Fakhri Al-Bagdadi remembers when the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine was in Audubon Hall.
Back in 1975 when Al-Bagdadi came to the University, the school had only been open since 1973. Every student who has graduated from the school did so with his help.
Al-Bagdadi specializes in histology, which is the microscopic study of cells and tissues in animals ultrastructure morphology, which is comparing the cellular ultrastructure of normal cells to cancerous cells, drugged cells and control cells in animal organs and cell culture.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, “Dr. Al” — as his students call him — taught at schools in Baghdad and Copenhagen, Denmark, before moving to the United States in 1970 to earn a master’s degree from Iowa State University.
In the year he was doing research in Copenhagen, he saw The Beatles perform and he met his future wife.
“The Danish police refused to protect The Beatles from the public. The government put them on the third floor of a hotel. They were on a balcony. People love them so much they can rip off their clothes. … I stayed there and got a wife from Denmark,” Al-Bagdadi said with a sly grin.
After earning his master’s degree from Iowa, he moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to get his doctorate. Fifteen days before he was supposed to begin working in St. Louis, his wife suggested they go camping in Louisiana.
“My ex-wife liked to go camping. We camped in Slidell, and a friend at the Vet School told us to stop by before we left. The department head said they needed a histologist and asked me to work here,” Al-Bagdadi said.
His ex-wife is now a Unitarian priest at a church in Atlanta, and his son lives in California.
Al-Bagdadi became a United States citizen in 1981. Since moving to the U.S., he has only returned to Baghdad once — in 1988 when the government invited citizens abroad to return for a short trip to see their families.
“I had a chance to see my family. The ruler of Iraq was a violent man at that time. He ruled with a violent fist. I stayed about 10 or 12 days and I came back,” he said.
Al-Bagdadi’s father died during his son’s first year in veterinary medicine school, and his mother died during the war between Iraq and Kuwait. He has two sisters and four brothers — with families — who still live in Baghdad, and he communicates with them through email and over the phone.
From 1990 to 1992, Al-Bagdadi spent two years as a Fulbright professor in Jordan establishing teaching processes, developing laboratories and helping schools grow. By his second year, schools all around Jordan were asking him to help, he said, but the University refused the request for a third year in Jordan because it needed him back in Louisiana.
Al-Bagdadi said Baton Rouge reminds him of home, which is why he has stayed here so long.
“Iraq is the land of two rivers — one called Tigris and the other Euphrates. The Tigris River runs through Baghdad. You can sit in a cafeteria or a restaurant and watch the river,” he said. “Baton Rouge reminded me of Baghdad because of the Mississippi River. Plus I liked our former dean and our department head. Those two made me stay.”
The Southern food also reminds him of his former home. He said it is similar because a typical meal in Baghdad is rice and stew.
“When I was in Denmark, their main meal is potato. I had a hard time adjusting without rice,” he said. “You don’t miss it here because we eat rice all the time. When you come here, you don’t have to adjust your food style.”
Al-Bagdadi takes a personal stake in how he teaches. He said one of his favorite aspects of teaching is when students understand what he’s teaching.
“[I like] when students respond to what you say and they absorb it, they get it. Students always ask questions if they’re not sure. I’ve changed lectures based on student critiques. … I get the class involved during the lecture,” he said.
Al-Bagdadi said students still contact him after they’ve graduated. Sometimes they call to tell him what they’re doing, sometimes it’s because they want to know more about a lecture he taught when they were students. Sometimes they simply call to say hello.
First-year veterinary medicine student Margaret Chatry took his histology class and now takes him for a skin elective. She said he’s one of her favorite professors.
“He really cares about his students a lot, probably more than most professors do. He’s always very willing to answer all your questions,” she said. “Even though he’s been teaching for so long, he’s still really willing to change to best meet students’ needs.”
Farm Animal Health Maintenance professor Matt Welborn, who had Al-Bagdadi in 1983 and 1984 and now teaches at the Vet School, hazily remembered a time when the students got Al-Bagdadi a belly dancer for his birthday.
“She started doing her routine, and he picks her up and carries her out like he was going to take her away. I think it really surprised her. It was a hysterical moment,” he said.