The way it was: A journey to Baghdad

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The second time I crossed Baghdad was in the winter of 1964 when I drove with my wife and parents from London to Lahore. Those were the days. We didn’t need a single visa to undertake the journey except for Italy where we had to pay five pounds each as ‘entrance fee’

Friends tried to dissuade me from going to Iraq because President Bush is threatening to bomb the place. My wife worried that the Americans mightn’t let us into their country, in which case, how would we meet our children? One of my friends reversed the issue and said when the Iraqis find out that I have a five-year US visa they would hound me throughout the stay. I considered all these aspects carefully, but decided to go.

In a way, it was a journey into the past. The first time I went to Iraq was in 1955, for a Middle East excursion as member of a group of Aitchisonians. That year I had appeared for my Senior Cambridge examination and awaited the result. We travelled by train to Quetta and then through a most desolate stretch to Zahidan. From Zahidan onwards we rode a bus travelling for a considerable distance on a stretch of dust and sand without visible definition and then from Tehran finally on to Baghdad.

The second time I crossed Baghdad was in the winter of 1964 when I drove with my wife and parents from London to Lahore. Those were the days. We didn’t need a single visa to undertake the journey except for Italy where we had to pay five pounds each as ‘entrance fee’. The visa was stamped without any fuss. Buying a packet of cigarettes at a local pan shop takes much longer.

Since childhood, Baghdad has been a city of dreams, romance and adventure. A city of gold domes and minarets, of crowded streets and shops with striped silk awnings loaded with exotic merchandise, of flying carpets and white horses flapping their wings against blue skies, of beautiful maidens, sultans, villains and wizards, a city of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. On growing up I discovered that Baghdad was also once a renowned city of books, a great seat of knowledge and learning. It was the same city that was later ruthlessly plundered and burnt for its wealth by Halagu, the grandson of Changez Khan. Halagu Khan pillaged Baghdad in the 13th century for its gold. At the close of 20th century, George Bush Sr., rained fire on it for its black gold.

Iraq goes back thousands of years. The Mesopotamian Civilisation was contemporary to our own great Indus Civilisation. Archaeological records reveal that there were active trade relations over land and sea between the two. The valley of Tigris and the Euphrates was among the first to evolve a language, the first to construct an arch and build a complex network of canals. Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) who united the whole region was the first in the ancient world to frame written laws for the Empire and his subjects, which were based on 282 legislative items. When Alexander, almost fifteen centuries later, conquered Persia, he made a special journey to the great lawgiver’s tomb to honour his memory. There is of course much more to Iraq, which cannot possibly be penned down in this space.

On arriving in Iraq the first thing that struck me was that there was no evidence whatsoever of the lethal firepower used by the Allied Forces against it. The debris had been removed and everything had been rebuilt, in some cases, to encourage peoples’ confidence, even bigger and larger than before. There was not even litter on the streets in evidence. I wish Lahore would learn a lesson from Baghdad at least in municipal affairs. People seemed to go about their chores cheerfully and cleanly attired. There were no luxury items on display but shops were packed with things of common everyday use. Food was good, healthy and cheap. Platefuls of Humas, fresh salad, yoghurt mixed with herbs and bowls of olives, vegetables in vinegar and boiled beans inevitably accompanied the food without asking.

At Mosul we even had trotters and at another place we relished a delicious chicken Pillao and roast lamb. The rice grown in the southern marshlands is aromatic but not as long as our own Basmati from the Sheikhupura region. A perfect ending to the late lunch was an evening boat-ride on the Euphrates on our way back from ancient Babylon and the shrines at Kufa, Najaf and Karbala to Baghdad. The traditional rowing boats are narrow and slick, but some of them are also powered by engines. Euphrates is a brimful river with its incredibly bluish-green waters, with groves of date palms towering along its banks. Growing under the dates are habitations of figs, pomegranates and oranges. The river Tigris meandering through Baghdad is undeniably impressive but it presents a comparable view only at Mosul where we stayed at Nineveh Hotel for two days.

The Tigris roars down from the northern mountain ranges in Turkey and flows into Mosul before being joined by its four tributaries that descend from the Zagros Mountains that separate Iraq from Iran. Watched from the windows of the room I was staying in it seemed to make a wide silver loop on the right before hurrying along and below across the arc of vision. It parted only briefly to make space for a lush green Island on the left and then disappeared in the direction of Mecca.

I think it was not right for Iraq to invade Kuwait. But what is being done to Iraq and its innocent people ever since is cruel and unjust. Iraq has unequivocally apologised to Kuwait and assured her of its friendship. Over a decade has passed but sanctions have not been lifted, because of which children are dying by the hundred for lack of essential medicines. For ten dollars a person can buy a bag full of Iraqi dinars. The agricultural production because of lack of pesticides and fertilisers is down by two-thirds. The courage and fortitude with which the Iraqi people are bearing these trials is amazing. Whatever Saddam Hussain’s failings may have been in the past, today he has become a symbol of Iraqi nationalism, a symbol of resistance against vicious external forces who have no moral justification to relentlessly target Iraq and its innocent people. Most people in Iraq, contrary to what the West might like to believe, hold Bush and not Saddam responsible for their suffering. They are of the view that America’s unrelenting damnation of Iraq, its unflinching support for Israel and its virtual occupation of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE would ultimately isolate the US.

While in Iraq I had the opportunity to meet Mr Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister and some other senior leaders in the government and the Ba’ath Socialist Party. When I asked Mr Aziz what he thought of the US and British military threats to Iraq, he responded quietly saying, ‘If US attacks Iraq now it can’t be worse than 1991. If we could stand up to that, we can still stand up to it.’

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee