UR and BASRA – It’s absolutely impossible to get close to the legendary ziggurat of Ur without a letter of authorization. Ur, the Biblical city of the Chaldeans, is the land of the prophet Abraham, father of the three great monotheist religions. What is presented as the ruins of his house from around 4000 BC can also be seen near the ziggurat.
According to the Holy Koran, Abraham was not Jewish, but a true believer in Allah. Around 4000 BC, Abraham left Ur for what is now southern Turkey, and then went to Palestine. Later he went to Egypt, and then visited Arabia, where he helped his son Ishmael reconstruct the Kaaba in Mecca, built by Adam.
According to theologian Hamidullah, a Koran translator, the personality and events in the life of Abraham even inspired the Ramayana, the great Sanskrit poem.
The ziggurat of Ur (Entemen-ni-Gur) is a massive three-staged pyramid built by King Ur-Namu and his son Dungi, “kings of Sumer and Akkad, kings of the four corners of the Earth,” around 2300 BC. The ziggurat was re-engineered by the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Nabochodonosor) II. A monumental staircase – rebuilt by order of Saddam Hussein – allows the visitor to ascend to the second stage. The facade of the ziggurat still bears traces of American bombing during the Gulf War – or “Mother of All Battles” as it’s known in Iraq.
Nowadays the ziggurat is protected by a checkpoint, with two sleepy guards battling giant mosquitoes and equipped with a single, rattled Kalashnikov. An isolated house occupies the middle of the plain, in ruins, they say, due to American bombing three months ago. The house is about 1.8 kilometers away from the ziggurat. There’s an electricity plant 3km away. The strike against the house might be another example of American not-so-smart bombing. Or maybe someone in the Pentagon believes the ziggurat is a cover for a weapons of mass destruction site.
There’s no need of a letter of authorization from a “director” to visit the pyramids in Egypt, Palmyra in Syria or Petra in Jordan. But in Iraq, even historical monuments are a matter of national security. There’s a lot of visible military activity around Ur. On the highway from Nassiriya to Basra, there’s a military post every 20km, with a single soldier equipped with the same rattled Kalashnikov: not exactly a match for the F-16s.
Basra – from where Sinbad sailed to Legend – is in the heart of oil country. Iraq literally floats over oil. One liter of gas costs only 20 Iraqi dinars (500 Iraqi dinars equals 40 US cents). Twenty-five liters of gas is the same price as a 1.5-liter bottle of Furat, a brand of mineral water from Baghdad.
But Basra is not Dallas. Desperadoes and their kids roam the streets. The foul smell of rotten meat is pervasive. Trash is piled up everywhere. The odd foreigner, Ukrainian or Algerian, works in the spare parts business related to the oil industry, and drowns his malaise in “cabarets” straight out of a Fellini movie.
At the level of the ordinary citizen, Iraq works through a logic of secrecy and fear. It’s sometimes possible to learn from a bazaar merchant or from a teacher doubling as taxi driver that the regime fears the possibility of Israel exporting its “repression” to Iraq. It’s very easy to get arrested in Iraq: one just has to go out in the street unaccompanied and film or photograph one of a plethora of Saddam Hussein portraits and murals: Koranic Saddam, Artistic Saddam, Bedouin Saddam, Saladin Saddam, Rifle-toting Saddam.
Even trying to photograph a cinema lobby – full of posters of cheap American flicks – could be a one-way ticket to jail: one is immediately thrown out by a “security officer”. The bazaar merchant or the taxi driver will then tell us that every foreigner is under suspicion of being a spy. To show the merits of Iraq – and they do exist – is even harder because of this pervasive paranoia.
We try to find the representatives of a French non-governmental organization (NGO), Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), in Basra: there are only two nurses, one French, one Dutch. We learn they are “on vacation in Baghdad.” In Baghdad we were told they were working in Basra, helping to rebuild and re-equip hospitals.
At 16h30 practically every afternoon in Basra there’s a siren. Then another at 17h30. The first day we are told a “Kuwaiti civilian helicopter” violated Iraqi airspace. It’s a joke, of course: the reality may be an incursion by American F-16s. The next day – after another siren – we learn from an official Basra guide that the last American bombing was actually five months ago: “Military installations,” he remarks. In Baghdad, officials from the Ministry of Information swear the bombardments happen every day. A comprehensive tour of Basra reveals that the visible anti-aircraft artillery is not capable of even shooting pigeons – not to mention F-16s. So much for the myth – built by the Pentagon – of the “fourth strongest army in the world.”
One cannot even go to a restaurant in Iraq without an official guide from the Ministry of Information in Baghdad. But this official guide is little more than a tourist in Basra. One needs a specialized Basra guide. Depending on the occasion – a visit to a hospital, a visit to a mosque, a visit to the Kuwait border – another guide guides the Basra guide. One is soon in the surreal situation of being a single foreigner surrounded by a horde of minders, like a rapper or a mafia don.
Basra guides are particularly effective in guiding one nowhere. Dr Jawad al-Ali is a consultant physician at the Saddam Hospital. He is responsible for statistics concerning patients with leukemia – caused, they say, by American bombing with depleted uranium. Dr Ali manages to give us the address of a family with four cases of leukemia, living in a heavily bombed area near Basra. But the guide says a visit to the family is a no-go: we don’t have an authorization from the Ministry of Health.
We go to a primary school, trying to check the state of the educational system in southern Iraq. The guide even knows de director of de school. But we cannot visit: we don’t have authorization from the Ministry of Education. The justification for all this: “We are surrounded by enemy countries” (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and most of all Iran).
Iraq officially ends about 20km south of Basra. There are only two guards on the Iraqi side of the border, a barrier, a small billboard in Arabic, and a “Stop” sign in Arabic and English. On the other side of an absolutely void 1km no man’s land between Iraq and Kuwait is the point where America decided to end the Gulf War. To cross this no man’s land one needs to address a message to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is then relayed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The reply might take weeks.
On the outskirts of Basra, we find a former soldier who fought the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. He is weary. Most of his friends died in battle. He still carries a bullet in his left shoulder. Looking at the smoke and fire breathing from the oil and gas fields in the distance, he decides not to mince his words: “The Arab world is not good. This government is no good. Before the war, Iraq was good. Iran now is better.”