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The Devil’s Voice with an Angel’s Heart

July 6, 2014

mosque290 The dusk is electric this Holy day evening of Ramadan. To the south the horizon dances with light as a dry storm flashes its skirts with light but makes no noise. Two hours after the fast is broken and the air is full of voices. The voices of mullahs chanting the broadcasts. A legion of them filling the air above the city extolling the faithful and the unfaithful alike, to come to the path of enlightenment. God is, after all the only one god and Mohammed is his prophet. Over and over. Carried gently from the far horizon, soft and malleable, the sound of silver. Carried from and echoing off the nearby hills, clearer and more distinct, tinging in the air like crystal. Crackling from the speakers half a block away, hard as steel and as inviting as a witches bosom. Read more

A Night in Kabul

November 12, 2013

street290In the same way that Baghdad left me with the enduring image of ordinary folk trying to get on with their lives Kabul is impressing me with the same. Grandma wobbles through the mud on her pushbike. A mother hurries along the sidewalk. A boy wanders along adjusting his kameez, followed by a bear of a father who is carrying an enormous bundle over his shoulder and a lovely walnut stocked hunting rifle in the other hand. The boys across the road are tossing bricks up into the building where yesterday they were mixing and pouring cement.  Unlike Baghdad however there is a vibrant flurry of enthusiastic business and construction activity, some of the latter no doubt attributable to the pending winter months. Read more

The Ghosts of Jerash

May 14, 2008

jerash-theatre.jpgThey follow you around this place. Sometimes they silently appear from behind golden pillars with authentic fake coins to sell. Sometimes they rise out of the ground in the middle distance, shimmering among the rocks,  and silently beckon to you to come and look at some ancient wonder, their dark robes flapping in the hot, dry, oven baked  air.  Other times you look behind you in the tunnels of the amphitheatre and wait for their silent appearance from around the curve of the wall. You hear their steps but never see them, no matter how quickly or how often you spin around. These ones only touch your skin on the back of your head, never your eyes. Read more

General Powell somewhere on the Iraq-Turkey Border

February 14, 2008

general-powell.pngI have always enjoyed (and admired) this photo of the General. It contains a few interesting elements. For me at least. Let me try them on you. Read more

It is Best Not To Mix too Much

December 23, 2007

“If you want a good neighbor, you have to have a place for everybody. It’s best not to mix too much.” Nadav Garmi, Rakafet

amman-skyline.jpgOne of the lesser known but interesting facts about the composition of Israel’s armies during their so called wars of liberation and independence (and defence) was the Arab component which made up about 60% of the soldiery. Read more

970,000 American Casualties. Is Iraq Worth It?

September 23, 2007

Naturally even departing Baghdad is extraordinary. How many international airports require you to pull over on the approach road, empty your magazines and then dry-fire your weapons to demonstrate nothing is “live”? No others spring to mind. Then drop your bags on the road outside, in a large concrete revetment while a bomb dog crawls over your gear. Then imagine a third world mess inside – at least in terms of organisation and graft. 8kg underweight (baggage that is) and I am still up for USD25 for excess baggage. But if you want out of here…! I happily paid up. All of that will sort itself out in the end. I am normally a very patient traveller but by the time I got to Jordan and endured my ninth bag check I was feeling very irascible. Even after being dropped off at the aircraft in the Baghdad heat there was a pat down and bag check. You do what you have to do.

