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AFTERWORD Political Geography A Texan’s View of Iraq Before the Crisis BY JIM NORWINE ULY 18. Approaching Baghdad by air, ill a stewardess hands me this directive: “Please note that according to the revolutionary command council resolution No. 229 you should call within five days of your arrival to Iraq to the Preventative Health Centre for AIDS laboratory blood tests. Otherwise you will be submitted to a fine of five hundred Iraqi dinars or six months imprisonment in case of not paying the fine.” In case there had been any doubt, this is not going to be Kansas. Looking about the cabin, I note that the 11 members of my study group are the only nonArab passengers. We are the objects of frank stares but few smiles. This is quite a departure from the warm humanness to which I’ve grown accustomed in Cairo. Anti-American hostility or merely cultural difference? Below, southern Iraq is a limitless vista of rippling ocher dunes and dusty, diffuse horizons. As we near the Tigris-Euphrates valleys, however, the landscape quickly metamorphoses into an agricultural checkerboard: irrigated green fields, small stands of trees, canals, modern highways. “Looks like Little Rock!” someone cracks. Well, no, but certainly more verdant than, say, my backyard in South Texas this time of year. Unlike Egypt, where each landing is an occasion for genuine if raucous cheers, we touch down to absolute silence. The bumpy landing thermals, I think does little for my state of mind. What to expect in the home of -the most dangerous man in the world?” At 1:30 p.m., it’s 97 Fahrenheit and, obviously, climbing. The new Saddam Hussein what else? International Airport is impressively luxurious but so empty it echoes. We are met by our Foreign Ministry hosts, who are as stiffly proper as Oxbridge dons. The next 10 days promise, at least, to be interesting. In the first 24 hours of my Iraqi visit, I’d encountered Saddam Hussein’s name and image at least 500 times. I’m estimating, as I finally stopped counting at “Saddam’s Monument to the Qadissya Martyrs” \(the Jim Norwine is a professor of geography at Texas A&I University in Kingsville. in Baghdad. I conceded defeat there after observing at that single memorial over 250 photos of Saddam, some 12 feet high; a family tree “proving” his kinship to the Prophet; a sketch portraying Hammurabi \(yes, structions to continue “our work”; and finally, after hearing a female tour guide reverence sorry, nothing short of this awful nonverb fits “Saddam Hussein,” “our President Saddam Hussein,” “our President, His Exfounder of our new civilization, our President, His Excellency Saddam Hussein” more than 100 times in 45 minutes. Although my guide did giggle while explaining the Hammurabi connection, such hyperbole is not uncommon. The education director of the Students Union informed me a few days later that “if you cut out our hearts, you’ll find Saddam’s picture etched into them,” and an important member of the National Assembly, in reply to my question about the recent elevation of Saddam to President-for-Life, said “our love of His Excellency Saddam Hussein is bigger to us than the machinery of government. He is our life.” The number of billboard-sized photos and portraits of Saddam displayed along Iraqi streets and roads has to be in the thousands. In Baghdad alone, every block is adorned with several. Immense banners as well: A typical example in Mosul proclaims, “Everybody Loves Our Leader.” My charming Nepali chambermaid finds Iraqis as difficult and as judgmental as Americans. One of the striking differences I’ve noticed between Iraq and Egypt, where I’ve spent the past three weeks, is the Iraqi candor and individualism. This shouldn’t have surprised me, for it was here in Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago that the “mythic dissociation” between man and the divine began. In India and much of the rest of the East, gods, people, animals, plants, and even inanimate matter are all aspects of the indissoluble One. That notion went extinct in Babylon several millenia ago. Little wonder that a Hindu maid should find Baghdad as alien as she would, say, Des Moines: From her point of view, st is. In Egypt, much is made of an ancient Pharonic civilization which turns out to have remarkably little to do with contemporary Egypt, while in Iraq where days can go by without an intellectual mentioning Babylon, Sumeria, Ur, or Nineveh the legacy of Mesopotamia is alive and well. Although one does sometimes hear the theory that the Iraqi character owes to “the Tartar blood,” it is more likely a product of geography “niceness” never seems particularly appropriate in a landlocked desert and history, especially the early emphasis on material well-being in Sumeria, the self-awareness which began in the Mesopotamian city-states and the constant threats from and frequent invasions by hostile powers. Uniquely among Arabs, Iraqis are today direct, prompt, straightforward, and quite willing to say “no” or even “I don’t like you.” They lie, and smile, only when such gestures are called for. \(“What would be the point to working, unromantic, and literalist, the Iraqis are the Minnesotans of the Middle East. There are worse fates. Irony, as any middle-aged professor can testify, is overrated. Sunrise over Baghdad from the ninth-story window of my room in the Al Rashid Hotel. Another $45 breakfast. Or is it $3.50? The exchange rate is too screwed up to believe. Officially, the Iraqi dinar is worth about $3.10, down from $3.80 a few months ago. The black-market turns that rate on its head; one dollar buys four or five dinars! The government imposes severe penalties for breaking the currency law and, as I was informed last night at an embassy party, “in Iraq you never know who you’re dealing with.” \(The American embassy is one of a handful which strictly observes the letter of this law, to the The results are predictable. A taxi from the airport to a hotel in downtown Baghdad is. nominally, $50. One night in a 5-star hotel, $250. The first meal of my study group of 10 in the Al Rashid a rather ordinary luncheon buffet came to a neat $600. A single banana split is 6 dinars or $18. Yesterday’s afternoon stroll through the bazaar provided dramatic evidence of the dinar’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t buying power. Ambling through the market, I was repeatedly pulled into closet-like shops where goods were offered quietly, with much nervous looking-over-shoulders for dollars. The opening price for a colorful, 22 DECEMBER 21, 1990