A hundred and one days a.., p.1
A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, p.1Åsne Seierstad
Table of Contents
Discussion Questions for Reading Groups
Also by Åsne Seierstad
The Bookseller of Kabul
Je suis profondément convaincu que le seul antidote qui puisse faire oublier au lecteur les éternels Je que l’auteur va écrire, c’est une parfaite sincérité.
Stendhal, Souvenirs d’Egotisme, 1832
This book is about a journey, a war and some of the people caught up in the war. For a hundred and one days, from January to April 2003, I tried to record what I experienced in Baghdad.
During such a journey the reporter is on duty at all times. Things can happen at any moment. Information is suddenly received or the idea for a new story comes to mind. The reader sees only the outcome; the articles say little of how they were first conceived or what has been left out.
In my ten years as a journalist reporting from war and conflict zones, I have never worked under more difficult conditions than I did in Iraq. Before the war the problem was elementary: no one said anything. Iraqis used empty phrases and banalities for fear of saying anything wrong or betraying their own thoughts.
What to do as a journalist when everyone says the same? Do they all mean it? Do none of them mean it?
I tried to move around in the landscape between deafening lies and virtually silent gasps of truth. The sophisticated apparatus of oppression affected journalists too; sometimes it had a direct bearing on what we wrote.
In time new challenges arrived - descending from the sky, rushing through the air, crashing around our ears. There was no power, no water, no security. All the same, every day we had to file our reports, watched over by our minders.
One day the minders were gone. Then I tried to discover what happens to people when the dam bursts. What do they choose to say when they can suddenly say what they want?
My reports from Baghdad are my reports. They come directly from my own - not always adequate - experiences.
The events might have been interpreted differently by other correspondents. An Egyptian journalist probably saw the war in Iraq from another angle; an American might have assessed the situation in a different way again; maybe an intellectual from Le Monde had his own emphasis.
The truth about the war in Iraq does not exist. Or rather, there are millions of true accounts and maybe just as many lies. My remit as a journalist in the chaos of war was not to judge, predict or analyse. It was to look, ask and report.
My greatest advantage was that I was there. My eyes were there, my ears were there.
When I left for Iraq I had an agreement with three newspapers. Aftenposten in Norway, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, and Politiken in Denmark. In time my articles were also published by Ilta-Sanomat in Finland, Der Tagesspiegel in Germany, Trouw in the Netherlands, Der Standard in Austria, and Tages Anzeiger in Switzerland. In addition I was employed by several radio and TV channels.
The articles I sent home were snapshots, glimpses from the war. They belong to certain days and incidents. Some have been reproduced in their entirety, others have been integrated within a larger context. The war can never be entirely grasped or understood through instant reporting. Nor can political analysis impart the tragedy of seeing one’s own child killed by a missile.
No story contains the whole story. This is just one of many and it gives a fragment of the whole, not more. Read the reports of the Egyptian, the American, or the Frenchman. But above all, try to find the Iraqi version of the war, and the time before and after the war. Together they will give us a basis for understanding what is happening, now that the acts of war are over, but before peace has arrived.
First comes the light. It filters through eyelids, caresses its way into sleep, and slips into dreams. Not the way it usually does, white and cool, but golden.
Half-open eyes peer towards a window framed by long lace curtains, two patterned chairs, a rickety table, a mirror and a chest of drawers. A gaudy sketch hangs on the wall: a bazaar where shadows of women in long, black shawls slide through dark alleyways.
I’m in Baghdad!
So this is what the morning light is like here. Furtive.
The next revelation awaits behind the wispy curtains: the Tigris.
It is as though I have been here before, the view jumps out from my childhood Bible. The meandering river, the rushes, the little palm-clad islands, the trees towering nobly above their reflection in the water.
From far below the cacophony of car horns reaches me, dull roars and sharp high-pitched squeals, a snailing chaos. The road follows the river bank.
I arrived under cover of darkness, a journey of twelve hours from the Jordanian to the Iraqi capital. Night fell long before we reached Baghdad. A few scattered street lights shone palely. Without our being aware of it we crossed the river.
Euphrates and Tigris - the starting point of everything. Even the Flood had its origins here: the land between the two rivers - Mesopotamia. The Tigris is a treacherous river. Under layers of mud, on the river plain, archaeologists have uncovered towns. The cataclysms led to the accounts of God’s judgement, the Flood that covered the whole world. The waters of the Tigris made the Hanging Gardens bloom. The Garden of Eden was somewhere near; the Tower of Babel within easy reach. From this country Abraham and Sarah were exiled.
The thickets along the Tigris are paradise no longer. The river bank is dry and barren and the only green in sight is the palm leaves swaying lazily at the top of brown tree trunks. The city too melts into brown; the contours of the houses are erased by the mists hanging heavily from the sky. Baghdad disappears into the desert.
