Tag Archives: Baghdad

Baghdad Diary

Extract from My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria.
Recounting a night-time taxi drive across the desert from Baghdad to Damascus one month after the destruction of the Twin Towers and prior to the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
Later that night, skimming back to Damascus across the desert towards the Iraqi/Syrian border crossing, the midnight-blue sky is dotted not just with stars but with the lights of spy satellites moving steadily and quietly through the darkness. Their equipment allows them to monitor conversations taking place five kilometres below them, though I have no inclination to talk. The visit to Baghdad has sobered my thoughts. The stricken city makes me think of a beautiful butterfly pinned down by military hardware, the velvet of its brightly-coloured wings wilfully smeared across a fleeting second in its long history. The shape of Iraq may change, its borders will once again be redefined, sliced into, pared down. Men will be tortured, women raped. Its natural resources will become the spoils of war, to be plundered by self-regarding saviours operating under the guise of democracy – and with the avid participation of some Iraqis themselves. But the plain people of the country will remain steadfast to their ancient and precious history which others have so carelessly disregarded, cherishing, amidst the roar of aircraft and of explosions, their language, their land and their children’s heritage. It is they who will keep the spirit of Iraq alive, they and the writers and poets who give them voice.
Now that I am familiar with the routine, things move faster at the border crossing. A female customs guard takes me to a small cubicle devoid of furniture except for the broken iron frame of a chair. We smile sadly at each other. She is young and pretty and when she raises her hand to admire the necklace round my neck – an inexpensive bit of beading – I am slow to pick up the message and she, though impoverished by a system not of her making, is too well-mannered to spell it out. I still, to this day, regret that I didn’t undo the flimsy clasp, take it off and give it to her.

At 4am light is starting to seep across the sky as the taxi reaches Damascus and drops me close to al Ward Hotel. Marwan answers my knock on the door, rising sleepily from the mattress where he spends the night guarding the hotel entrance. I make my way up the stairs to the roof where I find a mattress to rest on. But though I’ve travelled all through the night, counting the pulsing satellites as they moved across the sky seeming to keep pace with the small taxi as it moved through the desert, sleep won’t come.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the glory that I have left behind. Haroun al Rachid was known as the Peacock of the World, the Shadow of Allah on Earth, Lion of the Impassable Forests, Master of Spears, Gardener of the Vale of Islam. When he went to the mosque, he dressed all in black but rode an all-white steed which earned him the title the Rider of the Spotless Horse.
His palace, which shone white in the moonlight and pink in the sunlight, was hung with brocade from Damascus. Persian rugs covered the marble floors. In Zubediah’s garden was a gilded tree on which sat golden birds which sang when a key was turned. The palace roses were nurtured with moonlight and moistened with dew. When his son, Mahmoud, married, pearls rather than confetti rained down on the bridal couple and guests were showered with balls of musk each one containing a note entitling the guest to either a piece of land or a slave.
This was Baghdad’s golden age when music, poetry and the sciences were cherished, when the tables of Ptolemy were re-examined and the earth’s circumference assessed at a time when, in Europe, it was still thought to be flat.
Arabic words like zenith and nadir made an appearance on the world’s linguistic stage as did alchemy and alcohol. The concept of nothingness as a number – cipher or zero – was developed and given a shape: 0. It was a time of mathematical magic which could encircle the emptiness, of oceans curving away below the horizon, of poets who drew words out of the air like threads of shimmering silk. It was a time when intricate patterns of Islamic design expanded ever outwards into a universe whose boundaries, to this day, still remain unexplored.
As I lie watching the night sky lighten, the muazzin from al Ward mosque begins his call: the prayer, Salat al Fajr, said between dawn and sunrise.
The muazzin is an old man but his voice has the sweetness of a boy’s and is the aching cry of someone yearning for his beloved. I think of Baghdad where, curiously, I failed to notice even one call to prayer. And I think of Jawad lying in her husband-less bed, listening out for her father-less children, waiting for whatever the future may bring.
Word has it that the US military, supported by the UK, is massing to strike Afghanistan and then Baghdad in its tireless search for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Does she know this, I wonder. Does Jawad know that powerful war planes, precision bombers, bunker busters, with their lethal dose of depleted uranium, will soon be aimed at her children? That heavy-booted soldiers with little education may march into her beloved city charged with the task of capturing hearts and minds?
And from far away, I hear the anguished cry of a political leader, a Jewish carpenter from Galilee, first heard in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago just before he was silenced by his colonial masters: “Forgive them, Lord,” he cried, “for they know not what they do.”
For me, it’s not forgiveness I feel, but rage.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Some pictures from Damascus and one from Baghdad

I came across these the other day.  Each tells it own story.

PU20110818-0001 This is the gentle old man who owned the tiny sweetshop opposite my hotel in Souk Saruja. He sold sweets and biscuits mainly. In the picture, he’s wearing his cap. He put it on specially after I’d asked if I might take a picture of him. Every day, just before mid-day prayers, he shut up shop and walked slowly up the narrow street to the local mosque which was called  the Mosque of the flowers. This was a very peaceful part of Damascus.

