On Good Friday 1984, I found myself laying a wreath at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad. This was to me extraordinary. I belong to the Church of England and have no wish to take sides in the quarrels of Muslims. Although I have always been attracted to Arabs, I am conscious of my pro-Jewish bias when considering political and military affairs in the Near East or Middle East. Yet here I was laying a wreath at a handsome monument in Baghdad, commemorating the deaths of Iraqi soldiers in their war against Iran, and I was escorted by smart Arabs in olive-green uniforms, much like the ‘jungle green’ I wore, thirty years ago, as a National Serviceman dropping in on Aden and Port Said, on the way to the New Territories of China.
This state occasion was alarming to me. I had flown into Baghdad on the Thursday, in response to an agreeably casual Iraqi invitation to a ‘writers’ conference’. I had intended to swan around, as an uncommitted journalist, finding out a bit about Baghdad, Arabic literature, the conservation of ancient buildings, internal politics and the conduct of the war against Iran. Somehow I had been transformed into an official guest, with responsibilities, an image for the media to play with.
Nearly all the other guests at this ‘conference’ or ‘festival’ were Arabs, mostly poets, about a hundred and fifty from 16 different nations. Early on Friday morning, while still sleepy, we were invited by our soldierly hosts to attend a ceremony. It was only when we were walking up the steps to the monument that one of these greenjackets told me that I was expected to lay a wreath, on Britain’s behalf. (There were only two other guests from Britain present, an American girl studying Arabic at Oxford, and an Egyptian from the BBC who backed me up.) There was no way out. I share the general view about paying respect to Unknown Soldiers.
Afterwards, a greenjacket showed me round the ‘museum’ beneath the monument. On display, among ancient helmets and armour, were more modern uniforms, slashed or bullet-riddled, which had been worn by fallen Iraqi soldiers. It was Good Friday and I meditated upon the wounds of Christ. Some of the Arab poets with me lit up cigarettes, but the senior army officers present frowned. The smoke-break would be outside. This place was a sort of shrine, as well as a museum.
The weather on Friday afternoon was hot but miserable, the sky like porridge, milk-stained by the sun. From the window of the hotel I could see a distant church tower in Norman style, so I walked toward it. Built in 1957, it was not as old as it looked. Above the door was an unusually small black-and-white photograph of our host, Saddam Hussein, the President or Rais of Iraq, indicating (I hope) that the churches as well as the mosques are under the protection of his secular government. An Armenian in London had warned me against travelling to Baghdad on Good Friday, since the Christians of Baghdad hold that the weather is always threatening at that season, with blood-red skies and sandstorms. The hot wind was certainly stirring up the sand in the wasteland round the church, all palm trees and Indian-run construction sites. The main streets of the city were more gay. Plenty of beer bars and open-air coffee stalls, pastrycook shops for Hassan and balconies for Yasmin, most of them carrying colourful posters of the Rais – reading or praying, fatherly with children or dutiful in uniform. But this was April 1984, remember: confronted by so many pictures of ‘a man of about 45, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features’, the suspicious traveller (whether British journalist or Arab poet) is bound to think of Big Brother.
The evening of the day was more relaxingly humdrum, nearer to the British idea of a ‘writers’ conference’. In this normal atmosphere, I was weakly incautious against the whispered insistence of a bustling organiser called Tunis, who wanted me to read verses at a little morning session for foreign poets. ‘Oh, please, Mr David. We only have one Frenchman so far.’ Foolishly I agreed to pipe up if she really ran short of European versifiers.