Cities also believe that they are work of mind, or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Almost a quarter of a century ago, I was a young British Council officer posted to Baghdad in the hopeful period after the end of what was then called ‘the Gulf War,’ the pointless eight-year slugfest that devoured innumerable young Iraqis and Iranians between 1980 and 1988. I was still there with my family in August 1990, when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, setting off a chain reaction of hatred, calculation and violence that is still playing out today, two ‘Gulf Wars’ later.

So much has been written about Iraq in the last two decades that it isn’t easy to remember the time when Saddam Hussein ruled unchallenged, supported by Western governments viscerally alarmed at Khomeini’s Iran – and when very little was really known in England about Ba’athist Iraq. I arrived at the end of 1988, with my wife Georgina and our eight-month-old daughter in a country bled dry by its war with Iran, mourning countless sons, deprived of every faintly luxurious import, from academic journals to pineapples, and from cancer drugs to carburettors. The Council nursed academic and artistic contacts, donated books, ran English classes and medical exams, and brought in theatre companies. It seemed that, with the war behind it, Iraq would move slowly back into the community of nations.

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