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Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire: Destruction" (1836)

Baghdad's Better Days
When Civilization Is the Barbarian

An Iraqi journalist contributed the following story to McClatchy Newspapers’ Baghdad blog on June 10 (McClatchy withholds the name for the journalist’s security): “A teacher was talking to her very young charges about Iraq in her geography class. ‘Beautiful traditional orchards with citric fruit trees shading the lush greens planted between them; tall palm trees forming a high canopy protecting the trees from the sun. You can see some sun rays penetrate through the canopy to cast a beautiful twinkling light upon the ground. It is so cool and healthy; very many kinds of birds live here, including the famous nightingale that sings with the angels. Not far away, the stream flows slowly, very slowly because the ground is very nearly flat. …’ One of her young students starts crying quietly. ‘What is it Yasmeen? Why are you crying?’ ‘Please Miss Hanan; can you take us to Iraq?? Please? It sounds so very nice and quiet; much nicer than here.’” The blogger doesn’t say whether it’s a fictional story, nor would it be relevant if it were. He only wonders if it’s a joke. I doubt it. Stories like that happen wherever war replaces the saner kind of life the rest of us take for granted.

I remember when I left Lebanon in the late 1970s how impossible it was to convince my classmates in the West that Lebanon wasn’t synonymous with war. My own memories despite the war were still lush with the kind of beauties that had inspired the author of the Song of Songs to deliriously compare his bride’s perfume to “the fragrance of Lebanon ,” and her loveliness to “a well of water flowing fresh from Lebanon .” I couldn’t really blame those who saw it differently. The near-daily headlines of massacres and assassinations looked and smelled different, as they now do in Iraq. They nevertheless unjustly reducing our conceptions of those places to the one-dimensional assumption that they’re made of war and little else. Simplistic assumptions make for simplistic solutions: Invade. Occupy. Impose democracy. Force martial law. Surge. Lay siege. Blame them for every failure because, after all, they’re made of war. What if we have it in reverse?

The geography teacher’s description of Iraq reminded me of an account by Ibn Jubayr, one of Islamic history’s most renown scholars and travel writers, who road-tripped across Iraq in the late 12 th century. Reading his account now, the cities on his itinerary sound as familiar as this morning’s newspaper, but for the wrong reasons: al-Kufa, al-Hillah, Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul. Grim datelines these days. Yet each place was an occasion for Ibn Jubayr to rival the Song of Song in his day.

On the approach of Baghdad he camps in one town that takes his breath away for its “immense wealth and vastness, irrigated by several streams, shaded by fruit trees, one of the most beautiful and pleasant towns” he’s come across since leaving his native Iberian Peninsula (then controlled by Arabs). Every town along the way evokes equally effusive responses. The town of Zariran is “the most beautiful on earth, the most pleasing to the eyes … the lushest orchards, gardens and palm groves. Its market can hold its own against any urban market.” That geography teacher could have been quoting Ibn Jubayr almost word for word. The there is this, just before he arrives in Baghdad: “What’s more, security is absolute at every step of the journey.”

Baghdad at the time was just past the height of is power as the center of the most advanced civilization on the planet. A few decades later it would be leveled by a grandson of Genghis Khan. Large parts of the city were already in ruins when Ibn Jubayr arrived so that Baghdad preserved “only the prestige of its name.” But to the traveler, Baghdadis were still full of themselves: “These people disdain strangers and show them nothing but scorn and conceit. They all think heart and soul that the entire universe revolves around their city.” Ibn Jubayr could have been describing Parisians in the 19 th century or New Yorkers today, although when he gets to describing the behavior of the ruling Abbasids, the Sunni caliphate then only vaguely holding on to power, he’s closer to describing Americans holed up in Baghdad’s Green Zone: “They all live in those palaces, don’t wander out, don’t show themselves, but enjoy considerable wealth.”

The ruins this time, as in 1258 when the Mongols invaded, aren’t the Iraqis’ doing. But neither is the perception that Iraqis (or Arabs in general) are made for war. That Iraqi geography teacher wasn’t wrong, and not nearly as eyeless as Americans writing Iraq’s current history while shattering its geography.

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