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A Barbarian in Rome

[Academy of Fine Arts, Baghdad, 2003. Image from InCounter Productions] [Academy of Fine Arts, Baghdad, 2003. Image from InCounter Productions]

[The following are excerpts from a longer text in the form of a diary kept during the war]

“ I have freed millions from barbarism.”

George W. Bush, The Guardian, Sunday, June 15, 2008.


“Are you going home for the holidays?” asked a colleague of mine some years ago in the elevator. It is a typical and legitimate question, but if you happen to be from Baghdad, as I am, formulating an answer is not a simple task. The immediate one that came to mind was: have you watched the news in the last four years? But I am too drained to engage in the conversation that would likely follow, or in witnessing the effects of ephemeral guilt in an awkward situation. I should just forgive my colleague.

This is how it is in Rome. For most, news of wars fought against the barbarians in distant lands is a distraction at best. Even the emperor himself spoke recently of “Iraq fatigue.” Yes, there are murmurs and a debate and so on, but. . .

As much as I try not to, I am forced to return everyday, but not to a physical space. You see, the family home, the one in which I was born, was sold five years ago. My aunt, the last member of the family who was left in Baghdad, fled to Amman, Jordan, when it became impossible for a 72-year-old woman to carry on amid explosions.

So I answer as we part company on the ground floor:

- Actually, am not going home. Too many deadlines!

- Have a nice break!

- You too.

“deadline: 2. In former times, a line in prison or prison camp marking a boundary beyond which prisoners were forbidden to go on pain of death."


Iraq is scattered on websites. A woman writes about the palm tree she planted in her little garden and how she goes back to check on it every evening. . .on Google Earth. She can only water it with her tears a few continents away.


On a trip to Amman a few years ago a young man stood out among the Royal Jordanian flight passengers. Most of the passengers were Jordanians and Jordanian-Americans going home with their families. There were a few Caucasians who looked like they might be conducting business. He had no carry-on luggage. Travels light. Crew cut, broad shoulders, sunglasses he kept on the entire trip, and headphones. The music was loud enough for me to hear the noise myself. It sounded like heavy metal. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or so.

When we arrived in Amman he was approached by a Jordanian man in a suit who was waiting outside the gate with a sign. He took him to a special express line through passport and security. Our Jordanian brethren know how to take care of their guests.

Like Hell, Iraq is very easy to enter, but difficult to exit. Here was one of the many agents of death rushing in.

The sign the Jordanian man was carrying read “Blackwater."


The barbarian’s universe is fragmented. He collects clippings and images:

A little girl of six or seven years holds on to her father’s hand as they cross an empty street. They are about to reach the median, which has some grass and trash. A charred vehicle waits on the other side of the street. The girl has a tiny red backpack. In the right hand corner of the photo there is a swollen corpse.

How many years, how many decades, will it be until that little girl can cross the street?


“Lawyers for Mr. Mousa have alleged that he and the other men detained were subjected to prolonged hooding with empty sandbags and to “stress positions” including sitting on imaginary chairs, sleep deprivation and a “kickboxing” routine in which British soldiers competed with each other to kick the Iraqis around a room.” 1


“Right now Iraq is threatened with invasion- as America is now. The Iraqis have some religious and tribal differences among themselves. Hitler has been trying to use these differences to his own ends. If you can win the trust and friendship of all the Iraqis you meet, you will do more than you may think possible to help bring them together in our common cause. Needless to say, Hitler will also try to use the differences between ourselves and Iraqis to make trouble. . . Hitler’s game is to divide and conquer. Ours is to unite ad win!” 2


Another Iraqi who has been living in the US for more than three decades approaches me at the annual conference for the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America (MESA) and asks me if I would like to contribute to a volume of essays on Modern Iraqi literature.

”Yes, of course. I’d love to.”

Before I even tell him about the nature of my contribution, he adds:

“I want you to write on Iraqi Christian literature.”

Does he mean church liturgy? I wondered. That is not very “modern” and I wouldn’t know much beyond the few Aramaic chants I was forced to memorize and parrot without understanding for my First Communion.

“ People like Yusuf al-Sa`igh and Sargon Boulus.”


A new field of study emerges. An entire genre of writing is born in Rome and my last name, Antoon, unmistakably Christian in the Arab world, endows me with great retroactive knowledge and training to write about a handful of Iraqi poets who happened to be Christian, most of whom were communists or atheists!

“ I have never heard of Iraqi Christian literature. I can write about al-Jawahiri or Sa`di Yusif.”

He was not amused and I never heard from him again.

An Iraqi poet living in the U.S hastens to assume this new category. The back cover of her collection of poems informs the reader that she writes poetry in Aramaic!


I remember watching CNN one night in 2004. An embedded reporter was about to be taken on a tour with soldiers. As the convoy leaves al-Taji camp in northern Baghdad, the soldier-guide tells the reporter:

- This is Indian country.


It is difficult for the barbarian to fall asleep.

It is difficult for the barbarian to fall asleep in Rome.

I was visiting a friend who is sympathetic to the barbarians, because he studies their culture and has lived in their midst. We drink and lament. I feel that lamenting and mourning itself can become a luxury of sorts. Later that night the gods of sleep were unkind. Reading a novel doesn’t help. The friend has a TV in the guest room.

I thought TV would burden my eyelids and save me from wakefulness. Surfing the channels is like rummaging in old garbage I scavenge for any combination of noise and lights that would dull and lull me to sleep and settle on PBS. At 2 AM, Antique Road Show is on. The show host goes around talking to people who are having their antiques appraised. Old chairs, clocks, paintings. . . etc. Then the camera comes to an average-looking woman in her early fifties standing proudly next to her prized item.

- What do you have here ma’am?

- This is a Native-American baby cradle, made of leather. Hand-made.

- Oh wow! Very nice. Where did you get it from?

- It belonged to my grandfather. He was a soldier and I inherited it from my father.

- And how much is it worth?

- I was told it could fetch $64,000.

- Wow! Congratulations!

- Thank you!

I hold on to the cradle, but the host moves on to other relics and the camera follows suit.

I turn the TV off and let darkness reign again. . . and the ghosts too.

In the dark I try to touch the cradle before it was emptied and before it was put in the orbit of civilization to circulate as a cultural document. Its previous orbit is now populated with ghosts. The ghost of Walter Benjamin hovers in the room:

“I told you, there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” 3


Every now and then there is news of another Baghdad neighborhood being walled and its residents being caged in. For their protection, of course. Always. And I cannot help but think about what has become of Baghdad. In a way, it does not exist anymore. Not in the simplistic sense that denies change, but as a holistic unit. It is true that there were always certain areas off bounds and inaccessible to the city’s citizens and that class and lack of affluence limited the mobility of Baghdadis, as they do everywhere else. Nevertheless, at least until the invasion and occupation, much of Baghdad’s space was accessible to all of its inhabitants, in theory, if not in practice.

We know from Palestine that what these walls do is destroy a sense of community and fragment a society. There is already massive fragmentation in Iraq, primarily along sectarian lines, but these walls, many of them coming after the ethnic cleansing, institutionalize this fragmentation and extend it spatially. A horizon is fragmented and dismembered. Children will not know their city.


At a small college in Pennsylvania, during a talk, I refer to the disinterest on the part of most citizens and that if an alien from outer space would come to this country, s/he wouldn’t know from walking down the streets that this country is waging war against two countries. One of the members of the peace group on campus raises her hand and asks me timidly:

- Professor, I know about the war in Iraq, but where is the second one?


I had to take a very early flight from St. Paul, Minnesota back to New York. There was only one place open for breakfast and the line was very long. The civilians in line were a minority. The rest were soldiers who appear to be on their way to one of Rome’s outposts. They look like this is their first “tour” and they had just finished training. I know the look of soldiers who have been to the battlefront. Weary and drained. Damaged machines. I used to see it back in Iraq on the faces of Iraqi soldiers who returned from the battlefront against Iran.

These were mostly white, a few blacks and some with Latino last names. I realize that they, too, are products of Rome’s gigantic machine of inequality. Some look like they have retained some innocence on their faces, but even if, it will take a few weeks and they will assume their role.

One of them had his fingers on the rail as he waited in line. He was moving his index finger back and forth. Was he already firing at Iraqi civilians?


At an airport in Texas I watch the TV as I wait at the gate for the flight back to New York. The CNN ticker informs me that another soldier in the Haditha massacre is acquitted. I decide to take a walk and to escape the news. I hear what sounds like live music close by. There was a band playing and signs “Welcome Home Our Heroes.”


“Years from now you’ll be telling your children and maybe your grandchildren stories beginning, “ Now when I was in Baghdad-.”4


Old barbarian songs fill the barbarian’s heart with clouds and besiege him with nostalgia. But he has learned from a famous barbarian poet who lives in a former Rome to resist nostalgia and fight it like an enemy. He has won many battles against its armies, but there are days when he must retreat and tend to his wounds in one of the many invisible trenches.


Guilt and fascination, separately or fused together, with barbarian artifacts engenders the desire to admire the barbarians’ art. At a conference in Texas, the emperor’s cradle, an art historian with a degree from a respectable university asks:

- Is there modern Iraqi art?

“ Don’t ask for a single opinion on an issue, as Iraqis often first reply with the answer they think you want to hear, rather than an honest response.”5


Perhaps I have been too harsh and judgmental. Some Romans love barbarian. . . dogs:

. . .

“ Post-escape from Baghdad and fresh off a 13-hour flight from Kuwait, Charlie the border collie mix actually seemed to be smiling for the crowd.

Five months after the SPCA International received a plea from American soldiers hoping to transfer their beloved Iraqi stray to U.S. terrain, the 9-month-old mutt became the first beneficiary of the animal advocacy organization's effort to rescue pets from the war zones where they provide solace to service members. Charlie eventually will live in Phoenix with one of his caretaker soldiers.

It being Valentine's Day, the SPCA dished out the emotional hyperbole. Charlie's bond with his caretakers, the organization said, "is the ultimate love story between a man and his dog." The soldiers, too, were effusive.

"We can't wait for him to get his first taste of the good old USA," one wrote in an e-mail to the SPCA. "We especially can't wait until we can see him again.". . .

Eleven other dogs and two cats adopted by service members in Iraq or Afghanistan in the pipeline for rescue, said Stephanie Scroggs, a spokeswoman for SPCA International. The SPCA will pay about $4,000 per rescue, Scroggs said. She acknowledged that the sum could aid many more stateside animals but said the program also supports the troops.

. . .

Much lay ahead: A dog spa appointment to wash away desert dust. A night at a hotel. In coming days, a vet checkup, a flight to Los Angeles and a drive to Phoenix, where he will be cared for until Watson returns from Iraq.

But first, Charlie was scheduled to stroll around the Mall.

"It's probably going to be a real shock for him to see such beauty and great monuments," Watson wrote in an e-mail to Scroggs yesterday at 2:14 a.m., "after knowing nothing but the slums of Baghdad."6


The barbarian is interpellated. He has always been a barbarian, but the more Roman Rome becomes.. .


Although he has mastered Rome’s tongue (O My God, your English is so good!) Until further notice, the barbarian can only speak in fragments. His discourse is interrupted, fragmented, and haunted. The barbarian’s mind has become a shelter for ghosts, images, faces, and ululations.


Iraq is a million broken mirrors scattered across a desert crushed by Rome’s hooves. Blind barbarians must look for the shards and wipe the blood off without being devoured by the wolves, which howl and growl on both sides.


Everything has changed now:

The shoulder is a shelf for coffins

The eye a well of tears

The lung a valley for death


He must give the dead barbarians faces and names.

And there are more every day.

* * *

1. “Iraqis to Get Settlement from Britain Over Abuse” New York Times, July 11, 2008.

2. A Short Guide to Iraq, Army and Navy Departments, Washington, D.C., 1943, p. 6.

3. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. New York, Schocken Books, 1988, p. 256.

4. A Short Guide to Iraq, p. 2.

5. Iraq Culture Smart Card, Marine Corps Intelligence Activity Quality and Dissemination Branch

N. D.

6. “Making a Home for Charlie, Away from Baghdad’s Slums,” Washington Post, February 15, 2008.


1 comment for "A Barbarian in Rome"


beautiful. Where can I access the longer text from which these quotes were derived?

taliah wrote on April 18, 2012 at 01:42 AM

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