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Cry Iraq

By Mustapha Marrouchi

13 January, 2007

the voice-with-a-smile of democracy
announces night and day
“all poor little peoples that want to be free
just trust in the u.s.a.”

e. e. cummings, “thanksgiving,” 12

There is in Le Louvre a diorite stela from the 18th century BC, on which are inscribed the 282 laws of the Code of Hammurabi: pretty much the earliest recorded set of laws we have (centuries older than Exodus, it includes the principle of “an eye for an eye”)–at a stretch, it might almost be called the world’s first written constitution. A picture of it is displayed in the British Museum, that Aladdin’s cave of looted treasures from Britain’s former colonies, near the Stela of Nabonidus. Made of basalt, 58 cm high by 46 cm wide, and dating from the 6th century BC, this has carved upon it in bas-relief is a figure wearing the traditional dress of a Babylonian king, who is thought to be Nabonidus, the last ruler of Babylon before it was conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BC. Crudely speaking, these two artefacts bookend the period of (uneven) Babylonian supremacy in Mesopotamia. We may put this another way by saying that this is the point at which we reach the most persistent of Babylon’s real life and real history. In the 6th century BC, the Babylonian New Year would be marked by an extravagant pageant along the Processional Way and through the Ishtar Gate, an 11-day ceremony which, it was hoped, would guarantee for another year the favor of the gods, grateful for all the attention lavished on them (Jones, "Short Cuts," 2005: 22). Nabonidus was away from Babylon for most of his reign, leaving the city in the hands of his son Belshazzar, he of the feast and the writing on the wall (in a modern materialization of the myth, an American soldier has carved the word
TEXAS into one of the bricks in a Babylonian wall hubristically rebuilt by Saddam Hussein, an exemplar of sorts of archaeological best practice). In Nabonidus’s absence, the New Year was not celebrated (Turnley, "Four More Years," 2004: 47-8). Shortly after, the Tower of Babel collapsed.

The fall of the Tower is perhaps the central urban myth; it is certainly the most disquieting. In Babylon, the great city that fascinated and horrified the Biblical writers, people of different races and languages, drawn together in pursuit of wealth, tried for the first time to live together–and failed miserably. The result was bleak incomprehension. Ambitious technology striving to defy the natural order of things was punished as the tower that was meant to reach the skies crumbled. Irreligion and promiscuity inevitably conjured the apocalypse. And unlike Egypt, which in popular imagining continued serene through the centuries, Babylon is seen to have flourished and fallen again and again, the reading of each episode informed and deformed by those that went before. Mythical or historical, they go on and on: The Tower of Babel; the conquests of Nebuchednezzar and the invasion of Babylon by Alexander; the glorious court of Haroun-Al-Rashid; the devastation of Baghdad by the Moguls in 1258, where the Tigris ran black with the ink of the manuscripts from the ransacked libraries and the Euphrates ran red with the blood of the slaughtered. Still, is there any other culture from which the distant past, real or imagined, still wields power?

Let’s first take on the antiquities of Mesopotamia, which reveal the constants of Middle Eastern politics. Endlessly fluctuating frontiers and proliferating religions mean endless wars. Here, in the sculptured reliefs, are the cities bombarded, the women and children abused and killed, the aggressive signs of military power displayed, the brutality of militaristic regimes paraded, the puppet rulers installed, deposed, and at times hanged. Baghdad fell in 2003, but Babylon falls everyday in the National Gallery. In Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, painted in Amsterdam in the 1630s, a corrupt and doomed ruler is about to be deposed by foreign armies, all supposedly in the name of a God he had disparaged. The writing on the wall announces that Belshazzar has been found wanting and that his kingdom will be divided among foreign occupiers. In a few hours divine retribution will strike. It is the biblical story as depicted by the 17th century Dutch painter. And if the National Gallery shows the night before the debacle, the morning after the invasion is exhibited at the British Museum. In 539 BC, Cyrus, the King of the Persians, entered Babylon and overthrew the tyrannical regime. The event is well known from Hebrew scriptures. But the British Museum also has evidence from another perspective–a cylinder of baked clay about 30 cm long, known as the Cyrus cylinder. It is an extraordinary document, in which Cyrus, using the script and language of his new kingdom, decrees that the cults of the
different gods are to be restored and honored, and that the deported populations are to be allowed to return home. Unlike the Hebrew scriptures or Rembrandt’s painting, this is the story as it seemed in Mesopotamia itself.