To answer the question, the short answer is yes. Not only from a personal business point of view but also from a broader perspective as well. This place is on the mend but there is no denying it has a way to go. And it is on the mend because local Iraqis are resolved to mend it. Be they the occasional and too infrequently met local, the public servants or the young diplomat I met in the queue waiting to check in this morning. He and a few others were off to Rome to do a course. He has high hopes for Iraq and his belief in what was possible was heart warming and encouraging. People like this make the effort worthwhile I think. Interestingly we discussed the convulsions that have been at the root of the building of other nations. Starting with the US – which is “united” at the cost of more than 970,000 of its citizens dead and wounded. Can you imagine that body-count being reported in today’s press? About the same number of Americans killed by each other as perished in WWII. (And as a footnote is it not interesting that the US had a 12 year Reconstruction period after its civil war? We all want Iraqis to sort themselves out in a couple of years!). Japan. France. Even present day Russia. Vietnam. India. South Africa. The Balkan states. If we could forge nations in other ways we could and should. But sometimes it happens in the worst way. We parted with a handshake (when I was called to a spare seat on an earlier flight (not everything that happens in Baghdad is bad!!)) and a controversial observation – he cocked one of his eyebrows at me and wryly noted that none of their Arab brothers were coming to their aid – it was all the Christian states who were helping, and he said Iraq would always remember its friends. This young man has an interesting diplomatic career in front of him to say the least. But it is that freedom of expression that comes with all other freedoms that we all want to see in Iraq. He said something he would not have dared utter five years ago. Now he feels free to voice his views to a stranger. If we can achieve that, without him eventually becoming a casualty for his forwardness, then Iraq’s people are worth it.

Baghdad Rooftop Reflection – with some help from the Frogs

September 22, 2007

At about 11pm a half moon hangs in the sky. I’m sitting on a flat roof reclining in a dusty poolside recliner (though there is no pool), in a hot breeze. Just listening and watching. It is still but not quiet. This city does not sleep. But it is a softer city in this dusky light. Frogs among the eucalypts rhythm their quiet and indolent blues. Distant mosques broadcast their calls and prayers in a melodic tone that is beguiling, a soft chorus that hints at more civil and ordered things. Of better things. The normal city background rumble of traffic adds its background hum. Flares drift down through the trees. Silent, and betraying an unheard and unseen helicopter. Occasionally the drone of piston engines carefully buzzing their surveillance, also unseen. Drifting in and out of the peaceful stillness. Which is broken every now and then by Pumas or Blackhawks thundering in pairs over the house, roaring in then fading out swiftly. Leaving us again to the mullahs and the frogs. A civil airliner flashes its strobes as it lazes its line north, unlike the unseen military jets that occasionally bore through the sky. In and out much more quickly. I am out of here tomorrow and I find myself up here in a reflective mood. There is nothing like being here, if only briefly, to appreciate just how critical the momentum needs to be maintained in getting this place on its feet. It can be done, and it is a work well underway. There are moments when you worry about the place, as we did this afternoon when four or five “booms” carried to us on the wind. Initially we thought they were artillery but eventually decided they were bombs. Unlike hearing them in the news, these carry a clear personal message – that someone has been hurt, and for no reason. Somehow those blasts now seem a lifetime ago as I sit up here under the moonlight and soak up the evening. The frogs are now the constant background theme, far better than the murderous noises heard earlier and throughout this visit. I am hopeful that with some perseverance Malik and others like him will soon be able to relax and get back to their rooftops in the evening, the “booms” being only a bad memory from a distant era. I certainly pray so.

An Obscenity We Don’t See or Feel – Is Still an Obscenity

September 18, 2007

I was going to leave off writing about Baghdad for a spell – it becomes a bit self absorbing after a while. Then this morning a bomb rattled the windows. As I got to the roof only seconds later to get a fix on the location a second one went off. The smoke from the first was starting to disperse in the stiff breeze but soon the smoke from the second was roiling up. Ten minutes later the whole sky was smudged by it. My point of reference is the GBU10s and GBU12s, dropped onto air force weapons ranges. As I went out onto the roof I thought to myself “that felt like a GBU12” – 500lb of “bang”. In the event I don’t think there was that much explosive but it was 5km away and still rattled the windows.

