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We passed jade-coloured minarets that looked like the stems of exotic plants. The dome between the stems had a sensuous, green curve. White and yellow tiles ringed the dome’s base. Blue, green and gold tiles covered the mosque’s walls. The people entering its high, wide door resembled colourful specimens being lured into the heart of a wondrous plant.
A tank turret faced us down the street. Vehicles were parked bumper to bumper. An armoured vehicle sat before the tank. The whites in a black soldier’s face – like ivory in ebony – were made even more ivory by amazement as our eyes passed so close that only thin glass separated our corneas, the soldier’s shocked ivories shining with spotlight astonishment in his ebony face.
We were as ignorant as he was as to why we were there – thanks to the driver.
“Maybe this a short cut?” Tariq suggested.
“The driver must know,” James replied, “what’s happening here?!”
“I hope not,” I said.
Ahead, two tanks were moving side by side, separated by a dirt traffic island. The tanks’ mincing motors created a grinding roar that sounded like metal being plastered and ground together against a soundtrack of breaking glass. Both tanks spun and faced us. The rapid about-faces of those metal-monster pirouettes occurred with perfect synchronisation – like a dance of armour. Another moment where exotic contentment obliterated concern.
The driver darted onto the island to avoid death. Brown dust rose. The tanks brushed past on each side of us, our vision blocked by swirling dust. Then the dust opened. Machine-gunners were poised to shoot on top of the tanks. Eyes, like stagnant pools of coldness, were staring down at me; a gun barrel faced my window. Not a flicker of sympathy, intrigue or compassion sat in the machine-gunner’s drained iris pools, like a reptile of lawlessness. I felt as if I was floating, buoyed by thermals of hot information, lifted up by wonder.
And death is nothing. It happens just like that.
“This,” James said, dryly, “isn’t the highway.”
We got back onto the paved road. I was still feeling elated at the sight of those spinning tanks. I never imagined that such bulk could have such nimbleness. It was wonderful seeing the unimaginable – sometimes.
Women in blue, wearing pink headscarves, were whipping black-and-white cows up a steep incline. Dawn’s violet ringed the earth’s distant lip. A woman in burgundy-pink emerged from a palm grove beneath the incline. Yellow dates were hanging under the trees’ boughs, like golden eggs under mothering sheathes of branches and leaves, the colours colliding gorgeously. Pastel vapours sat in rainbow bands on the world’s edge. I now didn’t care that we weren’t on the main road. I was buzzing with gladdened fulfilment. Maybe soon I’ll regret this, I thought. But I’m going to love it before I do.
Traffic slowed at a bridge that arched over the Euphrates. We crawled behind an oil tanker. Morning’s blurred eye, like fogged vision, was reflected in the river’s opacity. Fuzzy palm reflections were painted into the pale-blue glass that faced the sky. The seconds tightened, like wire, around our rigid bodies. We felt strapped in by this imaginary wire; opposite-direction, bumper-to-bumper drivers were staring at us, with predatory curiosity, like cats observing humanoid chickens, their unshaven faces, sharp, cold, and feline, spouting carnivorous forests of long whiskers. Unwanted curiosity glinted like metal on their dark faces. They stared with a kind of dour, deadpan savagery. The traffic crawled. Those faces stared. The wire tightened, straining, croaking, creaking – snapping on the other side of the river where we were able to fly away, leaving the oil tanker behind.
We went parallel to the river. Relief made me feel as if I was cruising in silence in a balloon at high altitude. Men in white fabrics were walking under palms on the other bank, their heads wrapped in red-and-white scarves. The palms’ trunks resembled high stems that exploded at their tops with green eruptions. My temples were oscillating with a kind of swishing clarity. All failings and hopes got swept aside by grace. Two mosque domes, side by side, amid the high, sheltering palms, were inlaid with gold that sparkled with elegant tastefulness. Pleasure and wonderment hit me as I realised just how much tourism potential Iraq had; it was like seeing a brilliant future emerging from a lavish past.
Landscape of Worry continues...