The Iran-Iraq war of 539 BC introduced a new order to the Middle East. A great Persian empire ultimately spread from the borders of China to the Bosphorus. For modern Iranians, Cyrus’s great victory and the empire are the basis of a national myth. Under Persian protection Jews returned from Babylonian exile to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (though many remained in Baghdad until the 1950s). For the Jews, this became a crucial memory that remains alive in modern Israel. If Babylon has this enduring topicality for Iranians and Israelis, it need hardly be said that its resonance for Iraq is enormous. Saddam Hussein, a potentate sans pareil, except perhaps for Suharto of Indonesia, was fascinated by ancient Babylon and Assyria. He made money available to protect and develop the archaeological sites. The great achievements of Mesopotamian civilization were pressed into the service of the Ba’athist regime, which labored hard to protect the cradle of human civilization (MacGregor, "In the Shadow of Babylon," 2005: 2).

The looting of the Baghdad Museum after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 made headlines around the world. Images of priceless objects from the very roots of our civilization being carted away in the chaos that followed the collapse of the regime caused unprecedented outrage in the West and the Rest. But what is not known is that the treasures of Iraq have been plundered over many years, and on a massive, organized scale. Archaeologists, historians, and UN officials are appalled but seemingly helpless to stop the flow of artifacts out of Iraq and into the hands of museums and collectors in the antiquity-hungry West. Was the emptying of the Baghdad Museum simply random looting in the confusion following the war? Probably not. There is now strong evidence that some of it was a pre-planned professional operation aimed at feeding the huge Western appetite for Iraq’s incredible heritage. What costs less than a dollar to dig up in the deserts of Iraq can sell for $400,000 at one of the prestigious auction houses of New York, Paris, or London. We can now only dimly imagine how sand bags, used to protect the green zone, are filled with deposits containing shards, bones of memory. Gravel is brought from elsewhere to make car parks and helicopter landing pads, contaminating the archaeological record. Fuel has leaked into the ground. Nine of the molded dragons on the foundations of the Ishtar Gate have been damaged. The brick pavement of the Processional Way has been broken by the wheels of heavy equipment, and further damage to objects still under the ground is likely to accrue. “The movement of heavy vehicles on the surface is,” John Curtis, “generally regarded as very bad practice on an archaeological site” ("The Worst Devastation Since the Mongols," 2003: 12). Maybe it takes an expert to know this kind of thing: it is fairly easy for someone (me, for example) with no idea of what to look for to visit a site of archaeological significance and fail to notice that there is anything special about it. The people trampling over Babylon, ignorantly stamping out the fragile remains of a centuries-old civilization, are soldiers, not archaeologists. But that being the case, why are they there at all? The only possible justification for their presence is to protect the sites from looting and other damage in the chaos following the invasion, but as in almost every other aspect of this woefully misconceived adventure, the coalition has ended up doing far more harm than good. The mise à sac of Baghdad is symptomatic of the thoughtlessness–and the disregard for history and indeed collective memory, ancient and modern–that has characterized this war since its first devising.

As the horror and shame of the present time continue, what can we do to denounce an illegal war and a cultural genocide of the worst kind that still go on in Iraq as I write? Very little, except to cry out loud that whoever fights a monster, as Nietzsche once put it, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself. “When you look long into the abyss,” he wrote, “the abyss also looks at you.” Even so, one can only wince at the manner in which ignorant armies clash by night and go on the rampage of an ancient land and culture while the rest of the Arab world continues to stand by idly quarreling over fallen bread crumbs around the kitchen table, or masturbating in the bedroom where the Real Thing happens as Lacan would have it. In the meantime, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine are burning. Otherwise, how can we describe the double invagination of 8,000 years of history? One answer comes to mind: the deliberate destruction of Iraq’s heritage is meant to tell the rest of the Arab world that henceforth Iraqis and the rest of us are without collective narrative, history, past, memory. This is the brink of life, or life at the brink.

