Insight

The Deconstruction of Iraq by Peter Levenda

I dont mean deconstruction as yet another military euphemism for bombing raid, but closer to the sense in which Derrida and his followers mean it: a breaking down of a concept into its component parts, searching for hidden meaning and relevance. There has been such a focus on Iraqs real and imagined security threat to the West as well as Saddam Husseins murder and torture of his own people that we sometimes forget how important the land now known as Iraq really is to the history of the West.

The National Antiquities Museum in Baghdad is now in a shambles; this may rate as one of the ten greatest disasters in world history, right up there with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Over 80,000 cunieform tablets are either missing or destroyed, most of which have not yet been deciphered. Thousands of books and manuscripts missing or burned. Statuary and other relics stripped from their display cases, some so famous that we grew up looking at pictures of them in our world history textbooks at school. Thankfully, the first sacking of the Museum seemed to have been an inside job, according to reports from the field; I say thankfully because that means that people who knew what they were doing were responsible for the heist. Although it is tragic that this Museum has been ravaged and its treasures scattered to the winds, there is hope that these items will wind up in the hands of people who respect them and value their worth and importance. In other words, that they will not be broken down into pieces and shards and sold as souvenirs, because such is what has happened to Babylon.

The ancient capitol lies about sixty miles south of Baghdad and, depending on road conditions, anywhere from one to three hours away by car. The word Babylon means Gate of the Gods from the ancient Bab i lani. As revered Professor Mircea Eliade tells us, Babylon was not only a gate to the gods in heaven, but was also a means of access to the underworld. It was the city made famous by the Biblical emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and it is the city where Alexander died. It was also the scene of the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, and Jewish historians trace an important part of their history to this era. After all, Babylon is the site of the famous Tower of Babel: a place at the crossroads of civilization, a monument designed to reach the heavens and which was destroyed by God by the simple expediency of making every worker speak a different language. Hence the term babble.

But Babylon is in ruins, and getting worse every day. Saddam built up parts of the walls of Babylon and restored certain sections, but for the most part the ancient city is buried in the sand, its walls and statuary stripped by souvenir hunters. The Ishtar Gate is still there; for those who follow Babylonian religion, they recognize Ishtar as the Goddess of Love, of whom the planet Venus is her representative in the heavens. But Ishtar also descended into the underworld and was, for awhile, imprisoned there before returning to the world. In the pre-Babylonian epics of the Sumerians, Ishtar was Inanna, and it was Inanna who loosed demons upon the earth when she escaped from the underworld.

This was the history promoted so vigorously by Saddam Hussein. In an effort to make the Iraqis feel pride in this ancient heritage, he characterized the hostile American intentions against Iraq as an attempt to prohibit the rise of a new Babylon, an attempt fueled in part by Americas perceived alliance with Israel. According to this theory, Israel which is waiting for the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon and the arrival of the Messiah does not want to see a similar reconstruction of the city of Babylon, which was Biblical Israels enemy. The pagan gods of Babylon have nothing to do with Islam, of course, and Husseins promotion of ancient Babylonian history should have seemed somewhat bizarre to fundamentalist Muslims. Is it any wonder Hussein was castigated by Osama bin-Laden Further, this concept fuels a belief that the war between Israel and its neighbors goes beyond religion and deeper into race; deeper into a history that is as old as Babylon itself.

The ancient gods, like the ancient past that contains them, cannot be silenced so easily. They haunt our poetry, people our dreams, tend our nightmares. It is said that Babylon is haunted now, a dwelling place for the gods that have not been worshipped in thousands of years, gods that have become demons to the Muslims, the Christians and the Jews who have traveled through the area since time immemorial. To understand the politics of the Middle East we must understand the politics of oil, of course, and of the history of the modern state of Israel, and of the hostility towards Israel that lies quietly buried in American history, a hostility borne by oilmen and intelligence officers going back almost one hundred years. But we must also understand ancient history, especially its importance to people who live in its shadow every day of their lives.

We, as Americans, dont rub shoulders very often with the ancient. We read about in school because we have to. But it seems irrelevant in a land that was only discovered five hundred years ago. We see ancient history when we travel to Europe, perhaps; after all, its good for a few photographs. The Coliseum, the Forum, Stonehenge and its back Stateside where the burgers taste better and the people speak a recognizable form of English.

But in Iraq, the ancient past is prologue. Tribal rivalries that go back long before Columbus was born. Palaces that have crumbled into dust, whose bricks now serve as walls in village hovels. Demons whose names are culled from languages no one speaks any longer, except in charms and incantations: Ishtar, Lillittu, Tiamat, Pazuzu

Modern history for Iraq dates to the beginning of the Islamic era, fourteen hundred years ago. But earlier than that there was diaspora after diaspora. The Babylonian Captivity of the Jews was only one; certain Christian sects also disappeared into the vastness of what is now Iraq, Christians who concealed within their hearts a different interpretation of Biblical events, Christians who cannot be distinguished from Jews or even Muslims without difficulty today. It is said that the Tomb of Christ is to be found in the province of wartorn Kashmir, in the city of Srinagar. And that the path from Palestine to Kashmir wove through the villages and cities of Babylon and what is now Afghanistan.

Whether the war was for oil, or against terrorism, or simply to depose a hideous dictator, in the end what matters is the disturbance of those forces that we cannot see but only sense: forces like history, like religious intolerance, like ethnophobia, like ignorance. Demons can take many forms; their material basis is our fear, their language is our stupidity, their sustenance is our petty hatreds. In the last decade, both Sumeria and Babylon, the oldest cities in the Western world, have borne the brunt of bombs and rockets. The Ziggurat of Ur has been riddled with bullets. The occult seals and charms of Nineveh have disappeared from the museums; this magical technology is now missing.

We have unwittingly evoked whatever was sleeping beneath those forlorn boulders in the sand.

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