A Veronica on the Eve of War by Martin Rose
Cities also believe that they are the work of the mind, or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Almost a quarter of a century ago, I was a young British Council officer posted to Baghdad in the hopeful period after the end of what was then called ‘the Gulf War,’ the pointless eight-year slugfest that devoured innumerable young Iraqis and Iranians between 1980 and 1988. I was still there with my family in August 1990, when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, setting off a chain reaction of hatred, calculation and violence that is still playing out today, two ‘Gulf Wars’ later.
So much has been written about Iraq in the last two decades that it isn’t easy to remember the time when Saddam Hussein ruled unchallenged, supported by Western governments viscerally alarmed at Khomeini’s Iran – and when very little was really known in England about Ba’thist Iraq. I arrived at the end of 1988, with my wife Georgina and our eight-month old daughter in a country bled dry by its war with Iran, mourning countless sons, deprived of every faintly luxurious import, from academic journals to pineapples, and from cancer drugs to carburettors. The Council nursed academic and artistic contacts, donated books, ran English classes and medical exams, and brought in theatre companies. It seemed that, with the war behind it, Iraq would move slowly back into the community of nations.
This of course was to reckon without Saddam, a geopolitical autistic who understood no language, at home or abroad, but that of violence, coercion and bribery. As Baghdad cautiously expanded into peace, like a paper flower dropped into water, he and his Ba’thist myrmidons were struggling with a wartime legacy of massive debt, and unwillingness by his Arab paymasters to write it off; while oil, his one asset, was selling cheap, its value unsupported by those same Arab states. His ‘answer’ to this knot of problems came with a gesture at once highly symbolic, and highly coercive. The invasion of Kuwait salved a wound that went back to the emirate’s creation by the British, as well as giving Iraq control of its vast oil reserves. It also punished a state that demanded debt repayment, but wouldn’t reduce oil output to support the price; and it sent a clear message to the Arab oil ministers meeting in Taif as the Iraqi army crossed the border.
The measure of Saddam’s unpredictability is that the invasion took the world by surprise. He may have believed that the Americans had given him a green light, or he may not have given a damn. But as an Englishman in the Middle East, I came to see clearly a deeper past in which my country had shaped his, seldom malignantly, often carelessly and always self-interestedly. I saw a history, insouciantly forgotten by Englishmen but remembered in painful detail by Iraqis. I quickly lost count of the number of times that the Balfour Declaration was raised as a polite reproach over dinner. And I slowly made out the shape of a different story of Iraq and its relations with Britain and the world, an account which made sense not just in its most warped and overblown form to Saddam; but in more thoughtful versions to most intelligent Iraqis; and to me.
In this unimaginably ancient and astonishingly anglophile country we found friends, surprises, challenges and an affection that has lasted twenty-five years. Most importantly, I learned that the world looks quite different according to where you stand; and that it is important to stand in as many different places as possible if we want to understand anything at all.
August 2nd 1990 was a day of high drama. Iraqi armoured units crossed the border into Kuwait in the early morning, annexing what was referred to bathetically as ‘the nineteenth province.’ We awoke to the World Service news, and lay listening for several minutes to the seizure of strategic locations across the emirate, and the detention of passengers on a British Airways 747 refuelling at Kuwait airport. I drove quickly into the office, where television sets were droning martial music behind grainy film of soldiers hoisting Iraqi flags on hot, flat rooftops. The mood of our Iraqi staff ranged from elation to the deepest gloom.
The previous evening we had had a small supper for Robin and Annabel Kealy, the chargé d’affaires and his wife, who were preparing to leave Baghdad at the end of their posting. We talked a lot about the breaking crisis in the south. Saddam had moved troops to the Kuwaiti border and was threatening to invade, but no one believed he would actually do so. ‘No,’ said Robin over coffee, ‘it’s sabre-rattling. He’s trying to frighten the Kuwaitis into raising the oil price. He believes that they’re plotting to bleed Iraq dry.’
A little after midnight we said goodbye in the dry heat of a Baghdad summer night, under a glittering sky, and they drove home to Mansour. Within minutes Robin was summoned urgently to the Embassy: the sabre was out of its scabbard, and the Iraqi army had invaded Kuwait. For several weeks he scarcely got home, sleeping on a canvas camp-bed in his office.
In the morning, our world had changed. We were living, suddenly, in a country at war, and there was an ignoble frisson of excitement as well as a quiet anxiety for our children and our Iraqi friends. Most Iraqis seemed exuberant, and there was a sense of real joy at Iraq’s having retaken Kuwait, treacherously severed from Iraq by the British.
Later that day Robin called a meeting at the Embassy. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a conference room on the river side of the building, and looking out across the brown August lawn on a baking afternoon. The window frames were bright white gloss, and there were red and white flowers in tubs outside on the terrace. The cushions in the window embrasures were covered in flower-patterned chintz. Outside, the Tigris slid past, an oily brown stream. Robin had nothing for us but general reassurance, a brief account of events in Kuwait and instructions to stay closely in touch with the Embassy. It all felt quite unreal, in the shimmering heat of that almost absurdly English room; scarcely credible that we were tumbling into the whirlpool of an international crisis.
Robin told us that the airport was closed and would remain so for a few days, but that non-essential staff should prepare to leave when it re-opened. We did the rounds of the airline offices, trying to buy tickets, but it quickly became clear that there were no tickets for foreigners. Day after day we were assured by the Iraqi government that the closure of the airport was a technical matter, that the inconvenience was regrettable and that we would soon be able to leave. It was almost a fortnight before the word ‘hostage’ was spoken, and then only tentatively. We all colluded in this coy reticence, feeling that the longer we could postpone hearing and saying the word, the further off was the reality.
