Tuesday 23 October 2012

Iraqi history, ancient and modern

My standard stress dream is that I am about to give a big public lecture for which I am utterly unprepared. For a terrible five minutes this morning, my nightmare became reality.

Now I understand why I was feeling so wobbly yesterday evening and didn't want to eat when we got back to Diwaniyah: I had a major case of the runs coming on. (Don't worry, I brought immodium with me.) So I didn't sleep much last night, and was so wiped out this morning that I didn't register that the highlight of my tour of Al-Qadissiya University's Department of Archaeology was actually meant to be a talk by yours truly...

Guess who hadn't brought her laptop with her? I thought about just showing the students Oracc, as I've see from the access stats that no-one in Iraq knows about it outside Baghdad. But of course they don't have internet in their lecture rooms (or probably anywhere much else outside my swanky hotel and professorial offices); it's impressive enough that they have two data projectors. Miraculously, deep in my handbag, just where it shouldn't have been, was the USB stick onto which I'd copied Sunday's conference paper. The morning was saved.

My host for today was Dr Mohammed Saied Mahan, whom I had never met before: an architectural historian who head the Department of Archaeology. It was also a genuine delight to catch up with Dr Abbas Al-Hussainy, an old friend of BISI's and a close collaborator of my predecessor as Chair, Roger Matthews. (Roger and Harriet: Abbas sends his very warmest greetings.) So I gave a much simplified version of a part of last weekend's talk (which was already pretty basic) to the assembled students, and Dr Mohammed (middle, far right below) and Dr Abbas (in the dark suit next to me) translated paragraph by paragraph.

As you can see, the male students all have to wear white shirts. I don't suppose there's any regulalation that they have to be hipster-tight as well, but these young men are super-fashion conscious, with very skinny jeans, pointed shoes and various elaborate hair products. Their female counterparts tend to favour bright hijab and fairly slim-fitting clothes: mostly long skirts but I did see some trousers under knee-length dresses on campus too.

Then to the Old Babylonian site of Marad (below), deep in the countryside, where the university has dug for three seasons over the past 20 years, most recently by Dr Abbas. Dr Mohammed is planning excavations there next year. If you happen to be reading this from a university Archaeology department anywhere in the world and would be interested in collaborating with them, whether at Marad or at Nippur, please do let me know. They are desperate to develop co-operations with external universities, and—as I hope this blog is showing—Al-Qadissiyah province seems to be very safe these days.

We were pressed for time, so I didn't ask to stop for photos, but the countryside around here is really unspoiled—not least because it is so poor. We crossed the Euphrates, and then drove along a very pretty canal dotted with reed huts—Akkadian qirsu. There were several large bedouin tents in the middle distance, and little flocks of schoolgirls walking home to lunch with big white ribbons in their hair.

By this point were were on our way to a tiny summer palace built for the inhabitants of Diwaniyah for King Ghazi, second king of Iraq (r. 1933-39) and restored just three years ago. Set in extensive gardens, it consists of just three rooms—a front hall, living room and bedroom—plus stables, garage and a telephone exchange(!) at the back. The hall has a fire-place, which I didn't think twice about, but which the Iraqis thought was very peculiar (and which they didn't know the English word for). Ghazi seems to have been quite the British puppet, though the Mandate had officially ended before his reign. I must re-read Charles Tripp's History of Iraq when I get back. (And I'm not just saying that because Charles is BISI's Vice-Chair: it's a brilliant piece of writing which I loved when it first came out and now need to revisit.)

Here we see back row l-r: Faisal I, Ghazi, Faisal II, just a toddler when he came to the throne and assassinated in the revolution of 1958; hungry Basim (of whom more below), Dr Mohammed, me, and a very nice sociologist whose name, unfortunately, I didn't get.

Today's checkpoint joke: that Dr Mohammed, having left his ID in his jacket on the back of his office chair, can choose to be anyone he likes if we get stopped. But in fact we sail through them all with smiles and nods today, until the last one before Diwaniyah, when we just explain what's happened and everyone has a good laugh.

Inside Al-Qadissiyah province, the checkpoints (manned by police, not soldiers) are all quite light touch for respectable citizens; as far as I can tell, searches tend to be focused on multi-occupant taxis and really battered old cars. My colleagues see them as protective rather than restrictive and don't see them as a worry. Inside the province they're just little booths at the side of the road; at the provincial borders they're more like motorway toll stations but with machine-guns instead of credit card readers. No pix allowed, in case I pass them on to terrorists; likewise police stations (which are still subject to attack in other parts of Iraq) and army installations.

Back-up checkpoint joke: that we don't have time to stop for checkpoints on the way home, because our driver Basim is absolutely ravenous, having skipped breakfast this morning. And indeed he pretty much eats my lunch as well when we get back. Which is just as well, as I'm still a bit gippy and only feel like cardomom rice—yum!—and protein-rich drinking yogurt, labn. The hotel Maitre D' (here in the restaurant with me) is a former student of my conference translator, the erudite Dr Basim (not hungry driver Basim), and likes to quote Shakespeare to me so I don't want to offend him by leaving too much uneaten. (I have to say, whatever Dr Hanna's opinion, I think I look much less gaunt with all my hair.)

And now I have to pack for Baghdad tomorrow, where I'll be going to the Green Zone to visit the new British Ambassador Simon Collis, who has recently become BISI's Honorary Vice-President. I need to talk to him about the Karbala collaboration and start the process of arranging visas so that the museum staff can visit London in the sprint. Then, if the traffic isn't too heavy, I'll meet Lamia at the Iraq Museum to see colleagues there. But even if that doesn't work out I will be on my 4pm flight home, whatever happens. Amazing as this week has been, it's also been very intense and I am looking forward to being back in my own bed tomorrow night. Odd to think that I'll be posting my next entry from Cambridge.

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