Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Time Traveller

A wonderfully atmospheric piece by John Burns of the New York Times describes the atmosphere in the Golden Mosque before Sadr bugged out. Two NYT journalists who were temporarily held prisoner at the Mosque relate:

the visitors were left under loose guard at the mosque's main entrance and, for about an hour, inside the courtyard. There, seething antagonism for Westerners blended with a haphazard, almost chaotic approach to maintaining control. Hundreds of worshipers made their way into the mosque past groups of men toting Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and a variety of bayonets and knives. Along with weapons, the constants among the men were religious fervor and loyalty to Mr. Sadr. Many wore black headbands inscribed in yellow with Shiite religious tenets, black turbans or common red and black checkered kuffiya headdresses. Some of the militiamen were in their 50's and 60's, but most were young, some no more than 12 or 13. Weapons training among them appeared virtually nonexistent; Kalashnikovs with loaded magazines and safety catches off were nonchalantly waved in the air.

... But there were signs of preparations for a siege. In the early afternoon, vehicles pulled up to the mosque unloaded cardboard boxes full of food. Later, several ambulances unloaded boxes of medical supplies, labeled in English as containing bandages, cotton wool, and syringes. Some were marked with Christian inscriptions in English, suggesting that they originally came from Christian medical charities operating in Iraq. ... Vehicles came and went, among them white and blue patrol cars and pickup trucks supplied by the United States to Iraq's new American-trained police force, filled with some of the heavily armed militiamen who took control of Kufa on Sunday.

It might have been a scene from the twelfth century. Nowhere does the conception of Iraq, or loyalty to its government, still less to its constitution enter into the story. Whatever allegiance animated the crowd was purely tribal and more than tribal -- personal -- to Sadr and his deity. Goods are handled like plunder from a raided caravan. Donations are regarded as payment in tribute from a terrified America and grinningly turned to Jihadi uses. Striplings and greybeards mingle exchanging jingling equipment in anticipation of a coming raid, the tradition of the long centuries.

Outside are the strange Americans with alien notions of neighborliness, of working for a living or reading a book. They are perplexingly powerful yet somehow weak. The Times relates how the sound of an aircraft creates a momentary panic among the fearless fighters of Sadr, but no bombs come. The infidel is too pusillanimous to do what anyone in this Holy Place would do without hesitation. Too weak to even push a button! And the 12th century lives on into another day.

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now--if I may use the phrase--be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age. Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know--for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made--thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.

If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank--is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story.

And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers --shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle--to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

-- H. G. Wells "The Time Machine"