Like so many other world cities, Baghdad’s history begins with the river.
- This is the place where I want to build. Here everything can be transported on the Euphrates and the Tigris. Only a place like this can sustain my army and a large population, Emperor al-Mansour is alleged to have said in the middle of the 700s. It was summer and he was travelling around his empire. He set up camp near the village of Qasr al-Salam, said evening prayers and fell asleep. According to the legend, he was blessed with the ‘sweetest and kindest’ sleep in the world. When he awoke, all he looked upon he liked, and so he stayed. The Emperor himself drew up plans and allocated funds in order that the city might grow quickly. He laid the corner stone himself and said: - Build and may God be with you!
Baghdad developed on the strategic trade route between Iran in the east, the corn-growing countries in the north, and Syria and Egypt in the west. According to tradition the city was designed to express the Emperor’s elevated radiance and splendour, and to keep his distance from the population. The palaces were built on the west bank of the Tigris, while the markets and living quarters were assigned to the east bank.
Like al-Mansour I too have been blessed with the sweetest and kindest sleep this first night by the banks of the Tigris. I am standing up, enjoying the noise from the ramshackle cars below. A feeling of peace spreads over me. The time has come for me to start looking; in a country where catastrophe is gathering.
On the way down the stairs I hear screams from reception. Piercing howls and scratching noises cut through the air. A skinny monkey runs crazily around inside a cage, howling, a dove coos and yellow canaries add their warble. A feeding bottle is jammed between the bars of the cage.
- Poor little guy, is all I manage before two tortuous arms grab me from behind the bars and hang
- Mino steals anything he can get hold of. He can reach right down into your pockets if you get too close, the receptionist says. I glare at Mino. He should be swinging from palm tree to palm tree, eating fresh shoots or scrounging bananas.
The receptionist stuffs a few dinar notes into his breast pocket and approaches the monkey, who grabs them. - Look, he certainly can steal, he laughs.
In the breakfast room my previous night’s travelling companions are gathered around the oriental spread of bread, tomatoes, olives, boiled eggs and sweet, strong tea.
- The Tigris. I turn my eyes heavenward.
- Wonderful, says Jorunn.
- Just don’t drink it, Bård grumbles. His job is to purify the water, Jorunn’s to organise him. Bård is a water engineer and works for the Norwegian Church Aid, Jorunn is the coordinator.
- We can provide clean water for hundreds of thousands of people, Bård says. The cup of tea disappears in his large hands. - All we need is our equipment. Much of the machinery has been held up at the border, he sighs.
- The Bible, I suggest. Can you lend me a Bible?
Jorunn, who has been a relief worker under the auspices of the church for many years, looks at me as though I have caught her in a crime.
- Can you imagine. I don’t have a Bible, she mutters, apologetic, surprised. - I don’t have a Bible.
But Jorunn can relate that Abraham lived here, in Mesopotamia.
Now the Lord had said unto Abraham, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.
Bård was the one who got me into Iraq.
- Ali will fix it, he said when I phoned him around Christmas. The country was more or less closed to the press; colleagues of mine had waited for months to gain entry. The piles of applications from news-starved journalists grew at Iraqi embassies around the world. The majority were thrown in the waste paper basket; only a few were stamped with the seal which would open the gates to Saddam Hussein’s kingdom. Through Bård’s excellent contacts in the Red Crescent and with the help of the local Norwegian Church Aid secretary Ali, my entry visa was granted in no time at all. On one of the coldest days after New Year we flew to Jordan.
At the Iraqi Embassy in Amman I promised to register with the Ministry of Information immediately upon arrival in Baghdad. But today is Friday.
- Everything is closed, Ali assures me. You can go tomorrow.
It will be my last day of freedom. Jorunn and I want to sightsee. Bård goes to renew his membership of Baghdad Tennis Club. He is of the opinion that some of the frustration caused by Iraq’s stifling bureaucracy wears off on the court.
Jorunn, Ali and I set off for the book market, the Friday market. We leave the banks of the Tigris and join the traffic jam. Cars cough and splutter, stop and start. Like the others, our car is also patched, glued and revamped. United Nations sanctions have resulted in a lack of spare parts, leading to numerous cars breaking down in the traffic lanes and being towed or pushed to one side. Now and again we catch a glimpse of black, highly polished Japanese or German bodywork, the vehicles of the elite. Among the wrecks they look like sleek monsters. Never have I seen such a selection of American cars in worse condition; worn out Cadillacs, dented Buicks and lustreless Chevrolets. Many of them arrived as booty from Kuwait. Allegedly, few cars were left standing in the smarter areas of Kuwait after the Iraqi army withdrew and went home in February 1991.