Real hostages came up from Kuwait, where British and other foreign nationals had been seized from their homes and from airliners in transit. They were kept in very difficult conditions in Kuwait and after a fortnight or so, shipped up to Baghdad in convoys of buses, many of them bedraggled families with babies suffering from the blistering heat of the long slow drive up from the Gulf. They were held at the Mansour Melia hotel, where they were denied consular access and contact with the outside world. The Embassy needed to know who, and how, they were. James Tansley, a young diplomat, and the Defence Attaché, John Cochrane, penetrated the hotel in one of the war’s less-sung special operations. While the brigadier raged and swore histrionically at the front desk, mesmerizing everyone in the lobby with a bravura performance, James dived into a laundry paternoster and managed to reach the top floor, exchanging hurried words with a member of the military mission before the mukhabarat (secret service) tumbled out of the paternoster behind him like Keystone Cops and bundled him away.
Before long the civilians were moved out of Baghdad and onto military and industrial sites around the country, as ‘human shields’ against the bombing Saddam began to expect. We knew, because the BBC kept telling us so, that we were likely to follow the same route with our two daughters, Fanny, aged two and a half, and Jossie, just five months old. Temperatures not infrequently pass fifty degrees in Baghdad in August, and any quarters without air-conditioning were likely to be quite difficult. We tried to work out what we should have ready to take with us when a lorry pulled up outside our house. It was dispiriting work, and we had no idea whether we would really be taken away, but it distracted us in those first few days. Georgina, stuck alone at home packing and repacking for all eventualities, was reluctant to leave the house while the BBC was our only way of receiving instructions from the Iraqi government. But at the height of her anxieties and preparations, there was a strident shout across the garden wall. Our amiably crazed neighbour, a war-widow called Hajjia Wasfia, wanted Georgina to go and mend her air-cooler. This somehow broke the spell, and doing something useful, however trivial, for our Iraqi neighbour made our own plight seem less all-enveloping.
Meanwhile, there was a distracting drama unfolding at the Embassy, which we watched with amusement. Soon after the invasion, a number of British employees of Bechtel, the US engineering giant, burst into the compound and demanded the protection of HM Government. Bechtel announced that it regarded their contracts as terminated, and their visas were cancelled by the Iraqis. The engineers could not leave the Embassy, but they were not entirely welcome inside it: the stage was set for a long-running culture war. The settlers were brisk and efficient and started establishing an orderly camp in the grounds. Rows of tents went up on the cricket pitch. Latrines were dug. Fireplaces and mess-tents followed. In due course they built concrete emplacements for washing-machines, and neat washing-lines appeared between the trees. Electrical engineers ran cables out of the Embassy power-supply and connected them to fridges, ghetto-blasters and arc-lights. Evening entertainments were organized, with singing and noisy jollity. Sunburned engineers lay about in little but khaki shorts, resenting being told when they might use the Embassy swimming-pool and when they might not. The engineers suspected that the diplomats were snobs, reluctant to share the pleasant walled enclave which, as British citizens (but mostly not, testy dips would sometimes observe dryly, as British tax-payers) the engineers felt they owned. Some believed that the engineers were cynical, freeloading parasites who had foisted themselves on the Embassy in a moment of well-judged panic. Disagreements escalated, coming to a head when gigantic sacks of rice and whole sides of meat arrived unannounced at the Embassy’s wrought-iron gates for the campers. A shudder of horror rippled across the stiff upper lip. But gradually the sparring subsided and Chancery and Tent City learned to co-exist cheerfully enough. The snatches of ribald song and the whirring of washing-machines from the Embassy lawn were one of the more memorable accompaniments of the crisis months.
Iraq had put its head into a noose, but didn’t understand what it had done. There was jubilation at Saddam’s reuniting the motherland, but little real understanding of the likely consequences. A few days after the invasion, our neighbours asked us to a party to celebrate the ‘Return of the Nineteenth Province.’ I didn’t at all feel like joining them, but we were uncomfortable showing outright disapproval in our wholly Iraqi neighbourhood of Adhamiyya, so Georgina and Fanny went briefly to toast Iraqi arms and the new wilaya, while I stayed at home with the baby. Some more thoughtful Iraqis were anxious about what would follow. Across the road our friends from Hit were sombre, and shook hands warmly, but very uncomfortably, when we called. They guessed more presciently what might come of their president’s hubris, and what it might mean for us, and them. But in general, knowledge of the world was so thin, and filtered through such poverty of information and language, that few understood the enormity of the line that had been crossed.
Euphoria was maintained by two carefully manipulated dramas. The first was the return of prisoners from Iran. This had been in progress for some months, but after August it was orchestrated so as to provide a daily focus of attention. No family which had sons and uncles unaccounted for could resist clustering round the television screen for the daily drip of returns, the agonizing procession of thin, bearded and often wild-eyed men coming down aircraft steps. This perverted circus was quintessentially Ba’thist. There was no concern of any kind for the prisoners as individuals (indeed they were regarded with deep suspicion as having been tainted by exposure to Iranian propaganda); nor for their families. Many of the conscript soldiers, and thus many of the POWs, were Shi’ites from the south, particularly liable, it was assumed, to the poison of their fellow-Shi’ites in Iran; and only the officer corps was predominantly Sunni. There was little acknowledgement of what seemed an obvious truth to Western observers, that the Gulf War had solidified an Iraqi sense of nationhood, failing to rewrite loyalties along sectarian lines in Iraq, or along ethno-linguistic lines in Iran. In failing to acknowledge this obvious truth the Ba’th was wiser, as it turned out, than Western observers.