In the meantime, the suffering of a people should not be used as a pretext to justify the mediocre, cliched, and threadbare, in any form of artistic expression. It is not acceptable that because we are on the tragic edge of history the painting should be reduced to a poster, the lyric to a military anthem, the play to a sermon, the novel to straight ideology, or the poem to a slogan. Unfortunately, Bush Murder Inc. has done just that. The stench of the operation now hangs in the air over Nineveh and Khorsabad, two Assyrian capitals; Mosul, an important museum containing Assyrian and Islamic artifacts; Ommayad Mosque, Mujahid Mosque, mosque to the prophet Jonas, mosque to Prophet Jerjis, Palace of Qara Sarai; Ashur, Assyrian capital near Makhmur; Arbil, ancient Roman town of Arbela, continuously inhabited for 5000 years; Kirkuk, supposedly site of the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel; Samarra, Northern capital of al-Khalifa al-Almutasim, built in 836, Great Mosque, Ma’shouq Palace, Abu Duluf Mosque, Askari Tomb; Haditha, near Anah with Babylonian inscriptions and Assyrian minarets; al-Ramadi, ancient town of Heet on the Euphrates; Fallujah, ancient site with cuneiform tablets drawn by Pellugto, ruins of pre-Islamic Anbar, most important city in Iraq after Ctesiphon in 363; Baghdad, capital of Abbassid dynasty, world famous National Museums of Antiquities, Abbassid Palace, Mustansiryah College (possibly the oldest university in the world), Martyr’s Mosque, Archaeological sites of Jemdat Nasr and Abu Salabikh; Kerbala, Shi’a shrine to Imam Hussein, most renowned to Iraq’s Islamic sacred attractions; Babylon; Borsippa Ruined City; Kish Biblical Site, capital of King Sargon, founder of first Mesopotamian Empire; Najav, most important Shi’a shrine to Imam Ali and one of Islamic world’s principal centers of instructions; Uruk, Sumerian city, 4000 BC; Ur, Iraq’s most famous site, perhaps earliest city in the world; Basra al-Qurna, said to be the site of the Garden of Eden with Adam’s tree and its shrine dating back to early days of Islam. This is the reality on the ground today (Elich, "Spoils of War," 2004).

Even so, the only heritage in occupied and now mostly ruined Iraq is the most sophisticated state of the part product–namely, weaponry conceptually minimalist and gracefully postmodern. Consider AC 130U Spooky, F117A Nighthawk, CH47 Chinook, AH64 Apache, B2A Spirit, UH60 Black Hawk, A10 Thunderbolt, Global Hawk RQ4A, E3 Awacs, B52H, Predator, Humvee, M2A Bradley, M1 Abrams, and bombs of a type to make one shudder: BLU82B, GBU32JDAM, GBU28, Tomahawk missiles, AGM 114 Hellfire, CBU 87B plus the nuclear arsenal, and the case will be clear enough. Maybe we should learn to appreciate the refined elegance of high-tech and high-altitude precision bombing. Yet, the majority of Iraqis are aware that they must resist military might, not an easy task. Both as victims of a ruthless regime that lasted nearly 30 years and now as prisoners of an invading super-power, they must suffer deprivation and attempt to survive the constant threat, curfew, collective punishment, and humiliation of the worst kind. Living under the pressure of pain, they must endure (Carmel, "L'arsenal . . . ," 2003: 51).

Whether the assault on Iraq is a crusade ordered by God or an unusually aggressive corporate takeover by a consortium of Texas oil companies, we are not sure. What is, however, certain is that the “showdown is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology.” In such a case, it is impossible to forgive let alone forget the shame inflicted on a culture that goes back forever, back to the very beginning of time; in its blood and bone and brain it carries the memories and traces of all humanity. For Babylon is also the birthplace of civilization, Abraham, Hammurabi, Nabuchodonosor, Salahueddine, Harun al-Rashid, Scheherazade, Aladin and his magic lamp, Abu Al-‘Ala’ Al-Ma’arri, Al-Mutanabbi. Baghdad is also the city of Mustansirya University, built 25 years before the Sorbonne, the tale of Gilgamesh, The Arabian Nights, Babel with its majestic tower and majestic gardens. Maybe Baghdad, once called Madinat a-Salam (City of Peace), is forever doomed to destruction as Psalm 137 tells us: “O Daughter of Babylon . . . / Happy the man who shall seize / And smash / Your little ones against the rock!” The devil is in the verse.

