BAGHDAD - Abbas Baghdadi clearly remembers the day in 1999 when Saddam Hussein's agents gave him the order that would burden him and his faith.
"They came to my office and told me I would write a Koran for our great president," Baghdadi said from behind the desk where he worked as Hussein's official calligrapher. "They didn't tell me I would write it in Saddam's blood."
So began the clash of Baghdadi's piety and his art during the two years it took to complete the project. Writing in blood is heretical to Islam, an insult to the Prophet Mohammed, who preached that blood, like anything else from the human body, can decompose and is therefore impure.
At 7 a.m. each day, often for 16 hours at a time, Baghdadi dipped a metal nib into what he was told was a jar of Hussein's blood and painstakingly reproduced the verses of Islam's holy book. He worked under a lamp held together with duct tape, as a security officer sat quietly but menacingly in a nearby chair, a handgun resting on a coffee table for emphasis.
When Baghdadi took breaks for exercise or to visit the mosque across from his small office, he was required to enter the time and destination in a logbook.
"Even then, they followed me everywhere," he said of Hussein's henchmen. "Even when I left to pray."
Committing a sacrilege for Hussein's vanity was the most profound of many slights Baghdadi, 54, suffered as a senior member of the dictator's Bureau of Culture. He is one of the most celebrated calligraphers in a region where the mingling of florid writing and painting is a high art. HIs work is bought and sold for thousands of dollars and displayed in royal courts and salons throughout the Arab world. He has been invited to give lectures and open galleries from Istanbul to the Persian Gulf.
Yet Baghdadi, a gracious, garrulous man who during a recent interview wore a short-sleeve, checked shirt and trousers rolled up just above his ankles, has never ventured beyond Baghdad. Under Hussein, he was on 24-hour call to write up the odd presidential order, thank-you note, or state proclamation.
As he embellished the words of the Koran for the leader, Baghdadi commanded the regime's undivided attention. Every two weeks, someone would arrive with a set of freshly filled vials. His work was delayed at times when the United States launched airstrikes while policing the no-fly zones against Iraq, and Hussein apparently felt compelled to hoard whatever spare blood he had available.
At first, Baghdadi said, he was unaware he was working with anything other than red ink. "But I became suspicious after it kept clotting," he said.
To thin the blood, Baghdadi stealthily added distilled water to the vials when the security officer was preoccupied. He said he sometimes worked for days without sleep, hunched over a tinted glass table that illuminated each page from a fluorescent light below.
Before completing the Koran in 2001, Baghdadi was instructed to add the following clause - in black ink - on the final page: "May God forgive us for writing in blood." Apparently, according to Baghdadi, someone at the palace summoned the courage to educate the dictator about a key point of Islamic law. The Koran was then taken to Hussein, who signed it.
A few weeks later, Baghdadi was whisked to the palace for a brief audience with Hussein. The two men shook hands. "It was over in a minute," Baghdadi said. "That was good, because I was having an anxiety attack."
He never saw Hussein again in person.
Baghdadi's profane work was unveiled at a formal ceremony in 2001; whatever outrage it may have provoked was smothered by the peals of state-run acclamation. The Koran was displayed under glass in a museum of Hussein iconography in the capital - a trove of elaborate gifts, bejeweled weapons, and enormous paintings received by the dictator. It vanished in the looting that gripped Baghdad after the city fell to US forces.
Since scripting Hussein's Koran, Baghdadi has been lecturing and running an impoverished institute for young artists that he formed in the 1970s. He is keen to write another Koran - this time in his favorite black ink made from soot and tree resin - and hopes to qualify for an endowment under a new government.
Sitting in a restaurant that also was looted and burned, with electrical wires dangling from the charred ceiling, the Baghdad native talked about taking up the calligrapher's pen at age 16, at a brother's urging. He said he taught himself the craft with the help of master calligraphers who often invited him into their homes to study.
He showed a visitor "A Short History of Calligraphy," which he wrote 14 years ago and is widely studied. It diagrams Arabic letters with pinhead-sized circles that measure the length of each ascending and descending stroke and every undulating curve.
"There is no greater artistic experience than to write a Koran," he said. "I have written several Korans, and each time I learn something new about the science of its verses, its unique meter and rhyme."
While he is grateful to the United States for removing "the great devil," he said he resents an occupational authority that has yet to restore electricity and other basic services more than two months after the fall of Baghdad.
"Because there is no electricity, I don't have enough light to write," he said. "I have to leave my office by 7 p.m. because the streets are not safe after dark. How can you work like this?"
Baghdadi still can't travel outside Iraq. Essentially grounded under Hussein, he had no use for a passport. With Iraq's former government dissolved and nothing to replace it, he has nowhere to apply for one. Two months ago. he was invited by the governments of Egypt and Syria to open galleries of his work, but with no travel documents he was forced to decline.
"I want nothing more than to see my work displayed in other countries," Baghdadi said. "But I still can't leave."