After the circuses, the bread. Baghdad filled rapidly with the loot of Kuwait. The story of Iraqi troops tipping Kuwaiti babies from their incubators in order to steal them turned out to be Allied propaganda of the Germans-boil-nuns-to-make-soap school; but virtually everything else appeared in Baghdad’s markets. Hotels were stripped of crockery, linen, alcohol, bath-towels, wardrobes and bedside lights. Cars with Kuwaiti licence-plates were openly driven in Baghdad’s streets. Fruit that hadn’t been seen in a decade, like bananas and pineapples, appeared in crates on the stalls of Baghdad’s suqs as Kuwait’s supermarkets were emptied. Palm trees were uprooted and carried north. Typewriters and PCs even appeared briefly for sale off the backs of lorries, an unthinkable breach of the mukhabarat’s monopoly on type. Baghdad police were soon driving about in flashy Kuwaiti police-cars, firemen in Kuwaiti fire-engines and ambulance-men in Kuwaiti ambulances. Prices fell dramatically, so that televisions and stereos, cars and video-players all sold for a fraction of their July prices, often still in their cardboard boxes.
Iraqis reacted in different ways. Many became, quite understandably, acquisitive after a decade of rationing and war, sensing that this abundance wouldn’t last long. Many traded in and out of these new commodities, making fortunes, sometimes despicably. But the one reaction I shall not forget was from Arshad Asad, the Council’s effervescent, ingenious fixer, who had long ago asked to buy our television and other electrical goods when we left. I said to him that I wouldn’t hold him to our bargain, now that the bottom had dropped out of the market. ‘Don’t be silly,’ said Arshad, gently. ‘This stuff from Kuwait is haram. And anyway, a Muslim doesn’t profit from other people’s misfortunes. The price is what we agreed’.
After the first flush of loot, a cooler reality set in. Basic commodities began to run short. Ration cards were extended to a much wider range of goods than they had ever covered, and were issued to foreigners. Smudged pasteboard tickets covered the daily ration of basic commodities like rice, bread, oil and sugar. The rations were surprisingly large – the weekly packet of sugar testified to a national sweet tooth that no government dared defy. Beer continued to be available, though as time went by it became nastier, half-brewed and yeasty. By the late autumn it had virtually disappeared. Iraqis being the astonishing drinkers that they were, this may not have been clever.
At the British Council we kept as much of a sense of normality as possible in these strange circumstances. Peter Elborn, the Director, insisted that teaching continue. We all felt that if our claims to be an institution apart from politics meant anything – and if Mrs Thatcher’s claims to be in dispute with Saddam and not with the Iraqi people were anything other than hot air – then we should stick doggedly to our work with ordinary Iraqis, who made it very clear that they valued us. The Centre teachers were all out of the country for the summer, but we still had a couple of young men running summer-courses at the Saddam Medical School, and they roughly retrained Peter and me. A small teaching programme was re-established. But somehow the British press got wind of it and started making enquiries, and finally the order came out from Downing Street that the British Council was to close its teaching center. Four hundred students turned up at the gates when we closed finally, to protest and to support us.
This was an early sign of the malign jingoism into which Britain descended as war loomed. The papers delighted in suggesting that we were giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and closing the teaching centre was a craven concession to this press-driven ‘patriotism.’ Small-mindedness, as so often in that ugly era, prevailed over (while masquerading as) principle. We went on running small events in the garden for our now ex-pupils, which both we and they continued to enjoy, and which the press, having had our scalp, entirely overlooked.
There was much coming and going of people: diplomats could cross the Jordanian border, and each week the diplomatic bag was picked up by the lucky dip whose turn it was for a weekend in Amman. Back he or she came with our letters, books and papers – the Guardian Weekly, the TLS, the Saffron Walden Weekly News and so on. The BBC brought us news, unblocked, and even the telephones worked well enough, so that we were never out of touch with England – just unable to get there.
This was the period when CNN and other global channels were coming into their own. For the first time, communication crossed the battle lines insouciantly and effectively. There was a constant stream of journalists coming into the country. John Simpson of the BBC was in and out, and once arranged to interview us at home. He sent a researcher to do the leg-work and voiced over so carelessly that he called our 6-month old baby girl ‘Jonathan’ throughout the piece. More interesting was Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, fast becoming a leading Iraq expert. And once I found myself taking Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post to lunch at the Rashid Hotel. I must have been rather star-struck, because I remember nothing at all, alas, of our conversation, or even why I had ended up looking after him.
All this gave a very odd quality to our detention in Iraq. You could half shut your eyes and often forget, particularly at first, that you were being held hostage. Sometimes, though, the comings and goings of journalists, politicians and diplomats left a bitter taste. Many were crisis tourists, and all of them could leave Iraq when they had got their story or their adrenalin-rush.
Others came to demonstrate solidarity with the regime in the face of Western aggression, and Saddam organized a welter of protest marches and festivals of outrage to accommodate them. Such demonstrations were got-up affairs, carefully staged and filmed so as to exaggerate the paltry numbers of dragooned participants. Different groups were scheduled for particular days, and would arrive by bus. That the participants weren’t entirely willing was illustrated for me by an academic friend who was ordered, with all his colleagues at Baghdad University, to pullulate noisily about the gates of the British Embassy before handing in a copy of his latest book, with a ferocious note of protest on the flyleaf. ‘And did you?’ I asked him, ingenuously. ‘Are you mad?’ he replied, ‘I’d never have got another British visa in my life. I stuffed it up my jumper.’ Other demonstrations were made up of doctors, engineers, children and nursing mothers. All were window-dressing, but the nursing mothers, protesting the evil Western plot to deprive Iraqi children of powdered milk, finally proved the last straw for an already much-tested James Tansley, who marched red-faced down the Embassy drive with an album of photographs of dead Kurdish children, to show the puzzled matrons real cruelty. A couple of days later he was declared persona non grata by the Iraqi government, and had to leave for home. Naturally, I envied him.
