Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Eternities ago on the Tigris and Euphrates

It will be interesting to see what the feelings of ordinary Iraqi citizens will be by the time Saddam finally reaches trial in Iraq.


He was hated, he was feared, his was a regime of those same knockings on doors in the night that marked the Hitler regime in Nazi Germany. But, like Hitler, he kept the trains running and if the train metaphor ran somewhat slowly, if the country’s middle class was increasingly impoverished, there was stability in expected shortages. The streets and markets and cafes were safe and men smoked and joked without fear of car bombs. Children played, women hung wash and dinner might have been simple, but it was served on time and the light in the dining room went on when the switch was pushed.


Iraq today is chaos. Water doesn’t run, power outages are constant and unexpected, sewers overflow, lines for five-cent-a-gallon gasoline are three miles long and most days there is none in a country floating on oil. Neighborhood explosions bring that heart-stopping omigod of which friend or who’s child has been injured or killed. We humans are creatures of habit and the habit we love and cherish most deeply is constancy. Where I live in the Czech Republic, there is a weird nostalgia building for the old days of communism---not that the country would go back, but that people were reliably, equally  and somewhat comfortably impoverished.


Saddam, when there finally is a regime (legitimate or not) capable of trying him, will be tried in a country where the leaves on the trees no longer flutter in safe breezes. The man whose portrait dominated serene public spaces will be put before a tribunal in a smoking, partially ruined city whose inhabitants scurry in fear rather than stroll in safety. He will be freshly shaved, well-fed, insistent that he is still the legitimate president of his country and look amazingly like the self-composed subject of those portraits.


When the disheveled, confused Saddam was hauled out of his hole in the ground (how long ago? it seems an eternity) there was a national sigh of a breath held some thirty years. But that was twice an eternity ago, when it looked like the American invasion might actually right some wrongs and do some good. An eternity ago before the insurgent back-alley, rooftop, roadside terror killed Iraqis at a four to five time ratio of coalition forces. An eternity ago in the mindset of the average Iraqi.


I suspect, if and when they think it safe to try Saddam, somber Iraqi faces will watch the proceedings at storefront televisions between power outages and the mood will be reflective rather than passionate. There will be mutterings in the damaged cafes about the old days, the better days, the reliable days, because our human memories are short. The high value we put upon constancy doesn’t include the constancy of chaos.