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.