Chapter 11: Walls


    Monday, January 5, 2004

    From Babylon & Baghdad, Iraq

    Let me start out by telling you that I have a cold. This, in Iraq, is not unusual. What is unusual is that this is the worst cold in the history of colds.

    This is not just a cold. It is a freezing, sleeting, blizzard of viral activity borne of microbes which have been hidden in the Mesopotamian desert for four or five millennia just waiting … waiting … waiting for me to show up and when they spotted me they so carefully, so cunningly, so stealthily gathered their forces…

    Then they attacked!

    The problem with a cold is that it doesn't sound as bad as it makes you feel. If you say you have acute rhinosinusitus then, THEN, maybe people will feel badly for you, although with a nose like mine I like to stay away from any phrase starting with the word "rhino."

    I want everyone in Iraq; not just Americans or Brits; but Poles and Yugoslavs and Koreans and Iraqis to stop everything they are doing, pat me gently on the head and say, in their own dialect, "there, there."

    No one has done that. Not a single person. I'm even willing to have someone say it to me in French.

    Maybe not French. I'm not that ill.

    The other night I took some Theraflu medicine designed for nighttime use which should be known as Theraflu Knockout Drops.

    I had a minor reaction: I dreamed that I heard C-130 gunships firing overhead all night. I awoke in the morning - still feeling miserable - but now worried that I was losing my mind, dreaming about gunships.

    My roommate told me there had been C-130 gunships firing at bad guys for about a hour the night before.

    I was much relieved.

    But I'm still very, very sick with this cold. And I want you, right now, to stop reading and say, "there, there."

    Thank you.

    -----

    I may have discussed with you previously that there is a phrase of art I use here which describes people who sit around coming up with great ideas but never have a plan to implement any of them.

    I call this "Sitting in Baghdad Thinking Lofty Thoughts."

    I had such a Lofty Thought just the other day. I don't often have them, so I didn't recognize it right away.

    Here's how it came about:

    On New Year's Day - Thursday - the Chaplain thought it would be a good idea to plan a trip to Babylon. Babylon is one of those places to which, if you don't go while you happen to be in Iraq, you're not likely to get to for a weekend getaway once you're back in New Jersey.

    Lt. Col. Mike Ceroli who is the commander of one of the battalions stationed here in Iraq came round a couple of days ahead of January 1 and suggested we lead a "commander's recon" to scout the route, look for trouble spots and so on.

    I know I have told you that I was in the New Jersey and Ohio National Guard 30 years ago, right? I might have also mentioned that I rarely left the Armory grounds for any reason. I worked in the supply room in New Jersey, and I was in charge of ordering training films and manuals in Ohio.

    The most dangerous thing I did was running out to the magazine shop on Sunday mornings to pick up a newspaper; the danger totally existed in being discovered walking back to the armory with the newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other by the First Sergeant.

    Helping lead "commanders' recons" on a 90 minute drive through what might well be hostile territory was not in my particular MOS - Military Occupational Specialty.

    My MOS was: Get through the six-year enlistment without doing anything which would actually cause me to be sent to Vietnam.

    Now look at me:

    (Mullfoto by Renaldo Ramon)

    Ranger Rick.

    Remember that business from "Apocalypse Now" when the farther Captain Willard went upstream looking for Marlon Brando the crazier he got?

    I'm about 45 days from being found sitting in a cave muttering, "Oh, the horror."

    -----

    On Wednesday LTC Ceroli showed up with two humvees in tow to head down to Babylon.

    As happens in these cases one of the vehicles developed a problem with a generator so we had to go back to the compound and get another vehicle - this an SUV.

    I was invited to switch from the back seat of the humvee (iron doors, no windows) to the back seat of the SUV (sheet metal doors, windows, heater & CD player) but, as I was in my Ranger- Rich-I-Laugh-in-The-Face-of-Danger mode I took my seat along with a 9mm Beretta and an M-16 rifle.

    The road to Babylon takes you through a good portion of southern Baghdad down toward Hillah. We had two choke points; one while still in Baghdad and the second as we went through the town of Al Haswah.

    The issue is this: You are clearly Americans, as most Iraqis do not own either SUVs nor humvees; you are bristling with rifles and pistols pointed out of every window with a soldier in the turret manning a machine gun; you are 16 inches away from people walking along the sidewalks; and you are moving at about 2 miles per hour.

    All you can do is hope that most of them like you. And you hope it a lot.

    As it happened, most of them did like us, as exhibited by this young boy.

    I had absolutely no expectations about Babylon. I, truthfully, expected there to be piles of rubble which would be described as where the palace once was, or where the hanging gardens once were.

    In the event, it was much, much better than that. It costs a dollar to get in and you are told that there is an expectation of a tip for the docent. I was a little disappointed that there was no senior citizen price, but I ponied up the dollar and went in.