Our detention seemed quite surreal in the light of these comings and goings. Relatively few of the ‘human shields,’ as we were euphemistically called by the Iraqi government, were able to move freely around Baghdad. Those of us who were (who had been living in Baghdad itself before the invasion), felt sometimes like the living dead. We’d sit at dinner with people who brought news of friends, or plays in the West End, or politics: we felt increasingly hollow, and had growing sympathy with Sami and Girgis, the restless and much-taunted tigers at the Baghdad Zoo.
For six weeks it was unclear how the situation would span out. Even at this stage it was obvious that governments were doing deals with Saddam to get their nationals out of Iraq. The Thais left in exchange, it was said, for a plane-load of rice, and suddenly Phayom, our children’s nanny, was gone. Though it was made explicitly and pugnaciously clear by our own Prime Minister that there would be no deals over British hostages, Saddam started dimly to realize that holding women and children hostage was not doing him any good, either with wavering Arab governments or with those in the West pressing for peaceful solutions. There was a memorable charade when he tried to show that we were all honoured guests by asking a young British hostage called Stuart Lockwood to sit on his knee. The five-year old refused heroically, live on Iraqi television, and a British woman muttered audibly, ‘I think it’s disgraceful, hiding behind women and children’. Not long afterwards, in mid-September, it became clear that women and children were to be released. We got exit visas for Georgina, Fanny and Jossie.
We had a few days to pack and prepare ourselves for their departure. Of course my main feeling was relief that they were going to be out of danger – but there was also a good measure of fear about being alone in Baghdad, and forced to confront the increasing nastiness of the situation, and its possible outcomes, without the comfort and distraction of my family. I saw them off at the airport where we had arrived 18 months before, and stood with very hollow stomach watching them disappear through passport control, wondering if I would see them again. Georgina arrived at Amman a couple of hours later, and was interviewed for ITN by Brent Sadler, who asked her slightly inanely how she felt about leaving her husband in Iraq. She fixed him with a steely look, and said just ‘Bloody awful’. Georgina continued to talk to the press, though the Cambridge Evening News and the Ham & High were more usual vehicles than the national papers. But mostly she settled down in Hampstead to looking after the children, and to doing whatever she could to support me in Baghdad.
Suddenly, there was little distraction left for me in Baghdad. What was more, the remaining hostages and I were members of a diminishing group. Starting as a fairly large collection of the male citizens of ‘belligerent’ western countries, it shrank steadily. I was reminded of Monty Python’s Exploding Blue Danube Waltz: one by one whole sections of the orchestra disappeared. I noticed this particularly at the Italian classes I attended. ‘Where are the French?’ we’d say one week: ‘Where are the Germans?’ the next. Then the older men went, and so on. By the end, in December, the remaining hostages were almost all Britons, Italians and Spaniards of military age. Almost every other government seemed prepared to do deals, and often for more metallic commodities, I think, than rice.
In our echoing house in Hayy al-Shammasiyya I lived alone. Some days I managed to be cheerful, others not. What I knew of Iraqi politics was not reassuring, and I was uncomfortably aware that Saddam had a well-tried technique for ensuring the loyalty of his Revolutionary Command Council colleagues, by making them shoot traitors, with a video-camera running to record their complicity. It occurred to me often that if he realized what lay ahead, he might well consider British hostages, in particular, excellent coercive film material for the war, and the last stand, to come.
There was more time for morose thoughts after the family had left, and I had my share of them, sitting as I was, trapped, in the capital city of a country against which my own was preparing to invade; a country ruled by a family with a peculiarly developed reputation for elaborate and careless savagery. And there was not a great deal to do. At first we had picnics in the country, but as petrol-rationing began to bite, and as we grew anxious at being too far from where capricious decisions about our futures were being made, we left Baghdad less and less. That we could do so at all was bizarre. All around us were Europeans held prisoner in military aerodromes and factories, the human shields who were supposed to discourage Allied bombing. To our constant surprise, we were free to roam Iraq, but tied psychologically to Baghdad where we apparently fulfilled our own role as human shields by living amongst Iraqis across the city.
I went into the office every working day, but we had little real work. Friends at the Embassy were preoccupied with crisis-management; and Council colleagues had mostly been on holiday already when the crisis broke in August. Our Iraqi friends were very precious, but they had their own lives, and their own anxieties and fears to manage, and so I tried to ration my demands on them. I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. I had little stamina when it came to reading, my mind wandering constantly to the unanswerable question of my own and my family’s future; and to the juggernaut of war that was rolling slowly towards Baghdad. The high point of each day was a morning telephone call with Georgina in Hampstead, but as I put the phone down, I often felt a dark blanket wrapping itself round me.
There were long deserts of time that had to be filled. The Italian Cultural Centre set up and ran excellent Italian classes for hostages, and prompted by this I read many novels about Italy. It was a fantasy of escape – what the Romanian writer Sorin Antohi calls, exquisitely, ‘geocultural Bovaryism,’ or ‘a disposition to leap into some better place’. But increasingly I brooded and became quite seriously depressed. It didn’t occur to me that there was a problem beyond simply feeling miserable, nor that there might be a solution. But when Peter rather diffidently gave me a slip of paper with the name and address of an Iraqi psychiatrist written on it, and suggested that he might be helpful, I was pleased as well as surprised.
