Baghdad Blogs (3)

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

During the night I am sure I must have lost at least an armful of blood, the mosquitoes were so prolific, so relentless and so hungry. Sleep was spasmodic and restless, partly because my imagination was in overdrive and I kept dreaming that there were dreadful faceless things prowling around in the shrubbery outside our rooms. In the light of day and over breakfast I learned that this wasn’t too far from the truth, as Saddam Hussein had ordered the construction of this hotel complex and the gardens it stood in. When he was ousted, the place closed down and had only recently re-opened – no wonder it was looking so shabby!

Not only that, the dictator’s summer palace was perched on a hill overlooking the hotel, literally a stone’s throw away…a chilling thought that we were sleeping in the shadow of a despot’s palace even though it was boarded up and no visitors were allowed in. Lisa, the Austrian writer who had already become a friend, confessed that she’d got up very early and walked up the hill to take a closer look, but only got as far as the outside of the palace walls before being stopped by armed police and soldiers. She said the atmosphere up there was eerie and unpleasant, like a stone on the heart – not something I wished to experience first hand.

After breakfast, and still with absolutely no idea what the day’s programme had in store for us, we compared notes on impressions so far. All of us agreed that Dr Ali had done/was doing an amazing job and that this Festival was a really important landmark for Iraq and its’ strife-torn people. That we were there at all was a tribute to him and the people he was working with. The first few days would be devoted to literature with readings by the European/International poets and writers, as well as the Arab poets drawn from Egypt, Syria, Turkey and from all over Iraq. There were also exhibitions of contemporary visual arts and calligraphy. Maami’s work was exhibited and was incredibly beautiful…even though I don’t truly appreciate the calligrapher’s art, I could recognize high quality when I saw it, and his work was extraordinary. Later on in the week there would be film screenings and theatre/dance productions and the Festival would culminate in a concert by the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra. I wished I was able to stay for the whole week instead of just the first few days. I didn’t even know Baghdad had a Symphony Orchestra. There’s so much about this place we don’t know, or have the wrong idea about.

Mid-morning we were taken to the ancient city of Babylon, the ruins of which were on the other side of the hill Saddam Hussein’s summer palace was perched on. It was only a five minute bus drive away, but nevertheless we were accompanied by armed guards and a bevy of what I later realised were plain clothes police. Dr Ali was making sure we weren’t captured by the opposition political party to discredit what the current government was trying to achieve. Another comforting thought to keep me awake at night alongside the voracious mossies!

In the 6th Century BC Babylon was the greatest city in the ancient world and the centre of culture, wealth and learning. Whether the Hanging Gardens were real or a myth, people from all over the then known world were drawn to it for its architectural marvels and to worship at the feet of the stone lions of Babylon, symbols of supreme power and might. I was completely overawed that I was actually there.

Over 2,600 years ago the biblical King Nebuchadnezzer commissioned the construction of streets I was walking down now, had entered the magnificent (and magnificently restored) Ishtar Gate, one of the six gateways to the city, devoted to Ishtar, Goddess of love, war and fertility, as I was doing now. The gate was breathtaking, covered in luminous indigo tiles interspersed with images of hybrid animals, mixtures of birds, bulls, fish and fowl, and the ubiquitous lions, Ishtar’s own symbol, all in brilliant yellow and white. Once inside there was a courtyard filled with stone benches, a cluster of palm tress, a mural of an ancient map of the world showing Babylon in the centre of things surrounded by ocean. An arrow pointed east to the Great Wall, another saying it was ‘six leagues in between where the sun is not seen.”

It was easy to imagine the bustle and excitement of this city, this gateway in those far-away days when it really was the centre of the world and people flocked there to learn and to marvel. Now we were virtually the only visitors, certainly the only foreigners, apart from a thin sprinkling of Iraqi teenagers or families here to see the glories of their past. A few years ago there had been plans to restore the whole site and make it a major tourist attraction, but those plans have been shelved for some time now. In one corner of the courtyard was a dusty little shop with a sign saying ‘Welcome – Souvenirs of Babylon’ under which another sign said ‘Closed’. To me it seemed an incredibly poignant metaphor for the whole of Iraq. I came to Babylon..and it was closed.

The temperature in the blistering sun was in the upper 40’s, so hot it was an effort to breath. In the shade of the courtyard’s palm trees an enterprising Iraqi had a stall selling cold drinks. We all looked longingly at the box of ice-cold cola’s and water, our tongues already glued to the roof of our mouths, but we couldn’t buy anything not having any Iraqi currency. Once again the kindness of local writers came to our rescue, and we were all bought drinks, with much laughter and generosity of spirit, plus the eternal “where are you from?”

Walking through the sun-baked streets I was aware of the weight of millennia, each brick in those ancient walls a word in the book of silence. The city spread out before us, an endless Aescher landscape of dun-coloured walls, broken doorways and roofless buildings that once must been grand and beautiful. When a wizened local elder pointed to the cuniform inscriptions carved in some of the bricks, translating in a shy voice that these were made at the time of King Nebuchadnezzer, I got very excited. Well…I’m a history buff, so things this old and precious will always excite me. And this was the King Nebuchadnezzer, who appeared in several books of the Bible. How could that not be cool? It hurt my heart to think that all this history, the wealth of culture and beauty that was here, was largely hidden from us in the West. All we hear about is despotism, war, death and destruction, but this is only a part of what this country has to offer. How could we not be told about everything else? A rhetorical question, I know.

In one ruined courtyard we visited the Woman’s Well, where your ‘womanly sins’ could be washed away. On the wall outside was a massive shadow clock pointing towards the dictator’s palace with a lengthening dark finger. The stone lion sat alone amidst the ruins, its face worn by the hands of the careless, by rain and turmoil, now only a symbol of loss.

We were quiet when we got back on the bus to return to the hotel for lunch. History has a habit of silencing you, and we were all even more aware now of what there had once been and how much had been lost. My grubby room seemed like a cool haven after the fierce heat and abrasive sunlight, and as I lay down for my post-lunch nap during the hottest part of the day, I wandered what other revelations this afternoon and evening’s reading might bring. While I slept, the mossies continued their relentless feasting….

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