Baghdad Blogs (1)

A blog diary of my time in Iraq as a guest and participant in the Babylon International Festival of Arts & Cultures, 4-11 May, 2012

DAY ONE – Morning, 4th May – On the Way to Babylon

We circle Baghdad airport in the early morning, sky dull with the beginnings of a sandstorm. It is impossible to see more than a few yards ahead with any clarity, buildings, trees, and people all blurred with a blanket of dust blown in from the desert that comprises most of this country. As soon as I step off the ‘plane my eyes and nose start to itch, and before long I am sneezing.

No hassle getting into Iraq; I hope getting out will be equally unproblematic. I’m met by the Festival driver (who speaks no English), and we drive through the outskirts of Baghdad as a tired sun trudges wearily higher in the grit-filled sky. There is a heavy military presence – not just soldiers with machine guns, but armored cars with all the paraphernalia of ‘protection’, tanks, and barbed-wire topped concrete walls with gun turrets every few hundred yards. I try not to feel nervous, but looking at the ruins of a city that has been completely flatted by decades of war, it’s easy for my already over-active imagination to run away with me.

The driver weaves slowly through the rubble-strewn streets. He is silent, and I am both too tired and too shaken to speak. He takes me to his house, a low-roofed gated building that has seen better days. Inside there is a flat-screen tv, a computer, heavy blood-coloured furniture, and photographs of solemn-eyed people I will never meet decorating the walls. I am invited to sit, given water to drink. After what seems like an eternity I am joined by other participants in the Festival, Fatma Naoot, a young Egyptian journalist and writer from Cairo, and Moammal Ekrema, a Syrian calligrapher from Damascus. A lavish breakfast of pitta, humus, eggs, cheese, and carrot jam is spread before us, but I’m too tired to eat, aware that my refusal of hospitality is considered discourteous. It’s good to meet Moammal and Fatma, whose English is excellent, and once again I’m ashamed I can barely say hello and thank you in Arabic. For a while we talk Egyptian politics, and then at 11.00 a.m. we set off at last – I’ve been up for 27 hours and my brain hurts.

I try not to be overwhelmed by the immensity of what I’m seeing, this town a broken ruin, more broken than you could possibly imagine, every single building wrecked, streets piled high with the rubble of endless conflict, and heaps of rubbish as far as it is possible to see. This is a city that has had its heart ripped out and the fragments scattered, so that streets, neighborhoods, all the normal signs of life that I’m used to seeing as the sun stretches into another day, are barely recognizable here. But there are people here, human beings trying their hardest to have a life, and that’s what I’ve come to see.

On the ‘plane there were men and women with their young children, returning home. I felt reassured. There must be something here, then, if children are being brought back I think. Despite the destruction, despair, the wreckage and the fear and pain written on the faces of everyone, there must be the tiniest shoot of hope that things might actually get better eventually. Perhaps the Festival is part of that slow, incredible revival. I hold onto that fragile hope as we continue the 80 kilometer drive through the sand-blasted landscape all the way to Babylon.

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Comments

  1. Great scene setting Agnes…I am hoping that you find the heart in the days that follow.

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