The destruction of Iraq’s cultural turath (heritage) and açala (originality) is a criminal act of the first degree, the loss of life an unforgivable consequence. The terror that arises every day from the fear of occupation is best described by Said, who writes: "All this and more was deliberately obscured by government and media in manufacturing the case for the further destruction of Iraq which has been taking place for the past month. The demonization of the country and its strutting leader turned it into a simulacrum of a formidable quasi-metaphysical threat whereas, and this bears repeating its demoralized and basically useless armed forces were a threat to no one at all. What was formidable about Iraq was its rich culture, its complex society, its long-suffering people: these were all made invisible, the better to smash the country as if it were only a den of thieves and murderers. Either without proof or with fraudulent information Saddam was accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction that were a direct threat to the US 7.000 miles away. He was identified with the whole of Iraq, a desert place “out there” (to this day most Americans have no idea where Iraq is, what its history consists of, and what besides Saddam it contains) destined for the exercise of US power unleashed illegally as a way of cowing the entire world in its Captain Ahab like quest for re-shaping reality and imparting democracy to everyone" ("Diary," 2003: 28). Or, to put it differently, the goal of the invasion was clear from the outset: to control the flow of oil, to halt and potentially reverse what the Bush Administration consider to be the decadence of Islam and the rise of Islamism needless to add the sheer humiliation of the Arab world. No wonder that the year ended with a colonial hanging! That it took place on Aïd al-Idha was quite telling. The lynching of the former President of Iraq was intricately designed to administer an exquisitely vicious and inhumane form of punishment upon the colony’s famous prisoner who, as well as being judged guilty of crimes against humanity, as if he were the only one on planet Earth, Ariel Sharon and Bush come to mind, was in denial of having perpetrated. Apparently, he was unaware of his execution until late into the fatal night when he met with a pack of straw dogs, who taunted him even as he was dying. The law in the Arab world is essentially male, but to work effectively it had to engage in a spot of strategic cross-dressing. The Iraqi judges, clad in robes designed by the US for the occasion, played the role of middle men. One of their intentions was doubtless to legitimate an authority increasingly uncertain of itself. They belong to what one historian has called the “theater of the scaffold,” an arena in which violence and counter-violence must not only be done but must be seen to be done. On this view, a private execution would be as pointless as an orgy of one. If Saddam Hussein had his day in the sun, so did the occupying power and its lackeys. By some irony of fate, he, who lead an undignified life, was finally dignified amid his lynch mob when he dared on the scaffold to tell the bitter truth that Iraq has become “hell.” It is well-nigh to remember that this reality.

The upshot is that the US program for the Arab world has become the same as Israel’s for Palestine. If the Iraq of yesteryear stood for an Arab identity par excellence, today, it represents the loss of that very identity. The aim of the invasion was to reshape the Middle East so that Palestine will become Israel, Jordan Palestine, and Iraq the Hashemite Kingdom. This plan was devised as early as 1996 by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, when they were acting as consultants to Benjamin Natanyahu’s election campaign. According to their philosophy, the Middle East is a blank page on which can be inscribed the schemes of weak-minded policy hacks like themselves. Nearly four years after the invasion took place, while the specter of hell haunts Iraq, the US continues to drop cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives, and use earthmovers and tank-mounted ploughs to bury the dead alive in their trenches. In these circumstances, changing the world for the better involves a curious kind of doublethink. If we (humanity) are to act effectively, the mind must address itself austerely to the actual, in the hope that recognizing the situation for what it truly is, will generate the much needed moral and political wisdom. The only trouble is that such knowledge is also desperately hard to come by, and is perhaps unattainable in any complete sense. The difficulty is not so much the solutions themselves, but grasping the way it is with a particular part of the world–especially the Middle East. The problem is not only that there are many competing versions of how it is with the world, including
the postmodern one that it is no way in particular; it is also that to bow our minds submissively to the actual requires a humility and self-effacement to which the clamourous ego is reluctant to submit. It is an unglamourous business, distasteful to the fantasizing, chronically self-deceiving human mind. Seeing things for what they are is, in the end, possible only for the virtuous.

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