| Faked nonchalance'
How do you fight this monster'
Three years into the new century,
you pick up a handful of stones from the street.
You secrete boxcutters and wires.
A pen-knife lies warm in your hand.
You wake up in the morning, eat breakfast,
go out of the house and explode.
The generals have an inexhaustible arsenal
of names: ‘imperialist villains…
criminals… cowards… idiots…’
Sticks, stones, and names.
Poetry comes to me reluctantly these days. I wrote this and another poem in the last week of March, a few days after the war had begun. I hadn’t written a poem in a year — and the British troops had been halted, as we now know, temporarily, outside Basra; Umm Qasr had still not fallen; while the long “snake”, as the ebullient information minister al Sahaf named it, would soon have to grope its way through sandstorm and head towards Baghdad.
Perhaps war will be the great staple of entertainment and distraction in the twenty-first century, as sex was in the twentieth. I am not happy with the analogy, because it begs too many questions; I propose it in a mood of bitterness and humour and faked nonchalance, and maybe the poem, and the article I have embarked upon, are also by-products of that mood. Entertainment for whom, though' I know that I, and others I know, have been consulting the television screen repeatedly, not to be entertained, but in a spirit of religious self-chastisement, without any of the compensatory feelings of satisfaction that the latter brings.
For us, largely dependent on BBC and, occasionally, CNN, the pain of watching the war is different from the pain of the Arab viewer of al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television. It’s not the unbearable face of the dead child we have to confront; it’s something at once less excruciating and more demeaning. It’s not the suffering of war, from which we are insulated by Western channels, but the glory of “shock and awe”, the press briefings by Victoria Clarke and General Myers, the deep, agitated, totalitarian impatience beneath Donald Rumsfeld’s mask-like face. You can mourn a death, and curse a killer or a captor; but what can you do with people who claim to be your friend and share exactly the same values and aspirations as you do' This is what fills one not with fear, or purifying sorrow, but with faked nonchalance, and despair.
There are two people whose appearances I looked forward to. The first is the Minister for Information (now the former — but hopefully not the late — minister for information), Mohammad al Sahaf. It was him, or someone like him, I think, I put into the penultimate stanza of the poem. Like Othello, he was “little blessed with the soft phrase of peace”; but it was in his war-like incarnation that he was at his most amiable. His heroic contempt for the coalition forces, his scolding epithets, no more or less terrifying than the sandal which the so-called “common” Iraqi has lately been brandishing at Saddam’s bust, his long, smiling speeches in the aquamarine room in the ministry of information building, his final improvised appearances on the street, his last words, a response to the British reporter Paul Wood’s query about whether he was afraid now the tanks were so near: “No, I’m not afraid. You don’t be afraid!” — all these make him difficult to forget.
The other man is BBC’s reporter at Baghdad, Rageh Omaar. Here is a British reporter who’s visibly against the war, and who took full advantage of the solemn surgeon-general-like warning, “His movements are restricted and his reports monitored by the Iraqi authorities,” to assume, as an elderly Bengali friend put it, an air of “doubt and incredulity” that was a tonic to many of us. “I have to say I haven’t seen any American troops near the airport”; or “The Republican Guard can’t have just disappeared”; or “I’ve seen no sign of American troops or tanks in the city” — these confessions of ignorance and bewilderment have been deeply soothing to us.
None of us has any illusions about the Saddam Hussein regime; and none of us has any illusions about George Bush. We behold a world in which all that has been achieved in the last fifty years, in the age of decolonization, all that has been said and debated by opposing parties and even the relatively like-minded, in universities and journals — we are on the threshold of a world in which all these might prove to be not so much false as irrelevant.
In Bush’s new world order, nothing that our teachers taught us, nothing that the writers we admired said, really matters. I have read two recent articles by Edward Said, and they have a wintry tiredness about them: not just the tiredness of a man who is dying (Said has cancer), but a man who sees the world he is living in dying. It’s as if he’s been taken by surprise, in age and ill-health, by the logic of events and their imminent denouement; as if he never expected things to play themselves out in this way, with so little need for subterfuge and decorum.
We are all involved with the fate of the Iraqi army, the fidayeen, the paramilitary; quite honestly, although we might have chosen, in some cases, less morally tarnished defenders (but can you choose your defender or enemy'), their defeat is not only a defeat for Iraq, but for a world we have known. The link between the Iraqi army’s hopes and ours might be, in reality, only slightly less tenuous than the one between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida; but that army faces a future and an eventuality which are immediate and imminent, while ours, drawn into and enmeshed in the same course of events, are no less immediate and real.
The evening before war broke out, I was in Park Street having coffee with a friend; that evening seems very far away. Since then, we’ve read newspapers and watched the television set gloomily, internalizing a battle in which we expected, from the start, to be the losers. The question of resistance became suddenly pertinent: how do you reply to overwhelmingly superior brute force' The old methods of resistance — besides the tools of conventional warfare — like language, analysis, argument, now look obsolete. (“If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine-guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd”: thus, ironically, Camus, apologist for French Algeria, in the days when the “absurd” still had some of the tragic glamour he’d lent it.) It was at this time I began to “see” images, as I do sometimes when a story comes to me, of a man checking into his hotel room, of someone sitting alone and wringing a length of wire in his hands, of a boy scooping a handful of rubble from the street. Each image had a story behind it. As a prose-writer who once composed poetry, I took a decision to cross over into territory that has been, for me, lately empty and uncharted; I decided to arrange these images, with their mystery or message not fully disinterred, into a poem.