Ghosts of dead armies behind Atlas Cinema

by Sarmad Al-Taee on 16-12-2012

This is a poetic reflection rather than merely a column. It is about �dead armies,� whose ghosts creep into Al-Saadoon Street, when the city becomes deserted.

Atlas Cinema was one of the few theaters that had remained open after 2003. Now it's closed.


This is a poetic reflection rather than merely a column. It is about questions raised by “dead armies,” whose ghosts creep into Al-Saadoon Street (at the heart of Baghdad) at midnight, when Baghdad streets become deserted. Nowadays, Baghdad is more than a shock to a stranger like me. I, who was mostly fascinated by its glory while she was showing off, and dreamed of poets and biographers of kings and tales of Gods of the east. This city, which was once the “soul of the world,” appears to me, every night while going home, in an image of the garage watcher behind Atlas cinema, telling peoples’ stories and rhapsodizing about a burned tank east of Basrah while he has no money to buy medicine for the asthma he is suffering from.

This is a person of flesh and bones, dreaming of a new tank for his son, and painfully crying at the heart of Abdulmohsin Al-Sa’doon Street. In his stories images emerge of corrupt politicians, and ghosts of dead soldiers and militants coming back to Baghdad every night but do not find it as they used to know it.

Behind that cinema, a guard watches over an unregistered garage until late at night; he goes back home after earning what is sufficient to feed his family for one day. “We see the man standing guard every day after finishing the final touches of publishing the newspaper issue of the day to come.”

Last night, just like the other nights, he decided once again to tell me how he used to defend “the eastern gate,” (a term Saddam Hussein had used referring to Iraq as the Eastern Gate of the Arab World), and that he spent his youth on the borders of Al-Mohammara and Abadan (two Iranian provinces); as well as witnessing the defeat on Hafr Al-Batin (to south west of Iraq). The old veteran is desperate and broke. Instead of finding anybody who can comfort him as an old tank driver, he became destitute being a guard in an unregistered garage. He believes that the words of anyone appearing on TV screens can be heard by the Sultan (the Prime Minister). He tells me about his family’s conditions while holding an empty asthma medicine inhaler saying, “I don’t have even 3 dollars to buy a new one.” I know by heart all his tales that he repeats every night but today he was “crying painfully” as an old veteran who sat during his lifetime behind “the tank steering wheel” guarding the country. When returning home after 2003, he was told that his burned tank was part of an illusive war. The reason why he did not get a pension and ended up in doing a guard’s job in an unregistered garage without being able to buy an inhaler for his asthma.

“Mister, I am of the same age of your sons, may I buy you the inhaler tonight?” (“I am of the same age of your sons” is a smart gesture of showing respect to the man). He throws back the money and a gives me the look of what is left of dignity of his country.

Hysterically asking and calling names on Hadi Al-Amery (minister of transport) and Saleh Al-Motlak (deputy prime minister) saying: you, appearing on TV screens and philosophizing, must explain to me so many issues. Is it true that people like me have had to spend their lifetimes in illusive wars? Why didn’t any of the shells, which have burned our tanks at the banks of Shat Al-Arab (the river in Basrah formed of the Tigris and Euphrates) and of which shrapnel tore my body apart many times? Why have I survived and must I cry alone here?

The questions that could be asked about this country and its simple dreams are the most difficult to answer along the history. In the land ruled by army commanders, the veteran’s only hope is to get a new tank for his son who is unemployed and who was trained by the Americans on operating Russian tanks when Al-Jafari was a prime minister. The son of the veteran was injured in Tikrit in a battle against Al-Qaeda and spent months at home to recover but he refrained going back to his battalion out of hesitation about today’s battles. Thinking too much of his father’s illusive wars, tanks, and gunpowder as well as thinking of nowadays armies, terrorists and improvised explosive bombs. The destiny of two generations of one family is drawn by gunpowder and trails of shells in the sky. The young man whose body “tasted” the improvised explosive devices of Al-Qaeda is tasting unemployment and poverty today, and that makes him think of going back to his battalion but the rules of the Sultan’s army (the prime minister) fails him to achieve that dream. Even the money he paid as bribery at “Haider-double sandwich bar” on the entrance of the Green Zone did not do him any good. He became a deserter with no chance of rejoining the army, and has a stigma of disgrace and destined to be unemployed. Exactly like his father, destined with the disgrace of the “illusive wars” which he spent his lifetime watching the tanks. 

The veteran stands alone yelling and asking me many questions about the past. He hopes that I find for him amongst my “contacts” a government official who can influence the return of his son to his battalion while I am just a columnist busy with writing news, which the government does not like but the man does not believe that.  

In front of this unregistered garage located behind Atlas cinema, I recall a scene of a lonesome cave from the movie “the Lords of the Rings” feeling for a moment that Iraq as a whole is hiding here in the shape of a veteran who lived centuries of illusion. In the tales of that man, ghosts of dead veterans “floating” back to Baghdad every night but they do not find it. All what is left of that “warrior” is crying, difficult questions, and dreams of the autumn of his life heard at dawn time by the statute of Abdulmohsin Al-Sa’doon while I, like a lunatic and futile, standing next to it in a dim and empty street waiting for a taxi. The sounds of soldiers’ boots who died in wars “drill” my head. Their ghosts fill the streets crowded at the entrance of the cinema, which does not exist anymore.  Like a lunatic and futile, I tease the statue of this “Basri leader” (a leader from Basrah meaning the figure of Abdulmohsin Al-Sa’doon) who committed suicide 90 years ago and tell him: do you hear the questions made by dead armies who still master the march and salute you every night when they pass by you defeated? Why don’t we find convincing answers to the arguments made by the poor who are increasing in number every day? Those poor people who can’t find the money to buy medicine for their asthma or find work opportunities in the armies of the present time? What’s wrong with the “sultans” (politicians) who are multiplying while their pockets are filled with corrupt commissions of buying more tanks? What else can Baghdad do but making me hear whimpers of the last dead soldiers guarding Atlas cinema when Al-Sa’doon Street is left alone at night?

The author is a journalist with Al Mada Newspaper in Baghdad

Translation: The Outsider







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