And so, one day in October 1990, I found myself in the dingy waiting-room of a well-known Iraqi psychiatrist. The weather was warm, and I sat gloomily on a torn leatherette couch by an open window, looking across a noisy street in Mansour. The other patients were stubbly, and to my mind rather wild-eyed, Baghdadis, and I felt no urge to talk. After a quarter of an hour or so I was ushered in to see the doctor. Tall, black-haired and courtly, he extended his manicured hand gracefully to me. I explained that I was looking for help in dealing with persistent depression. ‘And what do you think is the cause of your depression?’ he asked me in the perfect English of an Iraqi doctor. Abashed to a degree that I had not quite expected, I said something about the war, about being held hostage in Iraq and being separated from my family; and I said that I was finding the whole situation claustrophobic and difficult to deal with. ‘Ah,’ he said, with only a tiny flicker of self-parody, ‘it sounds to me like what we doctors call exogenous depression’. ‘And what does that mean, exactly?’ I asked, uncomfortably. ‘It means,’ he said, in the same unruffled, gentle voice, ‘that as soon as you leave my fucking country, it will go away.’
He prescribed anti-depressants, which worked astonishingly. I quickly found myself much more able to cope with the situation – much more able to see patches of light as well as dark, and to snatch the small crumbs of comfort that were, when I looked dispassionately, many. What I think the medication did was to allow me the mental and emotional space to see that, however grim I might find my predicament, I was simply living the life that all Iraqis lived; that fear for oneself, and one’s family, uncertainty and a constant sense of helplessness before a capricious tyrant were the normal state of things for most Iraqis. I told myself, and found the telling useful, that I was fortunate: that however grim I might think my situation, it could be resolved by a single signature on a single piece of paper, and a flight out of Baghdad. Our Iraqi friends were not so lucky. Even were escape to become possible, it would be a long, messy and traumatic business of families split and endangered, of relatives punished; of professional lives cast aside; of language lost, of childhood left behind; of the void of exile. And being able to leave, for them, required much more than a single signature on a scrap of paper.
Friends in England sometimes sent music with their letters (what else was as welcome and as neutral?), and I listened to it, loud, in the car. The Pogues’ album Peace and Love arrived one day and I have a vivid memory of driving through many nights along Baghdad’s ugly freeways with Blue Heaven filling the car. In the way that music has of retaining emotion, that song still evokes for me the brassy emptiness of dark days in Baghdad, and I listen to it, very occasionally, with cautious pleasure and sadness. In my blue heaven, there’s a bottle of Pontchartrain … Chalmette by moonlight, to take away the pain …
But there were other things to occupy my mind too, and amongst these was the little group of my fellow hostages at the British Council. Peter remained completely unchanged by being held hostage, a condition which, anyway, he entirely declined to recognize, maintaining that he wanted to stay and that therefore his not being allowed to leave was an irrelevance. Self-contained and controlled, he sailed through the crisis like a pond-skater walking across water. He was practical, funny, supportive and imaginative, but allowed none of us a glimpse of what he was feeling. Others displayed their anxieties openly. There were the two sensible but occasionally panic-stricken teachers from the Saddam Medical School, who shared meals and tensely amusing evenings with me over beer and pizzas. Together we went from time to time to the home of the Italian Cultural Attaché, whose house reputedly had fourteen bedrooms, for his fourteen absent children, and floated on a cellar of Italian wine: he gave fine parties.
And then there was Jack, the squash-coach who we had brought out to give the national squash team some intensive training. Sport in Iraq was deadly serious, if not always very competent, with substantial rewards and punishments meted out to national players. The Iraqi Olympic Association (IOA) was unusual – possibly unique - amongst Olympic Associations in having an elaborately equipped prison and torture-chamber in the basement of its Baghdad headquarters, used to punish and encourage under-performers. The IOA was the private fiefdom of ‘Uday, the more brutal (if such comparisons are meaningful) of Saddam’s two sons; and the building was a centre, among its many criminal uses, for the distribution of looted Kuwaiti property. To support ‘Uday’s Olympic pretensions, the British Council had been encouraged to bring a coach to Iraq to work miracles with the demoralized squash team: Jack, a young man in his early twenties who had never travelled abroad. He came from Essex, and he brought his girlfriend with him.
He was a cheerful fellow, genially ignorant of the world, incurious and innocent. Even before the 2nd of August he was causing us problems. His girlfriend, who was a tall young woman with a remarkable figure and long blond hair, would walk from their hotel to the IOA dressed in a very short tennis skirt and very tight shirt. Not surprisingly, this turned a few heads on Saadoun Street. In fact, she attracted crowds, and the Information Ministry asked us to have a quiet word with her boyfriend about the lenient standards of modesty expected in pre-war Baghdad. He was astonished. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I noticed that she attracts a bit of attention. I reckon it’s because these people haven’t seen blue eyes before.’
His moment of glory came when he was training the team in the squash court at the IOA. He was working them quite hard one afternoon, when a sudden hush fell, and his players dropped their rackets, sidling awkwardly towards the door, eyes lowered and in silence. ‘What’s up?’ he asked, and then noticed a swarthy man in squash kit who had just come onto the court with a partner. ‘Oi!’ he said to the man whom his players recognized as ‘Uday Hussain, though he did not, ‘Oi! Off the court – I’m booked till 4.00.’ The players began to run for the exit, pale as death. ‘Uday scowled horribly. Jack, alone with ‘Uday and his squash partner, looked at him quizzically, still quite unaware of who he was speaking to, and intoned gaily, ‘SMI-LE!’ He then walked off the court leaving ‘Uday dumbstruck. There was no retribution: he walked away and reached his hotel unscathed. Even he, insouciant as he was, was chastened to discover that he had been chaffing Baghdad’s most voracious junior butcher.
But he too was a hostage, he became in a perverse way rather good for the rest of us, a source of constant amusement as well as worry. He simply wouldn’t accept it, and spent hours on the telephone to the British and international Olympic authorities trying to get released. When he wasn’t harassing the Foreign Office or the BOC he was dictating hilariously naïve (but alarming) despatches to the Basildon Echo. We waited each week in trepidation for the latest column of mixed-up politics and intercultural incomprehension to be faxed through from London, praying all the while that Olympus might smile on him and whisk him away. At last it did, and he disappeared, back to Billericay, leaving us in Baghdad with one more weight off our shoulders.
Over the four-and-a-half months of the crisis, Iraq came into a very different focus. I was certainly victims of the Iraqi state, but never was it clearer to me how sharp was the distinction between Iraq and its rulers. As I walked in the streets of Baghdad, complete strangers would sidle up to me and take my hand, and say quietly in English ‘I am so sorry,’ or ‘I am ashamed for my country,’ and move quickly on. Officials whom I didn’t know well made appointments to see me, and talked about nothing: the point of the meeting was the moment at the end when they squeezed my hand and, looking me in the eye, said a few short words of shame and support. Not once in those months did I hear a single hard word, or curse, or even see a hostile look. It was as though the worm had turned. Very soon after the invasion Mahmud and Hamid, two young reserve officers, one an academic, the other a chemical engineer, screeched to a halt outside our gate in Mahmud’s car. They marched up the drive. I was surprised, because although they were frequent visitors they always parked several streets away to avoid attention. ‘Why are you parked here?’ I asked. ‘Allow us our little braveries,’ said Mahmud. ‘Now is the time when we must make statements, however small’. Another friend, Jafar, arrived unannounced one evening soon after Georgina left, carrying a tray of kebabs and a bottle of the ubiquitous Johnnie Walker Black Label. Our neighbours shyly offered tea and sympathy. Very, very few friends vanished. It was a deeply touching time, and I remain to this day immensely grateful to have seen Iraq in its moment of cautious, frightened hope and generosity. As Jafar said to me, halfway down the bottle of Black Label, ‘You see, Martin, we know war is coming, and we accept responsibility for our weakness, for the moral failures and the cowardice in letting this …’, he waved his hand helplessly, ‘this man rule us. We know that we will lose sons and brothers and cousins in this coming war, and we know that it is necessary, made necessary by our own wrong decisions. I just pray that if you start this war, you finish it properly, right to the end’. He told me too, on this and another occasion, that he and his wife had made a hiding place at their house, and that ‘if it gets very bad,’ I was to go there and weather the storm. I hugged him, and told him that I deeply appreciated his courage and generosity, but that I couldn’t put his family to that risk. Fortunately we never had to argue it out as Baghdad burned.
Even more important to me were Farouk and Jane and their five children who became my family, making me endlessly welcome in their little flat and giving me moments of normality and friendship that helped restore my sagging spirits. We were already very fond of them, and had seen a lot of them in what I might – without too much irony – call the good times. Georgina and Jane had been pregnant together, and the family was often at our house. Now I found a different kind of friendship, which did more than anything else to keep me afloat in these dreary, frightening times. Of all the many things I remember from that time, most vivid, because like Jafar’s offer it represented a serious risk, was a conversation that Farouk had with me one evening, taking me gruffly aside. ‘If things get really difficult,’ he said, ‘we will take you to Rawa, and from there you will be taken by my cousins across the desert to Syria.’
We made other attempts to shift the log-jam. A few years before this I had lived in Jordan, travelling the Middle East as a representative of Macmillan, the publisher. Our local agent was a genial, clever fixer who earned his commission on selling English language text books. We had travelled together a good deal in the early 1980s, and I had become fond of him. His brother was close to King Hussein, heading state security in the south of the country, and I knew him a little, too. When Georgina flew back to England in September 1990, I asked her to telephone my old colleague. He was sympathetic, a sentimental and generous man. The brothers got to work and pulled strings, over a period of several weeks, and my hopes were cautiously raised, until he phoned Georgina again in London and told her that nothing he or Jordanian intelligence could do was going to help: Saddam Hussein was treating the hostages as a personal dossier, and taking all decisions himself: such decisions weren’t going to include me.
I wasn’t sure what to think of all this. It was a very passive position to be in, waiting for something to happen and wondering whether I would be shepherded across the desert to Syria, or left to make what I could of Baghdad during an allied assault on the city. From time to time a European was rumoured to have made it to Syria, but there were unpleasant stories too of would-be escapers recaptured near the frontiers. That sort of attempt seemed at this point still unnecessarily melodramatic and unlikely to succeed. There was little for us to do but wait upon events.
At the Embassy the crisis continued, in one sense, very satisfactorily. For young diplomats, and particularly the young and single, to find themselves in the thick of a major global crisis was seventh heaven. It was what they had been trained for, the apogee of a diplomatic career. Adrenalin and other hormones flowed fast. Days were long and unpredictable, our host government capricious and dangerous. They certainly earned their keep, but there were also moments of more than mild hilarity.
One winter evening - it must have been 13th November - I found myself sitting by the swimming pool at the Embassy, holding a large drink, while Chancery staff put on a choral performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Surreal enough in itself, the evening became more so when, at the interval, James wandered across and said quietly,
‘Tonight may well be the night, Martin. Sleep in the safe area of your house.’ My stomach tightened, and I went home with my mind buzzing at the prospect of an allied bombing run on Baghdad. I took a sleeping-bag to the ‘safe area’ of our house – the archway between the kitchen and the living-room which somebody had suggested might provide slightly more shelter than elsewhere. I doubted this, but dutifully laid out my bed, torch and bag of food. Then I phoned Georgina at Hampstead and began, rather unhappily, to say goodbye – that there might be a period in which we couldn’t communicate. She was mystified and rather impatient. ‘Martin, none of this matters. There are much more important things happening here. Geoffrey Howe has resigned with a blistering speech in the Commons tonight. Thatcher’s in trouble. Listen to the BBC’. I did, for much of a sleepless night on the kitchen floor, until the dawn crept palely in through the window onto an un-bombed sleeping-bag. It seemed rather anti-climactic, glad though I was to be alive on that cold Baghdad morning. I drove into work and began my day, which included a morning meeting at the Embassy where Howe’s resignation was much discussed.
‘What was last night all about then?’ I asked James afterwards in the hall. ‘Well, we got this,’ he said, shiftily pulling a large sheet of paper from the bundle in his hands and unfolding it, ‘and it seemed wise to take precautions.’ He handed me a faxed front page from the London Evening Standard, carrying a photograph of RAF bombers, and an enormous scare-headline about imminent bombing of Baghdad. James looked a little rueful, and I have never taken intelligence quite so seriously since that morning.
Margret Thatcher was on the skids. I watched her approaching nemesis with principled delight and unprincipled relief. Her uncomprehending despatch was swift and ruthless, and the pictures of her walking tearful down the steps of the Paris Embassy have for me no overtones of tragedy, simply grim satisfaction. That image and her final loss of power signalled the beginning of the end, the possibility of a solution for us in Iraq which her narcissistic intransigence had made unattainable until that moment. Not only did I know very well that her stubborn stand on hostage negotiations, with all its vainglorious braggadocio, had made it impossible for Saddam to concede anything while she remained in power; but I also detested her jingoistic, chauvinist populism. Her appeal was to those of whom Hugh Trevor-Roper had written to Bernard Berenson during the Suez Crisis: ‘The world of lower middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance; who hate foreigners, especially if they come from ‘inferior’ races; and who [are] gratified with the spectacle of violence against such people, even if it fails in its object’.
Quite what broke Saddam’s resolve over the hostages is hard to know, and there are many competing claimants, from Richard Branson to the Coptic patriarch of Egypt. I suspect that it was a more gradual and cumulative realization on the part of the Iraqi dictator, fed by streams of visitors who spent many hours in excruciating conversation. One after another international luminaries like Jesse Jackson, Edward Heath, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt appeared, processing down the steps of their aeroplanes, being convoyed off to Karradat Meriam, or some other Las Vegas-inspired palace, to run through the arguments for letting Saddam’s hostages go free.
My own favourite, to my surprise, was the earnest, grey figure of Tony Benn. He spent a morning with Saddam explaining, probably at tiresome length, why the continued holding of hostages was undermining the peace movement in the West, and meant that Iraq could never effectively claim the moral high ground. The meeting ended in the late morning, and Benn was taken back to his hotel. He had evidently impressed the Iraqi dictator by talking almost as interminably and relentlessly as Saddam did himself. After lunch he was summoned back, and asked to run through the arguments all over again, which, wearily, he did. And shortly afterwards we began to see movement.
Each of the international visitors left with a small number of hostages in their private jets. The number and the identity of each ‘bag’ were carefully calibrated comments on their importance and their national policy. It made great theatre, but of course never included the young, male and healthy, adding to our sense of being within a constantly contracting perimeter, like castaways watching the tide coming in around the edges of a small desert island.
But something else was beginning to happen alongside these high-profile political mercy-missions. One by one at first, and then in groups, individual mothers and wives were allowed into Iraq to intercede for their men. This was essentially theatrical, and Saddam milked it for all it was worth, with television interviews and bizarre ceremonies where the benign despot graciously handed men over to their wives and mothers. He was trying, with typically clumsy misunderstanding of PR, to establish a counter-narrative, one in which he figured as the proud victim who, despite all, was prepared to offer clemency to the individual agents of Western aggression. Naturally it didn’t work – rather the opposite, as Western publics watched women being humiliated, forced to beg a tyrant for mercy in front of the cameras. But it provided a barometer of the approaching weather, and soon the mercury began to rise. From lone individuals trying their luck, the clemency business gradually became a production-line: it dawned on us all that any woman who could make it to Iraq would be given her man back.
As this became clear, my family in London started to discuss how to handle it. War was approaching fast, and time might well be short. They decided that rather than Georgina going back, and leaving two small, orphan-able, children in London, my mother would fly to Iraq. She was 62, and not well-travelled; scared, certainly, but determined to fetch me back from Baghdad. She set about the long process of visas and AIDS certificates, and made contact with other determined women on the same mission. By early December, she was ready to travel. In Baghdad I was apprehensive, grateful, but above all humbled by the way my mother was prepared to put her head in the lion’s mouth.
It was at this point, with Iraqi reservists recalled to their units and my mother packing in Hampstead, that I received one of the stranger invitations that came my way in Iraq. Mahmud came into my office and announced that he would be defending his thesis the next day at Al-Mustansiriyya University. Christology and Inscape in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, his research project, had reached its final fence just days before the outbreak of war, and he insisted that I be at his viva. It was the 2nd of December. ‘But Mahmud, is that sense? You’ll be going back into the army in Kuwait the next day – do you really want a foreigner at your viva? A foreigner, what’s more, who’s an official of a country that’s about to attack Iraq, whose army you’re going to face across the desert in a few days’ time?’ ‘Well, I shan’t defend the thesis at all unless you come.’ He was not to be dissuaded and so the next day, my 36th birthday, touched and puzzled, I went to Al-Mustansiriyya and was ushered to a seat of honour in the middle of the front row in a lecture hall of banked, semi-circular benches. With a cold bottle of Sprite and a plate of sticky buns by my elbow, I felt like an aficionado at the bull-ring, waiting for the first bull.
In came Mahmud, in dark suit, scarlet BA hood and long black gown. He stood on the podium, extraordinarily handsome, eyes glittering, and faced the picadors. They were three Iraqi professors from different universities, leaders in their field of English Literature. I waited for the lances to be lowered at the bull. One by one the professors asked questions designed to show off their expertise. Mahmud parried impeccably. It became clear that the professors were not entirely comfortable with Hopkins’s sprung rhythm, or his vocabulary – or indeed his Christology.
Gradually it dawned on me that I had mistaken the bull for the picadors and the matador for the bull. Slowly, and with exquisite courtesy, Mahmud led them on. A flash of his cape would tempt one of them into a risible misunderstanding of a phrase or allusion. Another flash of red silk would offer them a word to pronounce which fell horribly outside their ken. In another delicate veronica, red silk draped across the bull’s eyes, he would respectfully ask them to read aloud a line about which they were asking him, and one of them would butcher it in a wild misreading of metre. There was not a trace of triumph, just courtesy and diffidence, but he made complete fools of all of them, without any one of them noticing.
I looked round to see how others were reacting to this curious verbal corrida: they weren’t. It seemed as though they were entirely unaware of the drama being played out. So too were the examiners, who nodded gratefully at Mahmud’s clear and courteous answers, making occasional notes and looking at the candidate with what seemed to be admiration, before they blundered unawares into the next trap. And the next, and the next.
Slowly it dawned on me why I was there, what my role was in this odd play, beyond being Mahmud’s friend and a representative of Britain. I was a witness to a cryptic, scarcely perceptible statement by a clever man, about his own country. It was a silent engagement with a regime that he despised, not just politically, but intellectually and in almost every other. The professors led the applause at the end of the viva, and I joined in.
Mahmud never hinted at my real role, but I realized that what he had wanted was someone there who understood, so that his exquisite demonstration of intellectual superiority and of the inadequacy of his seniors should really have happened. And all that was required was that I sit there and testify to his subversion with a slight nod of comprehension. Without me, his bravura performance would have been like the roaring of the waves in a sea-shell not held to an ear – not just unperceived, but non-existent.
At some point in late November the centre of gravity shifted and after months of wondering whether we would escape, we somehow knew we would, and wondered only when. Each day, news of more releases came to us through Iraqi television and through the Embassy, and by the first week of December, with my mother finishing her travel arrangements, and Mahmud pressing his hood and gown, I was beginning to hope that her trip might not be necessary. On December 7th the word went round that the foreign ministry was issuing exit visas. By refusing to take no for an answer, I was one of the first to get my passport in – and my visa back.
The next morning in London, my mother was at the Iraqi consulate, submitting her AIDS certificate, when the clerk told her quietly that there was good news. It had just been announced in Baghdad that all the hostages were to be freed.
For us in Baghdad the question that morning was how to leave, and it was an aesthetic as well as a practical question. Richard Branson had been keeping a Virgin 747 at Amman airport ready to collect the hostages from Baghdad. Not only did I think that it would take some time to sort out its departure for London; but I also had an appalling vision of an aerial gin-palace full of loud Britons, patriotic, jingoistic and anti-Iraqi. I did not think I could bear it, wanting to experience this revolution in my life quietly and alone. I drove into the office early and talked it quickly through with Peter, who had decided to stay a few more days. ‘Why not try the Iraq Air flight to Amman?’ There was a daily flight to Jordan, the only scheduled flight out, sanctions having closed every other route. Someone phoned Iraq Air for me, and came back with the news that there was one seat left on the day’s flight; and that if I could get to the airport in 50 minutes, I could have it. Leaping into an office Land Rover, our driver raced to the airport at appalling speed. We made it, and I checked in.
I remember very clearly the sense of utter exhaustion and anticlimax that drained through my whole body as the plane climbed over the dun landscape of the Iraqi desert and headed north-west along the Euphrates. Suddenly, my entire life was transformed, and long before we left Iraqi airspace I had my life in front of me again, full of infinite possibilities. But I knew that I was leaving behind people who couldn’t make the same journey – who were still living with the fear that I was quickly sloughing off, and facing the looming prospect of a war which could only be weeks away.
The flight to Amman is short, and we were soon descending. I hoped to find someone there from the British Council to meet me. What I hadn’t realized was that I was the first hostage to leave Iraq after the announcement of our release, and I emerged from the baggage carousels through the sliding glass doors to find an arrival hall packed with journalists expecting an entire plane full of hostages. I felt like the little Man Who in a Bateman cartoon, and had to speak to a stream of journalists, with a strong sense that until all the hostages were out it would be best to say as little as possible.
My family had been more concerned for me than they let on, worried among other things that I had become dependent on anti-depressants, and would need gentle looking-after. In the event, I threw the medicine box into a bin at Amman airport and forgot it. The psychiatrist had been quite right about exogenous depression and its all-too-exogenous cure.
The aerial bombing of Baghdad, the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign, began just over a month later, on 17th January 1991.
CM05: Love and Death (Hurst, London, 2013)