 

PU20110818-0002 This man had a little independent business selling hot coffee from his bicycle. he had a small woodburning stove in the front basket. You can see the fine chimney taking the smoke away. The canvas carriers held fuel for the stove. He had wraps of paper for the coffee and the sugar and a water container as well.

I thought his whole arrangement was great. He is master of his universe. I did wonder if he needed a licence to trade. Probably an unofficial one. The man is standing by the wall of the old city of Damsacus, capital of Syria.

 

 

PU20110818-0003 This is Baghdad.  It’s on the wall of Baghdad’s oldest university which is older than Oxford – by a few years.

The decoration show the swastika and is an indication of Iraq’s ancient cultural ties with India where the swastika originates.

I was in Baghdad shortly before the US and the UK invaded Iraq under the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Syria, Travel, Uncategorized

I’m speaking about Syria in Belfast. All welcome.

208791
Mary Russell, Dublin writer and traveller, first visited Syria the year Bashar al-
Assad was appointed president. Mary was a strange sight – a woman, on her
own – and on a bike. But in this time of hope and, in line with Syria’s tradition
of hospitality, she was welcomed everywhere. Her illustrated talk will chart the
encounters she had – including an overnight taxi ride to Baghdad, Christmas
spent 3,000 feet up a mountain in a one-time Roman fort, and a chaperoned
drive around the desolate remains of Quinitra, on the Golan Heights,
returning always to the shelter of her little no-star hotel in Souk Saruja.
Venue: OG-029, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology,
Queen’s University Belfast, Elmwood Avenue, Belfast, BT7 1NN
Complimentary refreshments
Tickets: Free, please email to indicate attendance E rgsni@hotmail.co.uk
For a list of our upcoming events in the Northern Ireland Region please visit
W http://www.rgs.org/NorthernIrelandImage

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ma’arat al Numan: home to the great philosopher al Mari.

Ma’arat was the home of the  great blind Syrian philosopher, al Mari,  who had ideas not always popular with mainstream Islam. He was also a vegetarian which was and still is unusual in this country of the ubiquitous chicken. Al Mari was a sceptic and, some say, an aetheist. Here’s what he had to say about religion:

A church, a temple or a Kaba stone,

Koran or bible or a martyr’s bone –

All these and more my heart can tolerate

Since my religion now is Love alone.

He believed that religion was too tied up with war and maybe he was right. Ma’arat al Numan was invaded by crusaders who, during a very bad winter, resorted to cannibalism.

The story goes that al Mari travelled to Baghdad and on his return, passing through Tadmor, ducked to avoid the branch of a tree that he’d remembered from two years back.

If you enjoyed reading this, check out my website http://www.maryrussell.info

The blog above relates to my travel book on Syria: My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria and here’s the link to it:   http://wp.me/p1Frlu-2k

Below, is al Mari’s tomb.

Image

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Baghdad: a pen, a tree and the sound of a neck breaking…

 

                    A pen, a tree and the sound of a neck breaking….

          

Baghdad: everywhere there were signs of Saddam the Great Leader – as huntsman, devout Muslim, loving father, warrior. The nearest I got to him, though, was when I met Dr. A K al Hashimi, Saddam’s former ambassador to Paris. Small, rotund, slightly bald, courteous – the sort of Arab male whose presence is preceded by a warm swell of self-knowing charm. His polished desk is huge, his smile gracious. We drink strong coffee from tiny gilt-edged cups and talk about the sanctions.

 “My dear Mary,” he says, “I will tell you the facts and you, with your clever journalistic mind, will draw your own conclusions.”

I’d seen the effects of the sanctions: car windscreens like spiders’ webs, balconies hanging precariously by one piece of wrought-iron, children with obscenely bloated heads or bulbous growths on their necks. All the result of the dual-purpose clause that worked against the ordinary people. Al Hashimi holds forth, eloquently and forcefully, about what he calls the Uniteds: States, Nations and Kingdom. “But everything is dual purpose,” he says. “The pen can be used to write a love letter. Or a formula that will ignite a bomb.” 

Suddenly, like a machine that runs out of fuel, he slows down and asks a question to which there is no answer: “The US is afraid. They think we have weapons of mass destruction. How can Iraq show them it doesn’t. What  more can we do?”

There was nothing more they could do because weapons of mass destruction was never the issue.

Much later, when Saddam had been dug out of his hole, I watched his trial on a television in a hotel in Damascus. No one else in the bar seemed interested.

“Why do they want to hang him,” a Syrian friend asked. “It’s horrible. Why don’t they shoot him. Or maybe if he committed suicide…” But they did hang him, at 3am our time and someone off camera said they heard his neck break.

 I often thought of what al Hashimi had said about the dual purpose of the pen and then, one day, I stumbled on a cartoon by the Israeli artist Izhar Cohen which illustrated it perfectly.

