The Arabian Nights – a 12th century fable and a 19th century state of mind. Veiled maidens with rubies in their belly buttons darting furtively through arched portals, camels kushed outside darkened houses heavy with the odor of strong tobacco burning in a hookah and cuisine based on God-knows-what cooking in an earthen kettle; threatening-looking men with bold moustaches, loose garments and heavy scimitars at their sides, and nary a sound to be heard other than music with some unsettling tone and meter in the background. A crescent moon – always a crescent, never full nor new – always overhead. A disdain for westerners. Safe haven for miscreants from all over the earth, akin to Butch and Sundance’s Hole in the Wall a thousand years later. A foreboding night in a foreboding town.
Baghdad. Or, seen in many early western publications as Bagdad.
It caught the world’s eye in the 1920s when it became capital of Iraq. Boundaries of faraway nations meant little to us – it was all the land of Arabia to the music lyricists, fashion designers and Hollywood writers, all capitalizing on its mystique. Few seasoned moviegoers can forget the sepia-toned scene, in Cinerama yet, when a tiny speck on the barren windswept desert appeared through a distant mirage, then inexorably, slowly, grew larger and closer to the viewer until the skirted horse and a turbaned Omar Sharif, his tattered burnoose streaming in the wind, dismounted to deliver news to (Capt. T. E.) Lawrence of Arabia. Many regard it as director David Lean’s most memorable scene, ever.
But why did San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner columnist Herb Caen nickname San Francisco, and later subtitle his column, Baghdad-by-the-Bay? Baghdad and San Francisco are little alike; San Francisco built on seven hills, only forty square miles with water on three sides, but Baghdad basically level and spread out 20 times larger, its only waterfront the Tigris River; San Francisco, in a word, of breathtaking beauty while Baghdad, well, by Caen’s assessment, less so – the sparkling white minarets exist mostly in travel brochures. Not an unattractive city, but no San Francisco. Why was it called Baghdad-by-the-Bay by a scribe who set Bay Area trends for seven decades, until his death in February of 1997?
Right about now, in case you’re wondering what inspired this column: A reader asked me why, given my frequent references to Herb Caen, haven’t I jumped on Caen’s 50-year old reference to Baghdad. And I point out that I welcome many former Bay Area residents to this column, who loved or hated Caen but definitely read him daily. My simple excuse is that I figured that some other writer had already drawn attention to it, given the events of the world. But learning of none, I’ll wrap up the explanation:
Caen drew his analogy based upon lifestyle, not the cities’ appearances or geography. Caen’s San Francisco was a wild, wide-open city in 1951, a town with colonies of a dozen ethnic regions that lived by their own cultures unabated, a dozen tongues spoken each morning on the 30-Stockton bus line on the way downtown to work, not unlike a commute in Baghdad. Fugitives from other climes who lived less than savory lives were left alone, so long as they didn’t cause any problems to either city’s other residents. A large Bohemian presence thrived in both cities. And both cities had an unsung tolerance, ranging to admiration, for their diversity and colorful characters, the colorful rising to high places in Baghdad, and respected, if not exalted, in San Francisco. Remember, Caen coined the nickname in the 1950s; San Francisco perpetuated its no-holds-barred Barbary Coast district for a century after sailing ships gave up the ghost, and Count Marco endured as a local character well into the ‘70s. (And note the fabled “Barbary Coast” itself is of Arabian flavor…)
I hope I didn’t break any reader’s heart with this yarn – I was raised on Herb Caen’s stuff, and frankly do borrow, usually with attribution, some of his gimmicks like “Pocketful of notes,” “These things I like,” and “And then I wrote,” and until unraveling his rationale, thought Baghdad was a gleaming sister city to San Francisco, appearance-wise. Guess not. But we still wish the Baghdaddies and Baghmommies all well, and if you read this last sentence Saturday morning, it’ll surprise me to no end. [I was surprised – it ran!]
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[Readers’ note: This was first published in 2003 during the early height of the Iraq war]
© Reno Gazette-Journal 2003