It is a sobering thing to watch as you realise you are witness to someone’s day being ruined – all for nothing as Malik would say. But it is sobering for other reasons as well. The delight at watching aircraft fly around now becomes a guilty sin. Being on the edge and feeling alive is now at someone else’s expense. At the expense of real people I have met in the street. And you feel equal measures guilty and equal measures angry for what the incident becomes to everyone else – meaningless or irrelevant. A non event. A tree falling in the forest unheard. The booming crump and the shuddering glass never makes it to most of the on-line papers around the world. Heck, it barely makes the coverage of those carrying Iraq news. The BBC carries a small article. I confess I am surprised that only 7 people are killed, 20 are wounded. The blast felt bigger than that. People bombed lining up at the hospital to identify dead relatives. Obscene, cowardly, diabolical. I am offended by that. But also by the normalcy such a “small” blast has become. By the fact that no one else in town turns their head (no doubt relieved they were not incidental to its maw). I am offended for these victims that the press got it wrong – there were two blasts. And the lack of human touch in the press – who is that man, and what is his story? His pain? And what are we doing about it? The memorial stain of smoke over the sky is an obscenity as well, in part for its brevity. Who of us in our own cities would tolerate a stain like that? No, I thought not. But here it has become part of the grist of life and barely stirs a ripple. An inexplicable sadness for that knots my stomach for the day. I don’t know what else to say.

My Name is Malik and I Live in Baghdad

September 17, 2007

My name is Malik and I drive to work each day in Baghdad. I leave my house in the suburbs. There are palms and olive trees, and a small patch of grass outside my house. The house is walled in like many houses in the Middle East. But I have grown up in a fenced and gated community all my life. It is hard to get out of the habit but right now it is best not to drop my guard. I am careful to look up and down the street as I leave to see that everything is normal. I drive an old Datsun, with dented panels, some shrapnel holes in the trunk and three bullet holes in the passenger door. The windscreen is damaged where a rock hit it, and it is running retread tyres. I had not seen them here when Saddam was around but these days getting parts for cars is hard and I have to use what I get. The steering is wobbly but I can’t afford to get it fixed. I get nervous driving along the street when we get to a checkpoint. All the traffic banks up. Anything can happen here. Suddenly a convoy of armoured Fords, probably carrying a VIP, needs to cut through the traffic. An American soldier indicates what he wants me to do by throwing his rifle into his shoulder, leaning forward and pointing at me. I stop. He keeps pointing. I back up. There are hundreds of cars behind me. I can go no further. I hope he does not shoot. People in cars around me get out and put their hands up. Just in case. They take no chances with the American. He is a young man. Young men with guns are more dangerous than old men with guns. You don’t see many old men with guns. The Fords pass and we are allowed to creep forward. I do not look at the American in his armour and wrap around shades. He looks past me at all the other cars. I drive past Iraqi police cars and SUVs. Some of them have ZSU23-2s mounted on them. I was in the Army but Bremmer sacked me along with all my buddies and I have no money. But I recognise all this equipment. Some of it ex military no doubt. My goodness, Russian twin 23mm cannon, designed to shoot down aircraft. To control traffic? If they hit my car retreads will be the least of my worries. Lots of police with all sorts of machine guns and made up armoured cars. In Somalia the US military called them “technicals” – SUVs with a 50cal or something on the back. What are they pointed at? What are they protecting? I have no idea. I drive on and past a locked down Bradley. It looks dormant but who knows who is in there and what they are watching. I get past all that checkpoint stuff and drive through a roundabout with lots of traffic. That makes me nervous too. Things go bang here. I watch another collection of Chevy’s take no chances and block off the traffic so their central vehicles can race through. It is efficient. But the locals here are left to their own devices if something goes bang. I was in the Army but now I sell shirts on the edge of the round about. I cannot afford glass in the windows and have to rely on a steel grill to keep things secure at night. Shops on either side of me are the same.Open, and with only simple goods to sell. No one parks in front of my store. But few want to stop anyway. Or walk past. Everyone is in a hurry to go somewhere else. Stopping can be fatal. The shirts are all carefully stacked in their plastic boxes. At the beginning of each day I wipe all the sand and dust off the plastic. With no glass in the window I do not bother running the airconditioner, although even if I did I have no idea how I could pay for it. I sweep the footpath clean and greet old Mahrus next door. He is an old man and respected around here. He stands in the doorway of his shop. But it is empty. So what else can he do? I don’t know his story except he lost family in Saddam’s time and like all families here now he has lost even more loved ones in the last three years. They say there is no family untouched by the recent madness. It is criminal, not religious. We are Sunni and Shia married in the same house for years. Lots of Iraqis live together like that. Old Mahrus comes down here every day and stands in his doorway and watches the world turn on the roundabout in front of him. I say hello and he smiles at me from under his grey beard and moustache and Kurdish style headgear. His name means “protected by God”. Maybe that is why he keeps smiling. I wish we could fix up the front of our shops. All the cement rendering has been blasted off and the bricks look shabby. One day perhaps. At least nothing has gone bang here for a while. Maybe this period of quiet will last. They are talking about dropping the curfew. That will help. Or will it? People die in the night. For no reason except they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like my neighbour who was putting his rubbish out. Was shot in the head and his body dumped. No one ever found him – except a hospital kept a record of his body when it was found 13 days later. But they don’t know where he is buried. Put the rubbish out and die. For no reason. No reason. Die for a cause, yes?! But these deaths are for no reason, like our war with Iran. No reason. Family had no idea where he was. It is Ramadan. I drive home early and I am very careful near the checkpoint again. I move over to let an American tank go past. But if I stop they might think I have a bomb. I keep rolling slowly, hoping he will not crunch me into the concrete wall on the side of the road. I try not to look nervous. I know the soldier on this corner and he waves me though with a nod. The Americans drive past and look somewhere else. I carefully drive home and pull up to the house. I look up and down the street but everything seems normal so I get out and open the gate before driving in and locking myself in. No one bought any shirts today. Maybe tomorrow will be a little better. If I am alive that will be a good start.

(An invention based on an amalgam of things and people seen, and conversations with locals in the last week. I could fill 10,000 words like this – Baghdad is a seething story and everyone has a tale to tell.)

Baghdad Layers

September 17, 2007

I spent an hour on the roof this afternoon reading Duiker’s “Ho Chi Minh” until the sweat and dust got too much. But its good to get out of the room. The Apaches were tooling around again. They don’t do laps here for practise so I was tuned in to what else might be going on. As with the previous day their presence coincided with military ground units moving around (you hear turbines whining and roaring, tracks rumbling or wheels whirring on the asphalt and sandy coloured camouflage flashing through the palms) and with Blackhawks flying out of a nearby base. Perhaps all of them watching over a VIP moving between various US bases. But other things catch your eye up here as well. A plump dove sits on a neighbouring roof. Kids bikes lean against a wall around the corner. A white blimp sits high in the sky while yesterday even further up I surprised myself by finding a Predator flying lazy, silent circles. I happened to be watching a chopper then caught the massive drone in view immediately behind at 20,000 feet or so. You could stare at the sky all day and never see those. Which is the idea of course. As you take all that in and look across the perfectly serene and settled suburbs, hear the kids shouting as they play and fight you are struck by just how many layers there are to this place. Starting at the top – unseen but always heard – the fast jets boring holes in the sandy blue sky, a Predator team somewhere doing remote reconnaissance for something. Choppers and a blimp lower down, doing their thing. None of which are necessarily connected by their missions by the way. Lower again and across the roof tops aerials mark homes and unseen TVs and living rooms and squabbles over the remote control. Smoke lifts and curls in lazy grey off the gas burning flue at the refinery just over the river and everywhere Iraqi flags snap away in the hot wind. Under those flags public servants beaver away like public servants do or don’t anywhere around the world. Apartments and high rise buildings stretch away to the horizon, interspersed with TV towers, and domes of mosques. And a surprising amount of foliage. And under my feet kids play, puppies yelp, a lizard scampers and a dove nods off in the heat. Layers on layers, most not connected and the lowermost ones being those you pray become the settled norm here one day.

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