as "Between Two Rivers," and "Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq"