Finding poetry in hatred and blood

Bush in Babylon
November 7, 2003

I went to one anti-Iraq war meeting, held on October 16 last year at the Brunei Gallery in London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, principally to hear Tariq Ali. I had just spent two months compiling an anthology about Saddam Hussein for a US publisher, and the forest-load of paper detailing his crimes against Iraqis had toppled me, against my principles, into the pro-war camp. I was shocked. I went to hear Ali so he could put me straight again. He did not, and I should have known he wouldn't. He was preaching to the converted.

Ali's Bush in Babylon - part recent Iraqi history, part romantic eulogy to dissent - follows a similar line. It is a primer, dedicated to "Aisha and her comrades - a new generation on the march", and ends with a call for "the development of a political resistance and a proper alternative" to "the 'disproportionate power' of the American Empire".

The long historical sections range over Iraq's 20th-century history and the history of interventionist American imperialism covering the same period.

Ali's writing is packed with the detailed knowledge of an activist deeply committed to the region. His writing on America reads like a highly abridged source book of the country's imperialist, anti-democratic foreign interventions. His last chapter simply lists them: "1953: CIA helps remove Iranian democrat Mohammed Mosadegh from power as punishment for nationalising the country's oil"; "1973: US authorises General Pinochet's military coup in Chile. Elected president Salvador Allende is killed defending himself"; and it ends with 2003 and the coalition's occupation of Iraq.

There is a pattern: "In 1914... Sir Percy Cox (British high commissioner in colonised Iraq) informed the citizens of Basrah that the British came as 'liberators not conquerors'." The purpose of this history is straightforward, Ali tells us. "The occupation of Iraq is something new for the younger generations, as most of them are unused to living in countries that dominate others by force, but it is part of a long historical process which was disrupted by the 20th century and is now back on course." Bush in Babylon is meant to provide its students with ammunition enough to confront campus apathy, or worse, war-mongering. But it is also intended to heroise the resistance.

Of Khalid Ahmed Zaki, an Iraqi Marxist intellectual who was killed in a shoot-out with Baathists in 1968, Ali writes: "I can see him as he was then, a passionate revolutionary... Nobility was written on his face. It was this, as well as his integrity and steadfastness, that drew people to him. None of this stopped him living life to the full. He could often be seen at parties in mid-sixties London, dancing vigorously while young women eyed him with undisguised interest." Ali clearly loved Zaki, but the section is also bait: follow my lord and I'll give you the houris of paradise.

Page upon page of the first half of Bush in Babylon is filled with poetry. Ali conflates the dissenter with the poet. To be either, he quotes Rimbaud, "it is necessary to be a seer, to make oneself a seer"; he talks of the "poet-as-tribune" and of "the premonitory power that exists in great poets". He believes in truth as an absolute; poets are its guardians. By linking poetry with revolution - an easy link in Arabic literature of the 20th century - he confers the same status on revolutionaries.

"How can any thinking person be surprised that young kids are desperate to join one of the militant organisations resisting the Israelis? There is a purity and moral integrity in children that illuminates a struggle." In vino veritas is translated by the French as la verité sort de la bouche des enfants . Politics, for Ali, is not debatable: there are no pros and cons, only good and evil, and the good is absolute: the same good as a child's innocence and a poet's grace.

It is therefore unsurprising that the book contains no detailed political assessment of the coalition's current record in Iraq. Nor is there any detailed discussion of how to remedy its assumed evils, bar a call to arms:

"The immediate tasks that face an anti-imperialist movement are support for Iraqi resistance to the Anglo-American occupation, and opposition to any and every scheme to get the United Nations into Iraq as retrospective cover for the invasion and after-sales service for Washington and London."

I spent July travelling around Iraq. In a shared taxi from Mosul to Baghdad, I witnessed an argument between the driver and his three other passengers. One, from Samarra, boasted that friends of his had thrown grenades at US soldiers. The driver was furious: "You think that's patriotism? You think that's jihad? For every dead US soldier there's ten Iraqis shot. You're being conned again. You're being played. Don't you realise that Saddam is with the US and the Jews? How do you think he survived these last 30 years?" The details of the conspiracy theory are absurd, but the idea is not: America and Saddam are united by their torture of Iraqis. Ali, in trying to stir up his own revolution in Iraq, risks joining them. The anti-imperialist programme he puts forward shows total disregard for the wishes of Iraqis, who in repeated polls have shown 90 per cent support for the coalition's continued presence. He writes: "If it is futile to look to the UN or Euroland, let alone Russia or China, for any serious obstacle to US designs in the Middle East, where should one start? First of all, naturally, in the region itself. There, it is to be hoped that the invaders of Iraq will eventually be harried out of the country by a growing national reaction to the regime they will install." I think that Ali's hopes will be realised. But I beg patience of him. For I interpret the 90 per cent vote in favour of continued occupation as meaning: "First let us recoup our strength." Let them.

Turi Munthe is editor of The Saddam Hussein Reader .

Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq

Author - Tariq Ali
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 230
Price - 16.00
ISBN - 1 85984 583 5

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