Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dealing with Humpty-Dumpty: Iraq, antiquities, tourism, reconstruction and me

  • (Photos are of the actual city of Babylon, me touring Iraq including Saddam's palace, showing off my trashy souvenirs and standing in front of a tourist attraction in North Korea -- plus me and baby Mena traveling the globe)

    Writers are people who have the courage to expose their very souls on paper -- or, nowadays, on their blogs. But whenever writers grit their teeth, sit down to write and dare to put their very essence out there into the universe, they also need to be prepared to have their ideas torn apart.

    Even knowing this sad fact of life to be true, I'm still never really prepared to get attacked online for my scriptorial efforts -- and whenever anyone does rake me over the coals for stuff that I've written, it always takes me by surprise. So when I recently wrote an essay on how I would love to go over to Baghdad and see all the ancient artifacts displayed at the newly-reopened National Museum of Iraq, I was totally caught off guard by one reader's negative reaction to my thoughts.

    "Iraq should not be covered as a travelogue/adventure piece," I was castigated. "Given your past travel to Iraq, you should be writing about the struggles of the Iraqi people, the monumental loss of their cultural heritage, destruction to historical points of interest and, for many, loss of their livelihoods...." This reader seemed to be implying that I'm totally insensitive to and/or unaware of the terrible suffering that the Iraqi people have gone through in the last six years.

    "Wha!" I squawked. "You've got that totally wrong!"

    Of course I care deeply about what has happened to the Iraqi people since George Bush lied through his teeth in order to bomb the heck out of them and left them lying bleeding in the dust so that he could have more power, money and oil and get his sexy profile out there on CNN every week.

    And, yes, I really sincerely do want to help Iraqis recover from one of the most blatant acts of wanton destruction in the history of the world since Attila the Hun -- but, hey, I honestly thought that encouraging tourism in the former Babylon was gonna be a GOOD thing. It worked for China, France, Kenya and Nantucket -- so why not for Iraq too. Plus many Iraqis seem to be all in favor of this tourism stuff. Just because Bush messed them all up doesn't mean we now have the right to tell them that they can't sell trashy trinkets to tourists like the rest of the world.

    To quote Dhaif Muhsen, curator of the historic ziggurat at Ur, "In some other countries in the world, like Egypt or Jordan, they depend on tourism. This is a good thing and I hope that Iraq can depend on its tourism using places like the Ziggurat." Muhsen is an Iraqi. He agrees with me. Humph.

    "Further," I continued to vent, "while I truly do deplore, detest and resent the fact that, back in 2003, millions of supposededly decent God-fearing Americans did nothing while George Bush cold-bloodedly and callously orchestrated the violent deaths of over a million Iraqis -- but. There also arrives some point in time when everyone in America, and even everyone in Iraq too, is just gonna to have to adjust to the new, changed reality over there and deal with the tragically sad fact that Humpty-Dumpty WAS badly broken back in 2003 -- and that the former Iraq can never, ever be put back together again in the way that it was before."

    But on the other hand, Americans can't just shrug this tragic injustice off either. "If you break it, you have to pay for it."

    With regard to Iraq, if we are ever to consider ourselves a moral people again, we must not only offer heart-felt apologies to all the widows and orphans that we created over there but also be prepared to perform acts of penance, reparation and repair for the horrors of Shock and Awe that a majority of Americans have so stupidly allowed to happen in Iraq. And that sort of "making omelets out of broken eggs," believe it or not, actually IS what a whole bunch of people -- from the Iraqis themselves to Muslim Peacemakers Teams to our own American soldiers -- are now trying to do right now in Iraq.

    "Even as we speak," I continued to inform my recalcitrant reader, "many more American soldiers in Iraq than you would like to believe spend every single waking moment of their lives over there trying as hard as they can to make repairs and do penance for what Bush has done." I've been to Iraq four-and-a-half times already and I've seen for myself how hard our soldiers are working every day, trying to restore healthcare, water systems, electricity, schools, commerce, the rule of law."

    And if having the freaking National Museum of Iraq be re-opened, having tourism bring pride and income (and jobs) to the people of Iraq and using tourism to help to put that country back together again -- if any of this will help Iraq even one tiny little bit, then I'm for it.

    And if having American forces in Iraq leave and be replaced by a bunch of German and Japanese tourists, I'm all for that too.

    Okay. I'll admit it. That reader's comments HAVE truly pissed me off.

    But what pisses me off even more is that now I've gotta go out and DO something about it, not just talk the talk. Now I've got to actually go the freak over to Iraq and actually VISIT that freaking museum.

    After I got back from Burma in January, I sadly realized that my traveling days were pretty much over. My knees hurt like heck, my hearing was starting to go, my teeth hurt, I had a bad cough, I was a physical wreck. Plus all my money was used up. So. I figured that I'd just quietly spend the rest of my life reading murder mysteries, fiddling around on my blog, bugging my daughter Ashley and babysitting my granddaughter Mena three days a week while her parents worked. I was gonna follow Douglas MacArthur's example and just "fade away".

    But no.

    Now that I've been all called out and CHALLENGED by that holier-than-thou reader, now I've gotta put my murder mystery books down, say goodbye to baby Mena, grab a bottle of aspirin, borrow some money and go over to Iraq and make SURE that their newly-formed tourism business is doing okay. Must I do everything myself? Apparently so.

    So I wrote to the Multi-National Force-Iraq press office over in the Baghdad Green Zone and asked them if I could embed with them as a journalist and then possibly take a day-trip on my own off to the National Museum once I got there. And they wrote me back, "Ma'am, just let us know when you want to come and we'll see what we can do to embed you." Or maybe they can embed me at Contingency Operating Base Adder, which is right next door to the ziggurat of Ur, one of the true wonders of the ancient world.

    So now I've been spending the past few days sweating bullets, trying to decide when will be the best time to go. If I left right now, I'd miss two dental appointments plus the Berkeley-Albany Bar Association's April meeting -- and this month they've got a really good speaker lined up. But if I wait until June or July, I'll be in Iraq during the hot season -- 120 degrees. Plus I'd probably miss the 2009 Book Expo in New York and the Camp Tuolumne work weekend.

    Plus I still need to overcome my qualms about actually going to Iraq. 24 hours spent on a plane, two days in transit from the Kuwait City airport to the Baghdad International Airport and another day spent trying to get from the airport into the Green Zone. Then I'd have to cool my heels in a sleeping "can" in a former parking garage at the press information center in the Green Zone for a few days more while I try to figure out how to get over to the museum itself. Can one just take a taxi? Who knows.

    Now I gotta come out of retirement and do all this stuff -- all because a challenge had been laid down to me by some freaking reader. I shoulda never even have opened my e-mail.

    PS: The Army press rep in the Green Zone has been very helpful about giving me contact information for people within the Iraqi government who could possibly help me work out the logistics of a museum visit.

    The Army press rep also sent me the website address for Hinterland Travel, a British-based outfit that is currently actually conducting tours of "Mesopotamia" -- aka Iraq. Their program sounds excellent. Enclosed is their itinerary.

    Warning: This itinerary is gonna make you drool with anticipation and want to hop on the very next plane to the Middle East! Forget about cruises to the Galapagos or visiting the Great Wall of China or even Disney World or Las Vegas. This is my kind of tour!

    Day 1: Arrival into Baghdad midday. Visit to Argagouf-Kassite Ziggurat, and Museum

    Day 2: Full day tour of Baghdad, Tell Harmal, Souks, Khadimain Mosque, War Cemetery, etc.

    Day 3: South, via ancient Sippar, Ukhaider, the Islamic Castle/Lodge, Al-Tar caves, Kerbala-holy shrine city for the Shi'I Shrines of Hussayn and Hassan, grandsons of the Prophet. To Najaf, the tomb of Ali, much venerated. Kufa, founded in 634 A.D during the Arab conquest, Ali assassinated here. El Khifal. 6th cent B.C. shrine of Ezekiel

    Day 4: Now the ancient world. Babylon, city of Nebuchadnezzar and the Hanging Gardens, ancient Borsippar, its towering Ziggurat was once thought to be the Tower of Babel. Ancient Kish, once home to the Akkadian King Sargon.

    Day 5, 6 and 7: Much will depend on local conditions, security and hotels etc. But we intend to explore ancient Sumer. Visiting Nippur, famous for its Enlil Temple, possibly Larsa and then Uruk, a 4th millennium site and one of the most important sites in Iraq. Still traveling south, Tell Ubeid, a site that gives its name to a pottery style and sequence. Ur, home of Abraham. The wonderful displays in the British Museum of material excavated by Sir Leonard Wooley come from the Ur Royal tombs. The restored but magnificently imposing Ziggurat overlooks this huge site. Next, hopefully, to Eridu, a city lost in the midst of time, before the Flood? Before reaching Basra we will transit the old Marsh Arab area. Now much reduced indeed almost disappeared due to draining but being partly re-flooded.

    Day 8: A tour of Basra city, the old traditional houses and a boat ride on the Shat al Arab, and a trip to Querna where the Euphrates and Tigris meet.

    Day 9: We will return to Baghdad, making excursions if possible, en route.

    Day 10 and 11: Two full days in the City, with excursions to the Arch of Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and many places visited.

    Days 12 through 16: Continuing our in depth coverage of Iraq we travel north, basing ourselves in Mosul for much of the time. Visiting Samarra -the Abbasid capital of A.D 836. and where we can climb the famous Spiral Minaret. Also the El Hadi Mosque of great significance to the Sh'i. Also we hope to visit Tikrit and the known places of Saddam. Hatra - that first ancient Arab city of stunning aspect, built in the Graeco-Roman style. Ashur -- the first great Assyrian capital. In and around Mosul, our schedule will include city tours, visits to the ancient churches and monasteries such as Mar Benham and Mar Matti. Niniveh -- the last Assyrian capital, immense and where the West first learnt about Assyrian archaeology. Nimrud -- justly famous for its remains and the amazing treasures found in the last few years. Khorsabad, also Assyrian.

    Days 17 and 18: Then into Kurdistan to Erbil -- the City mound with its layers of 5,000 years of occupation towering over the modern city, following through to the Resort town of Sulaimaniye, the oil centre Kirkuk to Baghdad.

    Day 19 and 20: Depart Baghdad

    PPS: Here's my article on the National Museum of Iraq that got all this tempest in a teacup started off in the first place:

    PPPS: The murder mysteries that I've been reading lately are Kathy Reich's Temperance Brennan series, Claire M. Johnson's Mary Ryan series, M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin series and Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy series. And of course Nancy Drew.


    Here's Hinterland Travel's website: