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.

By Easter Sunday we were enjoying an ideal English summer, blue skies and cool breeze. We were feasted, Arab poems were beautifully declaimed, we were whizzed to see strange sights in cars and coaches, escorted by motorbikes. The company was congenial, especially when the poets descended from the heights of classical Arabic to colloquial English. Feasts started late and the hors d’oeuvres were accompanied by one or two bands of musicians, usually featuring a zither, two kinds of drum, a fiddle (European or Arabic) and an exciting flute-cum-horn called a ney. Sometimes the poets would get up and dance. A singer in a broad-shouldered suit, looking like Dean Martin or Max Bygraves, would swagger in and improvise verses: these were often satirical comments on state interference with independent-minded Arabs. The poets admired these witticisms very much. At the Baghdad Shooting Club (hard by the Baghdad Horsemen’s Club), a big black poet in desert robes strode toward the singer determinedly, as if to cleave him with a scimitar, but instead he clasped his shoulders and then his knees in manly embrace, to salute him for his wit. I had cast the poet, in my mind’s eye, as the perfect Othello – until the Mauritanian poets turned up, with their square black beards and their lilac-purple, shoulder-caped robes, upstaging all the other dandies of Baghdad.

It was all very masculine at the Shooting Club party, hosted by jolly chaps carousing in military uniform, not unlike a German beer cellar. Girls were clustered apart. I asked one: ‘Do women often come to the Shooting Club?’ She said: ‘Only to hunt men.’ At about one in the morning, when we had had enough hors d’oeuvres, Turkish beer and Scotch whisky, the main meal was brought in, featuring steaming joints of lamb, and we all marched to the trestle tables and dug in, with big sharp knives. There was a grander feast at a magic building called the Khan Mirjan. This is a 14th-century caravanserai or staging inn, a great hall with a gallery under improbably high pointed arches. We were served by a dancing waiter, designed by Toulouse-Lautrec: a bottle was balanced on his bald head, a tray was spinning on his thumb.

The second-century arch at Ctesiphon is in the same high style: the greenjackets took us there. It is ‘the widest single-span vault of unreinforced brickwork in the world, 75 feet wide and 110 feet high’ (according to Gavin Young’s book, Iraq: Land of Two Rivers). Beneath this arch, the Roman Emperor Caracalla, himself part-Syrian, once invited the Parthian princes to a feast and then killed them all; another ugly tale about Caracalla is that he dug up, not far away, the grave of Alexander the Great (whom he much admired), found the body in good condition and broke off Alexander’s nose as a souvenir. It happens that I have written a play about Caracalla’s behaviour in North Britain, so I decided that if I was forced to read verse, I would declaim to the Arabs a song from my play in which Caracalla praises Alexander.

Near the ancient arch is a modern monument, a ‘panorama’ set in a high tower, looking like a lighthouse. When you climb to the circular platform at the top you are surrounded by an exciting modern painting of Arab horsemen defeating Persians at the battle of Al-Qadissiya (AD 637). It is in the style of Lady Butler painting British cavalry engagements in the last century. This painting forms the outer circle: the inner circle is of sand, realistically strewn with ancient armour, the helmets and weapons of the fallen. The greenjackets wanted to remind us that there is a war on, and they gave us Arabic pamphlets about the Iranians’ villainies. Sometimes a car would speed past us with something strapped to the top, wrapped in a flag: the greenjackets were quick to tell us that it was being hurried from the front to the military cemetery.

My verses did not feel suitable for this war-conscious festival. But, for the moment, the morning session for foreign poets was postponed. We were told we had received an important invitation. ‘Not the President?’ I asked Tunis. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Do you want to put on your suit?’ I did so. We were driven to a palace (with a homely ‘Welcome’ mat outside), offered refreshment and asked to put our valuables into self-addressed envelopes – as if we were arrested men at a London police station. I guessed correctly that this meant we would be going past metal detectors, guarding against assassins. Eventually we were seated in a great hall, some three hundred of us, and Saddam Hussein entered with his entourage. The Rais walked round the hall and spoke to each one of us in a courteous, royal manner.

He delivered a speech, gravely and quietly. It was in Arabic but I read an English translation, the next day. He began by asking the question: ‘How can Iraq fight a war and hold a poetry festival at the same time?’ He held that poetry was a matter of the spirit but based on solid ground, in the heart and conscience of poets, offering an enlightenment which would prevent his nation from being drawn back into the era of darkness – represented by Khomeini’s regime in Iran. The Rais declared: ‘When ravens wail in Iran, sparrows should warble and birds should sing in Baghdad.’ Reading this version, next day, the Arab poets held that the English translation was inadequate: they asked me to confirm that ravens ‘croak’ rather than ‘wail’, and that poets should be compared with larks or nightingales, rather than sparrows. I concurred, though really more concerned with the fact that the proceedings were becoming ever more stately and serious.

There was a good deal of international politics, large-scale and small-scale, going on. Some of the Arab poetry was quickly translated into English, and some was not. Television was quietly present at the readings and I had to sit on my hands, keeping a poker face, after certain eloquent and musical declamations which I did not understand. The ‘British delegate’ could not be seen applauding uninhibited political statements by war-like Arabs!

