BAGHDAD — Report No. 25, dated April 4 and written by Col. Qais Hussein, was clinical, the anonymous survey of an explosion in a city where explosions are ordinary.
“Material damage: significant,” it declared of the car bomb that was detonated last month near the Egyptian Embassy, killing 17 people. “The burning of 10 cars + the burning of a house, which was in front of the embassy, with moderate damage to 10 surrounding houses.”
Hussein’s report didn’t mention the hundreds of books, from Chekhov plays to novels by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, stored in bags, boxes and a stairwell. It didn’t speak of the paintings there of Shaker Hassan, one of Iraq’s greatest, or the sculptures of his compatriot, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat.
Nor did Hussein’s report mention that the home belonged to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a renowned Arab novelist, poet, painter, critic and translator who built it along the date palms and mulberry trees of Princesses’ Street nearly a half-century ago and lived there until his death in 1994.
This is not a story about an outpouring of grief over the destruction of the house. There were no commemorations, few tributes. As Fadhil Thamer, a critic, said, “People here have seen too much.”
But in the whispers of friends and colleagues, who recalled Jabra’s listening to Bach as he wrote, the smoke of his pipe wafting through the room, the house represented something far greater that has been lost. To some of them, its destruction serves as an epitaph of sorts, the end of eras in Iraq and the Arab world and the eclipse, in war and strife, of the ideal he represented.
Rarely have a house and a man seemed to intersect so seamlessly.
Born in 1919 to a Christian family, Jabra settled in Baghdad after the 1948 war that his fellow Palestinians call the “nakba,” or catastrophe. He had earned a degree from Cambridge, would soon study at Harvard, and in his ensuing years here he joined the sculptor Jawad Salim and a remarkable generation of other artists who made Iraq a pioneer in Arab culture.
Jabra was among the most prominent, as a writer whose acclaimed work modernized the Arabic novel and a linguist who translated everything from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”
“He was a living example of the process of translation, of taking one culture and literally carrying it across a cultural divide and placing it in another culture,” said Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania who was a friend of Jabra’s and helped translate two of his novels.
His simple two-story house, bordered by orange trees redolent of Palestine, reflected his tastes. Hikmat recalled that Jabra had one of his wood sculptures over his fireplace and others in the entry and dining room. Majed al-Samarrai, a critic and friend, remembers paintings by Iraqi artists like Rakan Dabdoub, Souad al-Attar and Nouri al-Rawi.
“How do I describe it?” Samarrai asked. “The house was a gallery of Iraqi art.”
Often it was filled with music, what Jabra considered the only pure art.
“Any music you bring along will make me happy — esp. 18th c and earlier,” Jabra once wrote to Allen. “When you come to us you’ll see I’ve got quite a bit of it (from 15th to 18th centuries). It is, literally, my daily bread. It sustains my mind and my writing.”
The house’s doors were always open. Friends say Jabra persuaded Abdelrahman Mounif to write his monumental novel “Cities of Salt” there.
Issa J. Boullata, a retired professor of Arabic literature at McGill University in Canada and a longtime friend of Jabra’s, recalled a salon for poets, artists and thinkers inhabited with “an intellectual quality that stemmed from his mind, ever open to others.”
When Mr. Jabra died in 1994, a relative, Raqiya Ibrahim, moved to the house.
“Jabra’s treasures are in your hands,” Samarrai remembered telling her.