Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Personal Reminiscence of Iraq: My Unrequited Love Affair with the People Who Gave Us Civilization

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Personal Reminiscence of Iraq: My Unrequited Love Affair with the People Who Gave Us Civilization

Article excerpt

A Personal Reminiscence of Iraq: My Unrequited Love Affair With the People Who Gave Us Civilization

"This time the full industrialized fury of civilization will be turned on the very land that gave civilization birth."

Ken Ringle, Washington Post, Jan. 15, 1991

So wrote a U.S. journalist two years ago, and he was right. Now, on the second anniversary of Desert Storm, Iraqi President Saddam Hussain has made another of his historic misjudgments, and once again Iraqis have died needlessly.

If Iraq's president miscalculates that President Clinton will react differently, still more Iraqis will die. It's a sad fate for some of the world's most fascinating people.

I don't remember ever meeting an Iraqi I didn't like. But then, although I met some of his predecessors, I never met Saddam Hussain.

The Iraqis, a uniquely tough and resilient but altogether warm, generous and friendly people, are the product of their history. It certainly didn't start with the World War I British defeat of the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled there for 400 years. In fact, the world's history started in Iraq.

A 5,000-Year Written History

The Sumerians, who called themselves "the black-headed people" and lived 5,000 years ago in the marshlands where the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers reached the Gulf, developed the world's first writing system. Because it consisted of reed impressions in baked clay cylinders, tablets and bricks, we can read today their business accounts, their prayers to and descriptions of their gods, and not only their own history but histories recorded subsequently in their cuneiform writing by Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Neo- Babylonians, all of whom came after the Sumerians and founded empires centered in modern-day Iraq.

Many of the best known Old Testament stories first were written down in Sumerian and again in other languages of Iraq centuries before they were recorded in Hebrew. Abraham, after all, was a Semitic Amorite who pitched his tents near the ancient Sumerian city of Ur before he started the travels that took him north and west through Harran in present-day southern Turkey to the western side of the Fertile Crescent around 1500 B.C.

The Old Testament description of the Garden of Eden perfectly fits the region of the modern Iraqi city of Amara. Noah, in the oldest clay tablets of the Sumerians, was a king named Ziusudra, who spent seven days and seven nights in a huge boat "tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters." By the time the story was picked up by Semitic scribes in northern Iraq, the patriarch was named Utu-Napishtum and the ancient Sumerian city where he built his ark was called Shuruppak.

In this version a dove and a swallow return to the ark because they can find no place to alight. Then Utu-Napishtum releases a raven: "She saw the sinking waters. She ate, she waded and splashed, but came not back."

Shuruppak is now a sprawling deserted mound of ancient bricks and debris situated in a floodplain that, like much of southern Iraq, is blazing desert in summer and nearly impassable swamp in winter.

Then came the Babylonians. Their "Code of Hammurabi," undoubtedly reflecting earlier Semitic legal practice, was written on a stele of hard diorite rock and thus became the first written code of laws preserved from antiquity.

Much later, it was the Assyrians of northern Iraq who started the practice of shifting whole tribes and cities of conquered peoples from place to place in the Middle East. The practice was continued by Neo-Babylonians when they reassumed power throughout the area. Much of the Old Testament, recording those earlier semi-legendary events, was written by Hebrews transported to Babylon in one of those forced population shifts.

When conquering Persians freed them, instead of returning to Jerusalem many Jews remained in Iraq for more than 2,000 years until the creation of Israel, either as prosperous merchants, landowners, clerks and artisans in Baghdad or primitive seminomadic villagers in northern Iraq. …

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