Sometimes I walked about the town and occasionally met British people, construction workers and engineers. One of these had just come from Libya. How does it compare with Baghdad? ‘Baghdad is one million per cent better.’ While we were spreading our dinars on a counter, airing theories about their respective values, a young Iraqi came over to put us right. We discovered that he was on five days’ leave from the front, where he was serving as a gunner in a tank, and he seemed quietly enthusiastic about his military duties. No, he did not want to be an officer. ‘That’s right,’ said the British engineer. ‘You just want to do your bit.’ I decided to write a verse about this soldier, dead simple so that no Arab could translate it wrong, using a metre any student of English would recognise, instead of declaiming my old obscurities. I did this and, next morning, went to the hall where we ‘foreign poets’ were to perform, later in the day. It was a large hall, and there was a discussion by literary critics about political commitment. Several of my fellow guests were going on a jaunt to Samarra, but I felt this would be bad luck. (Readers of Appointment at Samarra will remember what happened to David English.)

As I had guessed, the great hall filled up, with plenty of young Iraqi, when the critics stopped and the ‘foreign poets’ began. I was preceded by a Spaniard with a lion-headed walking-stick, declaiming musically about the Moors in Spain. The translation into Arabic was well received. My own translator had been working hard on my old verses (after all, he reminded me, Arabs have produced good translations of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce) and was put out when I rejected them and gave him the new simplistic piece: but I was determined to ‘make my position clear’, so that no one thought me to represent some devious British foreign policy (if such there be) connected with the Gulf war. I prefaced my verse thus: ‘When the organisers kindly asked the British delegation if we would read some poems, I remembered two small things that I had written. But I have decided that they are not worthy of the occasion. So instead I have written a poem in which I try to express my sympathy with the Iraqi people in this terrible war and my hope that a lasting peace will come to this part of the world.’ Before reading an Arabic version of this statement, my translator asked me: ‘Sympathy with, or sympathy for?’

My poem began:

There is no way to know there is a war.
In this land of Iraq I am a guest
Living in luxury. Our lucky cars
Rush through the streets, guarded by motor-bikes.
There is no way to know there is a war ...

The Arabic translation was then read (and discussed by the poets in a learned manner) and my effort was quickly forgotten after a reading of two passages from Shakespeare, with a new translation by my Egyptian colleague. A big, black Arab then magnificently declaimed a poem which began (I think): ‘Kameroun!’ I did not dare applaud him, in case he was declaring war on Nigeria: but I told him afterwards how thrillingly he had read. He beamed and patted his diaphragm, like an opera-singer. I felt more relaxed, now that I had ‘made my position clear’.

Everything about this festival was symbolic, emblematic, as if we were playing roles in a historical pageant. The greenjackets took us southward to two especially holy mosques of great beauty, Kerbela and Nejef, built around the tombs of the warrior martyrs, Ali and Osman, revered by the Iranian enemy on the border – and the Iranians, we were assured by our armed escort, would be furious to know that non-Muslims were being welcomed here. The local worshippers did not look pleased, either – and I remarked to a Saudi poet that I did not like blundering as a tourist into these sacred places. ‘Sacred or secret?’ he said. It seems to be Iraqi policy to treat places of worship with respect and support, but to guard against their becoming secretive enclaves, centres of conspiracy – as many churches in Ireland are.

The history of Iraq begins long before Mohammed, as we were reminded at Babylon. I had told an Indian in Baghdad, a Roman Catholic from Calcutta, that we were off to Babylon and he offered me his version of the story of the tower of Babel, hinting that the Iraqi were capable of rebuilding it. There seems to be a general fear that the Iraqi enthusiasm for the conservation of antiquities may go a touch too far. In Babylon we saw the plinths for statues of Ishtar and Ashtoreth, and our guide grumbled about the ancient puritans who had smashed the graven images. ‘What do you think of that, Mr David?’ said a poet. ‘Destroying all those beautiful things?’ It would be exciting, like a John Buchan romance, if the Rais of Iraq were to revive the worship of those ancient, aphrodisiac deities.

It was good to meet the Governor of Babylon, successor to the prophet Daniel (whose shrine is in Kirkuk, next to Hosea’s), to feast in the open air watching the ancient dances of the greybeards and listening to the treble voices of the blue-robed boys. But the antiquity of Babylon is a little overpowering – and I thrust it away by talking about modern times with the contingent from Lebanon. Headed by Nizar Qabanni, they had made a perilous sea voyage from Beirut to Jordan on their determined progress to Baghdad. The actress Reda Khoury told me about the death of Qabanni’s wife in the Lebanese fighting and explained that his recent poems concerned that event.

Even the ‘fashion show’ was emblematic. It was more like a son et lumière, with women dancing in ancient and modern styles, dressed in costumes of Assyria, Babylon, Ur of the Chaldees, and modern gowns derived from those old, pre-Muslim designs. On the screens behind were flashed photographic reproductions of landscapes and old buildings – and modern weaponry, conveying the message: ‘These are the liberties we are fighting for.’ We counted the number of quick-changing women who were dancing for us: there were eight, but they seemed more like fifty. When we got to the Muslim period I thought the clothes would become dull and black. Not so: they wore white gowns with embroidered or painted pictures of Mogul warriors riding horses or reclining in gardens with women. This was ingenious, I remarked to an Arab poet, a drinking man from a dry-ish nation. ‘And did you notice that the warriors were all drinking?’ he asked. ‘No? You missed an important point.’

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