Baghdad Blogs (6)

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 THREE – Sunday, 6th May – Morning – At Nemrut’s Tower, and the Graves of Al-Mawahil

By now all of us had given up on the idea that there might be a written programme of events telling us what each day would hold. We’d stopped fretting and were just going with the flow. This morning after breakfast we were taken to the tomb of a Muslim saint who had built a tower so that he could speak more directly and easily to God. Nemrut’s Tower of God was about an hour’s drive away, giving us a chance to see more of the extraordinary countryside.

The landscape was a mosaic of dun-coloured scrubland with ubiquitous palms standing like tired sentries, and an endless array of buildings split open by neglect or conflict, yet still with families living in them. Broken trees or fragments of rusted tanks lay scattered by the roadside. Occasionally there were the gated villas of the rich or powerful, as ostentatious and overblown as these types of dwellings anywhere. What was self-evident, however, was that this was a weary land, one that had had the stuffing knocked out of it, a patchwork of decay and exhaustion that filled me with sadness at the waste.

Arriving at the saint’s tomb, we were quickly surrounded by a troupe of soldiers stationed there to keep away looters. In their dark blue uniforms, hard muscular bodies and oil-dark eyes, they were a handsome bunch of boys, obviously delighted that the boredom of their days was to be alleviated for a little while by this posse of sightseeing poets tumbling from the bus like excited children. They all wanted to have their photos taken with us, but declined to allow us to take photos of them, saying it was forbidden, wagging their fingers at us.

The tower stood a few hundred yards away up a steep hill that might once have had trees, but was now bare of all vegetation. Over centuries the village that had once thrived in the shadow of the saint’s folly had fallen into ruin, now no more than a jumble of broken walls and doorways open to the cloudless sky. The earth was brown and stony, frilled with the detritus of 21st century living – plastic bags, Coke cans, sweet wrappings all fidgeting and gathering in untidy piles. A few tatty-looking stalls sold snacks and cold drinks, their ancient wizened owners eyeing us anxiously. People still lived here, ‘though it was hard to imagine what kind of living they could scratch out of such a remote and inhospitable place. In the distance an ocean of palm trees stretched in grey-green waves as far as the eye could see, smoke from distant fires pluming the horizon.

The others were much more determined to be tourists than me, with Lisa leaping up the steep slope to the crumbling tower that fingered the sky. I was happy to just stand and look at the eternity of trees spreading out before me, enjoying the chance to just be in this isolated spot. For a while there was only sunlight and silence, the hot air moving across the arid landscape as if God really was whispering in your ear. And then from the small blue-tiled mosque next to the saint’s tomb the muezzin called the faithful to midday prayers. As ever I found it oddly moving and incredibly beautiful, his thin voice threading the emptiness to remind us of our impermanence. As we got back onto the bus, the onyx-eyed soldiers waved us goodbye, and the peace of the place traveled with us for just a little while.

But Dr Ali had something in store for us that would erase all thoughts of peace and tranquility. He took us to Al-Mawahil, the site of one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious mass-graves, where the remains of 13,000 men, women and children lay right next to a new housing estate. The newly built apartment blocks stood empty and waiting only yards away, with the steady thrum of motorway traffic connecting it to graveyard. Corn-rows of unmarked graves stretched ahead, each one containing the partial remains of someone who had been butchered by Hussein for who knows what crime, real or imagined. These were the nameless ‘disappeared’, victims that it had been impossible to identify as often there was little left but dismembered limbs.

On a billboard by the graveyard’s entrance were pictures of women howling with grief, tearing at their hair and clothing in paroxysms of despair the depth of which I could not even begin to imagine. Even my time in Gaza had not prepared me for this, and I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of sorrow for all those who had been lost, and for those who had been left behind to mourn them. It was impossible for me not to cry, and we all stood joined by the anguish of the moment. Even now, writing about it weeks later, I can feel the ghost of the harsh emotion I felt seeing those graves, and the raw, savage grief that was being expressed by those weeping women. It was a cruel and shocking moment, but I’m glad I experienced it, for it was an unsubtle reminder how privileged our lives in the West really are.

We were all mute with distress as we returned to Babylon, and lunch was a quiet affair, that silent shriek of woe still echoing somewhere in our heads…..

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