Still Standing in Iraq

02138, May/June 2007

On the day I crossed the Iran-Iraq border in February 2004, you could get through immigration twice as fast if you were a Shiite zealot. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims were surging into Iraq to observe the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala. Saddam had barred them from Ashura for more than 25 years, but now the dictator was on the lam, and Iranian triumphalists flooded in to inaugurate a new  period of Shiite dominance. On the Iranian side, I glommed onto a pilgrimage group and told the immigration officer I was Karbala-bound. He let me through without a hitch.

I wasn’t a Shiite, or even then a Muslim. But I had been desperate to go to Iraq since college. While reading 19th-century Orientalist travelogues in Widener, I had been jealous of British colonial explorers, who in surveying their own doomed empire had roamed freely in places where I was then forbidden to go. Saddam had effectively closed Iraq to tourists. Now, after war broke open the borders, I guessed I might have only a brief window before the whole region became again off-limits for another generation.

First on my list of sights was the Arch of Ctesiphon, a third-century Parthian brick monument famed in antiquity for its size and engineering. After Muslims conquered Ctesiphon four centuries later, they used it as a model, and its size and sophistication influenced architecture in Cairo, Istanbul, Tabriz, and eventually Europe. For Muslims today, Ctesiphon also has a second, more political meaning: Its sacking in 637 was a sign of the coming of the age of Islam, and the fall of the idols of a wayward kingdom. With Saddam gone, Iraq still had no official government, nor laws to forbid me from visiting whatever tourist sites I pleased. Not even the U.S. military cared: A single American soldier observed us passively, sprawled on the hood of his Humvee.

Back then, stopping the stampede of Iranian Shia into Iraq was no one’s priority. Yet another blunder of the occupation. In Iraq today, Iranians meddle in politics, design IEDs, and murder secularists. But in 2004, the Iranians and I endured less of a search than we would have before a flight from Des Moines to Omaha. We could have been carrying a brick of Semtex and a dozen detonators each—and indeed, some of us probably were.

Iraq was not yet the most dangerous place on earth, though it was certainly getting there. I hitchhiked and thumbed shared rides from city to city, and the only signs of law and order were American convoys passing at great speed and soldiers aiming rifles at me skittishly as I inched though checkpoints. Gurkhas and Fijian mercenaries looked even more hostile: They rode in souped-up white armored trucks with gun-barrels bristling from every orifice, like ballistic hedgehogs.

A retired Iraqi army officer gave me a lift from Kirkuk to Baghdad. Along the road, he pointed out the skeletons of buildings whose roofs, walls, and electrical systems had been gutted and picked over by looters since the invasion. But he said Iraqis knew hardship intimately. He ticked off the years and the catastrophes the same way some people in Florida reckon time with the names and years of hurricanes.

We arrived in Baghdad on Ashura, the day of the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s death. The rites that had smoothed my passage into Iraq suddenly made life frightening and perilous. Coordinated explosions had massacred hundreds of Shiite pilgrims, both Iranian and Iraqi, in Karbala and at the Kadhimiya mosque in Baghdad. Enraged gangs of armed men menaced the city from the backs of pick-ups, bellowing religious slogans through megaphones and pumping rifles in the air. I sunk low in the passenger seat and hoped not to be noticed. Eventually the officer dropped me safely at Al Fanar, my hotel downtown, where I sat uneasily on the balcony eating pistachios, listening to explosions, and watching U.S. helicopters fly over the Tigris.

Early the next morning, I paid a driver to take me to Ctesiphon, 30 minutes southeast of Baghdad. We hit gridlock halfway, and when I heard shouts ahead, I thought we were caught in an impromptu slaughter. The screamers reached my car, and when one looked in my window, I saw he had not blood-spattered guns and knives, but a variety of ripe tropical fruits. I bought two oranges and a banana.

By noon I had reached Ctesiphon. I sat under the arch, and I ran my hand along its sturdy old base. Its facade was wrecked—judging by my copies of 19th-century sketches, it had suffered more in the last hundred years or so than in the previous thousand. As I walked around this icon of Middle Eastern architecture, nibbling my banana and calculating the odds of getting shot on the way back to Baghdad, I spied another carload of sightseers. Dressed in black, they wore the mourning uniform of the most ardent Shia, with green armbands and scarves as flourishes, and I knew right away they were Iranian.

We chatted about the happy months I had spent traveling in Iran. A man from their group said they had been at Karbala yesterday and witnessed the carnage. Today they wanted to see a famous crack on the arch rumored to have developed in 570, the year of the Prophet’s birth. With a professorial air, he explained that the crack, and the sack of the capital 60 years later, heralded the end of pre-Islamic civilization and ushered in the era of the party of God.

This symbolism  clearly meant as much to him then as it might have to his forebears over a millennium ago.  Together we regarded the decrepit arch—an archaeological treasure destined to become rubble within our lifetimes—for a moment in silence. I sighed wearily, and my Iranian friend looked calm and pleased. Where I saw the neglected ruins of a great civilization, he saw an omen of the birth of a new one—a Shiite-dominated Iraq, with fraternal bonds to his own Shiite republic. Three years after our meeting, his prophecy appears to have been fulfilled.


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