                                               Image

  Thoughts of the dual purpose of other things came to my mind:

                         “I think that I shall never see

                          A poem lovely as a tree.” 

 

I thought of the word gallows and of how we often say gallows tree when we want to romanticise war and insurrection in song or poetry. There was no poetry when Saddam Hussein was hanged, only the sound of clicking phone-cameras. And of his neck breaking.

 

Al Rumi said: “There is a place beyond right and wrong. I’ll meet you there.” But where is this place? In a refugee camp on the Syrian/Turkish border? In a wintery cave? In the presidential palace? In Moscow? And who will tell us what’s going on? A journalist embedded with the Syrian Government forces or one trapped in a targeted building in Aleppo? A young man provided with a video camera by an NGO and then picked out by a sniper?

 If there are no cameras, we must rely on the cartoonists but Syrian cartoonists live risky lives. Artist Ali Farzat was pulled out of a car in Damascus and had his hands broken because he’d mocked the government.

                                                  Image

Ten years ago, it was Iraq. Now it’s Syria.   

Mary Russell’s latest book is My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria: 

                           http://wp.me/p1Frlu-2k      

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Much later, when Saddam had been dug out of his hole, I watched his trial on a television in a hotel in Damascus. No one else in the bar seemed interested.

                    A pen, a tree and the sound of a neck breaking….

          

Baghdad: everywhere there were signs of Saddam the Great Leader – as huntsman, devout Muslim, loving father, warrior. The nearest I got to him, though, was when I met Dr. A K al Hashimi, Saddam’s former ambassador to Paris. Small, rotund, slightly bald, courteous – the sort of Arab male whose presence is preceded by a warm swell of self-knowing charm. His polished desk is huge, his smile gracious. We drink strong coffee from tiny gilt-edged cups and talk about the sanctions.

 “My dear Mary,” he says, “I will tell you the facts and you, with your clever journalistic mind, will draw your own conclusions.”

I’d seen the effects of the sanctions: car windscreens like spiders’ webs, balconies hanging precariously by one piece of wrought-iron, children with obscenely bloated heads or bulbous growths on their necks. All the result of the dual-purpose clause that worked against the ordinary people. Al Hashimi holds forth, eloquently and forcefully, about what he calls the Uniteds: States, Nations and Kingdom. “But everything is dual purpose,” he says. “The pen can be used to write a love letter. Or a formula that will ignite a bomb.” 

Suddenly, like a machine that runs out of fuel, he slows down and asks a question to which there is no answer: “The US is afraid. They think we have weapons of mass destruction. How can Iraq show them it doesn’t. What  more can we do?”

There was nothing more they could do because weapons of mass destruction was never the issue.

Much later, when Saddam had been dug out of his hole, I watched his trial on a television in a hotel in Damascus. No one else in the bar seemed interested.

“Why do they want to hang him,” a Syrian friend asked. “It’s horrible. Why don’t they shoot him. Or maybe if he committed suicide…” But they did hang him, at 3am our time and someone off camera said they heard his neck break.

 I often thought of what al Hashimi had said about the dual purpose of the pen and then, one day, I stumbled on a cartoon by the Israeli artist Izhar Cohen which illustrated it perfectly.

               Image

 

  Thoughts of the dual purpose of other things came to my mind:

                         “I think that I shall never see

                          A poem lovely as a tree.” 

 

I thought of the word gallows and of how we often say gallows tree when we want to romanticise war and insurrection in song or poetry. There was no poetry when Saddam Hussein was hanged, only the sound of clicking phone-cameras. And of his neck breaking.

 

Al Rumi said: “There is a place beyond right and wrong. I’ll meet you there.” But where is this place? In a refugee camp on the Syrian/Turkish border? In a wintery cave? In the presidential palace? In Moscow? And who will tell us what’s going on? A journalist embedded with the Syrian Government forces or one trapped in a targeted building in Aleppo? A young man provided with a video camera by an NGO and then picked out by a sniper?

 If there are no cameras, we must rely on the cartoonists but Syrian cartoonists live risky lives. Artist Ali Farzat was pulled out of a car in Damascus and had his hands broken because he’d mocked the government.

                                  Image

Ten years ago, it was Iraq. Now it’s Syria.   

Mary Russell’s latest book is My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria: 

                           http://wp.me/p1Frlu-2k      

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

al Raqqa, reportedly taken by opposition forces in Syria, was once a major commercial centre on the silk road. And then the desert closed in.

Al Raqqa is a town across the Syrian desert not all that far from Baghdad. In fact. Haroun al Rashid – famous for starring in A Thousand and One Nights – had his summer palace in Raqqa. When I got off the bus from Damascus, a journey of some nine hours,I found myself in a place full of desert men in long brown cloaks edged with gold and women bright as butterflies. I unloaded my bike from the bus and started looking for my hotel. It was called Funduk al Nahr…

Leave a comment

5 March, 2013 · 6:27 pm