The city where so many of the stories from the Thousand and One Nights are set is like any other large Middle Eastern city - noisy, pounding and fume-filled. When the stories of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ were written, Baghdad was surrounded by a high wall. The historical figure mentioned several times in the collection is the Caliph of all Islam, Harun al-Rashid, often portrayed in disguise, wandering around town to discover for himself what is going on: He felt restless, he could not sleep, his chest was tight.
Harun is said to have turned the city into a centre of culture around AD 800 and was celebrated for giving fabulous presents to poets, painters, sculptors and scientists who created something he liked. He, and later his successors, put one day aside each week for religious and intellectual discussions, and many great literary works were translated into Arabic. Baghdad was the capital of an empire which stretched from North Africa nearly all the way to India.
Internal strife drained the Empire. The headquarters of the Muslim world moved to Cairo. Turkish warlords invaded Baghdad, followed by Mongols. Hundreds and thousands of inhabitants were slaughtered. The gardens were not watered, the palaces were plundered, works of art were smashed and books burnt.
The last occupiers were the British. They conquered the town from the Ottoman Empire in 1917. The colony’s rulers staked out the borders, gave the country the name Iraq and installed a pro-British king, who declared the country independent in 1932.
Little of old Baghdad remains. The rulers who took over after the British were preoccupied with modernisation. The result was that many of the alleyways and old parts of the town disappeared for good. Modern Iraqi governments might appear and disappear in an endless stream of revolutions and coups, but the renewal of the city has marched on indefatigably. Nearly all the buildings date from the twentieth century. Fabulous, mysterious palaces in narrow back alleys have become multi-storey brown, yellow or grey brick houses. Blocks of flats remind one of Soviet-style asphalt jungles, only smaller. The alleyways have been straightened and are now wide avenues. Trees have been planted around palaces and administration buildings; otherwise the roads are flanked by bumpy and, on the whole, crowded pavements.
In spite of the crowds there is no rush. No one is hurrying this Friday morning, some walk around leisurely, others pull heavy carts or drag huge sacks, swaying under the weight of their load. Shops and cafés open on to the pavements and appear relaxed and inviting. On the surface one does not notice the dark cloud of dread that is about to descend.
If the old spirit of Baghdad is still alive, it must be in the bazaars. But even they are sad reminders of the town’s lost influence and intellectual strength.
The book market is little more than an accidental collection of books, displayed around a network of narrow passages in one of the town’s old quarters. What was once a decadent and busy quarter is now a cluster of dilapidated houses. Past glories can only be guessed at. The books are lined up in rows, on the ground or on small carpets and tables. No one hawks their wares, rather the vendors look uneasy, surveying a collection they would prefer had remained on the shelves at home, but which decades of war have forced them to sell. Old Arab classics, the collected works of Sartre, Saddam’s speeches in French, German and English. I am offered a glass of sweet tea and buy Arabian Nights and By Desert Ways to Baghdad. On the ground, in the dust, I find Gertrude Bell’s Arabian Diary. I have promised Ali not to talk to anyone, at least to say nothing ‘that can be misinterpreted’. He is my guardian today - until I am embraced by the lawful clutches of the Ministry of Information.
- You have not registered yet, you are virtually illegal, so better not get into any trouble, he explains. So I only ask about the books lying in the dust. And no one can stop me from looking at people.
The market empties of customers. It is lunch time. Ali takes us to a restaurant which lies in a garden of flowers and palm trees. Fish swim around in a pond. We pick the fattest one. The fish sparkles in the afternoon sun, a last round of the pond, a net, a blow and the cook is ready to clean, fillet, season and grill. While we follow the knife’s rapid movements, salad, hummus, grilled aubergine, white cheese and chunks of bread, straight from the oven, are brought to the table. We eat with our fingers, dipping the bread in the dishes.
The conversation is stilted. It is difficult to talk with Ali. Or maybe he finds i
There is plenty of room in the restaurant. A nearby family wolfs down starters and fish at a furious rate. In a corner two men loll about, replete. A group of big guys in leather jackets, each carrying a walkie-talkie, throw themselves like hungry bears over their meal. Mobile phones don’t exist, satellite telephones are forbidden, but collaborators, the important ones, are evidently furnished with walkie-talkies.
I go out to watch the cook. He pours oil and marinade over the fish, chops some chillies and grills some more. Ali follows me, to make sure I’m behaving.
The feeling of anticipation stays with me all day. It is like being poised at the start of a maze; the answer is hidden and there is a mess of routes to choose from.
No one can reach me, the mobile phone won’t work, no one knows me. Chores not done before departure will remain undone, post will remain unopened, messages will remain unanswered. The restlessness from home lets go its grip.
A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal by Åsne Seierstad / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes