Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Respect the delicate intelligence of your illusions

Gordon Reid with Stuart and Andy about 1956. Mushtamal. Karrada District ( east), Baghdad. Near river Tigris, north of Duara oil refinery.

1961 bus map

shows where the house was . A north-south road running down somewhere between what are called (but may no longer have the same names) Amal Ibn Yaser Square and Aqaba Ibn Nafi Square. We are sitting
at the back of the garden facing due west . Dad set the camera (a rollifex) on a timer :that's why he's looking so glum! He 's just run back to the seat trying to look natural when it caught him before he could.

I remember going
with a few chums to the river bank half a mile from the house on a scorching hot summer afternoon to walk along the dry, crazed mud , marvelling at the mathematical tesellations.
Posted by Hello

Had Man
no memory

Had man no memory;
a city without walls
no toll to pay
no promises to keep,
Sleeping, dreaming a safety
waking an honesty;
day devoid of dimness
night of trickery

In home and street
the warm bread, the cold stone,
the burning, the chill simplicity
of love and hate made one
without boundary

had man no memory

Janet Frame


I am sure there must be a word for a fortuitous conjunction of mood, feeling and ideas with those of someone else. I don't know it. It's not quite sympathy or empathy or a combination of the two. It is quite straightforward: I had been wanting to write another post - there was an itch to do so - but I had been feeling strangely flat about events in Iraq in recent weeks. The motivation was not there.Yet there was something making me try to write.

In Iraq things go on and on. There are some bright spots. Many Baghdadies are enjoying themselves a bit more. The parks are being used. The middle classes are returning in number to clubs such as the Alwiyah and the Shooting Club, while all around RPGs are flying about and more and more people are being killed needlessly by car bombs.

Though many Iraqi or Iraq-related Blogs have continued to post very interesting things, others peter out as their authors realised that they had little or nothing to say. Or, if they live in Iraq itself, perhaps life intervened. I have felt from time to time I too had little to say, but in the main have kept going, hoping I am not just writing for writings sake and that it is not strained. There is a danger in feeling compelled to write something, anything, because you have the public space to do so, a danger of forcing a piece of text out like toothpaste from a nearly empty tube. That's why I often write my pieces out beforehand. You soon feel if there is meat in there.

Baghdadskies is not a newspaper, nor does it attempt to note every latest detail of events in every sphere of Iraq or my own thoughts on it. Childhood memories are the baseplate. Sometimes memories are the source of ideas, sometimes they are self-contained and the ideas are separate. I determined at the beginning only to write memoirs when they came to me and when I felt in the right mood to write them and get pleasure from doing so. There is no chronology, pre-ordained message or deep underlying motive. The recollections are simple movie pictures, strips of dusty out-takes of a life, randomly taken down from their line, spliced and hand-cranked through the editing projector. Sometimes I see some moral or meaning or purpose in conjunction with the remembrance; sometimes its just a pleasurable recollection with no attendant intellectual or psychological baggage.

I determined to try not to write the same politics or personal "complaints" about events well, or not so well expressed, in large volume across the internet. Sometimes I have broken this rule, repeating the same notions or emotions, in a probably much less polished and clear fashion than I ought to.


Surfing this morning specifically to go beyond the horizon I usually reach in news and opinion on Iraq, I came across some art/culture sites which led me to a vast array of some good and many pretty incomprehensible offerings. Then, unexpectedly, there was someone talking my language, simple, clear, unsophisticated but honest. He said he was sick of reading everything, had nothing to add, so had turned to poetry. How wise, I thought. Perhaps I ought to do the same.

I was led straight to Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians" which in turn led to a site with all Cavafy's poetry. Although I haven't got round to reading them all, I feel sure there will be a few with resonances for Iraq. There was this one: There is a UK version too but it wouldn't load. I would be interested to compare the types of poems in the two sites. The essay at this link is a fine one. I wish I could have written that, though I am not anti-war. There are plenty of poems to chose from, though so far nothing I find apposite. I am determined to find some Iraq poems (there are vast swathes of musings on the deaths of G.I.s) which I hope will express more profoundly and succinctly what this all amounts to. If you know of any good stuff from Iraqis, please let me know.

I remember the gist of a very poor poem I tried to compose a dozen years ago based on questioning mothers of the worst human beings in history. It was short and quickly written, asking the simple questions such as: What did you do Mrs. Dzhugashvili, Schickelgruber, Pot ? What did you say? Did you notice anything wrong?

I learn from a website I just looked at that Hitler’s mother, Clara, was the opposite of Alois his father, who was short-tempered, strict and brutal. She was said to be very caring and loving, frequently taking young Adolf's side when his father’s poor temper got the better of him. She doted on her son and for the rest of his life, Hitler carried a photo of his mother with him where ever he went. Saddam's early life was similarly brutal with the addition of having a aunt who was uncouth and uncaring.

By line three or four of my "Tyrant's Mothers" the realisation had struck - all poetry in the making should be an exercise in self-instruction - that it unlikely mothers of mass murders played a causal role in their offsprings later misdeeds. And yet, and yet the question had to be asked (here poetically). Did they do something, say something that set their offspring off on their murderous trail? In this world, few things are certain. Mothers naturally bear responsibility for having given birth, of being responsible for half their genetic make-up of their children. What more could you say?

The impetus to write the poem, apart no doubt from reading about some tyrant or other in a book or newspaper - I think I may have read Bullock's book on Hitler at the time - had been the sudden re-recognition of how much love a mother puts into a child and how it must be for a mother of a Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot to watch events in their child's lives unfold without being able to do anything to stop it. No different, in a sense, from the mother of an ordinary, common or garden murderer, but infinitely more painful.

What the worse tyrants of history turned out to be has, axiomatically, to be to do with something deep in their "nature" plus of course something, more or less, in their "nurture" that turned them from innocent dependents in their mothers leads to utter cruelty and destructiveness. The debate about which has greater influence swings back and forth over the generations. I currently think it skewed towards nature.

The great poet is very skillful at opposing clear but sometimes puzzling opposites. The other day I was provided with a very serviceable quote from Tolstoy while reading in The Sunday Times, 25 July 2004, about the life and works of the British children's writer William Horwood : "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That made me think I ought to re-try writing that failed poem.

Horwood had a very mixed up childhood but never until recently incorporated it into any of his fiction. But with "The Boy with No Shoes" - a memoir of his childhood - he deals with the events that he studiously kept out of his writing. A killer quote, the description of the loss of his shoes which he eventually discovers his elder brothers have stolen : he finds them dusty, flattened, destroyed, stuck in the rollers of an old-fashioned clothes mangle in the cellar. The full-page extract in The Sunday Times encourages me to get the book, but the few thousand words I did read gave me resonances (yes, that is probably the word I was looking for) to my own childhood.

At my time of life I seem to remember the pleasurable things and to push aside the few unpleasant memories. By some strange mental mechanism, the happy submerges the unhappy. I wonder if this is common in older age? Good memories can stir up bad ones in their wake. For most people these stirrings are nothing major because of the sense of proportion that comes with age. From a child's eye view they might have seemed quite bad: a child has little or no perspective or proportion. I remember thinking in early teenage, while away at boarding school, that my parents might not be my real parents because they seemed so uncool. I had met some of my peers parents and at that stage of my development had really wanted another set because I thought they could offer me more.

Not all children are incapable of coming to understandings about some of the shocks they get growing up. As childhood is so self-centered, the insights are usually retrospective. I feel almost certain that the most common regret of boys, now middle aged men, is the lack of closeness to their fathers. The words of the Mike and the Mechanics song, "In the Living Years",...."...I wish I could have told him in the living years..." makes me realise that Baghdadskies is not so much about my life in Baghdad but in understanding my father's and mother's life there. It was there that he achieved a measure of peace after the turmoil of the War.

He had been in the dairy business before the war, rising after war service to manager of a branch. But he felt dissatisfied with Britain and had a yen to recapture the best of his war experiences, including spells in North Africa, Italy and France. Looking back I admire his guts in giving up a good job to try life abroad. He was fortunate in having a second trade learned in the RAF.

We children, of course, had no say in the matter. Mother agreed because she wanted what made him happy. She never regretted it. She loved her time abroad, her Baghdad days being the most happy. Of all the places I lived with my parents, it is Iraq that come back to my mind most often. We lived in other wonderful places: Karachi in Pakistan, Bahrain, Tripoli in Libya. All a source of very pleasurable recollections. But it is that special period between the ages of five and ten that seem to have the greatest impact on me.

There was a downside. When we left Baghdad in July or August 1958, I was sent to a boarding school in Wales where I did have periods of unhappiness and bewilderment. Who wouldn't after having seen paradise? And of course I had "lost" my mother for good as far as childhood was concerned.

memories of a childhood in Iraq in the 1950s * thoughts on events in the Middle East

Location: United Kingdom

expatriot in Middle East as child, retired teacher.

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