    SIDEBAR:

    I want to talk, for a minute, about this whole business of bargaining or haggling. People are very proud of the fact that they have haggled with a local selling rugs, or jewelry, or whatever and gotten the best possible price.

    The locals, of course, know that the Westerners will haggle so they jack up the starting price and then go through the verbal ballet ending up with either a sale or a Westerner who didn't get something he or she wanted because the merchant wouldn't meet their offer.

    Haggle has its root in the word "hag" which is defined by Messers Merriam and Webster as "a female demon, fury, harpy, witch, an ugly or evil-looking old woman and, a woman of haggard or slatternly appearance."

    These people make about fifty bucks a month. Let's say I'm wrong by a factor of ten - they may 500 dollars per month. I do not understand the joy someone takes in saying "he wanted $8 for it, but I got it for $7."

    I went out shopping today for a new holster. I found one I liked; asked the price and was told $13. Normally when you prepare to walk away the guy will say a lower price. If he does, that's the price I pay. This guy simply put the holster aside when I asked him to.

    I walked around a bit didn't see one I liked any better, so I went back and paid … thirteen dollars. Could I have gotten it for 10?

    Probably.

    Did I need the three dollars more than the guy selling his wares out of a cloth lean-to?

    No.

    When I got back to the office I found that my really neat $13 holster had been re-built and they put it back together such that my 9mm hangs upside down. I think this is almost unique enough to walk around with it that way, but I probably won't.

    So, my $13 was spent for naught.

    So what? I have spent more than that at the Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC in a day.

    In Bahrain a couple of weeks ago some people went rug shopping and spent hours bargaining with the guy who owned the shop.

    Bahrainis are not Iraqis. This guy probably had a million dollars worth of stock in his store, so that is obviously not the same thing.

    Thus endeth the lesson.

    END SIDEBAR

    Babylon, when it was big digs, stretched along both sides of the Euphrates River. The river now runs some 20 kilometers away. Babylon was the home of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC), Nebuchadnezzar (605-563 BC), and Alexander the Great (who died there in 322 BC); it was the home to the Tower of Babel, the home of the Hanging Gardens, and was the place where the phrase "the handwriting on the wall" originated when Daniel read the words which appeared on the palace wall and foretold the collapse of the kingdom.

    This is a map on the wall near the current entryway:

    In the lower right-hand area there is a notation which says, "You are here," which, for some reason, struck me as very amusing.

    Babylon was surrounded by a massive wall which protected the city from marauders.

    Here is what's left of it:

    Interestingly, inside the massive wall, I was told, there was a maze which stretched dozens of yards, so even if the marauders breached the outer wall, they would have to negotiate the maze before they could get into the main area.

    Most of the really good stuff at Babylon was stolen by the Germans and is now on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

    Here, for example is a photo of the Ishtar Gate - the main entryway to Babylon from the Pergamon Museum's website

    And this is a photo in Babylon looking toward where the Ishtar Gate would have been had the Krauts not stolen it. Where the hell is Indy when we need him?

    The Hanging Gardens of Babylon - one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - are, of course, no longer there; nor is anyone, today, exactly certain where they were. The Tower of Babel is no longer there, either. I think the guide told me where it was, but I didn't understand him.

    The Lion of Babylon

    shows a lion astride a human. The face of the lion was chopped off by some invader or another thinking that the inside of the Lion was made of gold.

    It was made of stone. Goofballs.

    We visited what is left of the grand palace where the stage upon which the kings of Babylon had their thrones offered this:


    I'm going to make Marietta College famous if it kills me.

    This is as close to sitting on the throne of power I have been since I accidentally used Ambassador Bremer's bathroom a couple of weeks ago.

    Most of these things date from about 605 BC which, even I know, is about 2,600 years ago.

    The tour lasted for about a half hour - about a third of the time the guide usually takes - because half our group stayed with the vehicles (and the weapons) while the other half took the tour. Then we switched places.

    I gave the guide $10 for the five of us who were on the tour; he offered to sell us dreadfully printed guide books - in full color - for five dollars apiece but only after we promised to hide them because he was not supposed to be selling them.

    On the way home we came face to face with another bit of history:

    Here's the Lofty Thought:

    2,600 years ago the Babylonians protected themselves with large walls and mazes.

    Here is a photo of one of the perimeters of the Green Zone:

    And here is the maze which you encounter once you've gotten on the other side of the wall:

    In two-thousand, six hundred years from Babylon to Operation Iraqi Freedom the preferred defense against marauders in Iraq has not changed one bit.

    Inneresting, huh?

    Be safe.

    -- END --

    Note: The Iraq Travelogue emails are distributed through the services of Focus Data Solutions, Inc.

    Click here to return to the Mullings page