Iraq-a-Bye Baby

By Jheri St. James

     “A crew chief took the bag and jar with him on the flight. They were going somewhere else. He asked me where in Iraq? I said anywhere. I didn’t really care. He said, ‘How about Basra?’ I asked him, ‘Are you crazy? I mean they’re shooting helicopters down right and left, and you’re going to stop for dirt?’ So he stopped in Basra, just for the dirt. It was great for Common Ground 191, but not for him. That’s why I couldn’t get his name. I know I made him nervous enough that he changed his shirt when he came back to talk to me, because they have their names on their shirts. A crew chief is a mechanic who operates the guns, the big 50-caliber-plus guns on the sides of the helicopter, but he’s also responsible for maintenance of the helicopter.”

     “What were his feelings about doing the collection?”

     “Oh, he was excited. Two crew chiefs were fighting over who was going to do it. He loves art and he’s thinking (and I’m thinking) that maybe I’m going to put a good word in for him with his boss.”

     The speaker is an airline employee, a friend of Common Ground 191, who has requested anonymity. When he found himself going near Iraq in January 2005, he sought someone to collect soil in this inflammatory land.

     “Basra is in the south of Iraq. It’s not been a very active city as far as violence because British troops have been there. It’s probably the closest city to Kuwait in Iraq.”

     “Are there any nicknames for that place?”

     “I’m sure a lot people have a lot of names for it.”

     “ Can you describe the soil for me?”

     “ To me, the soil looked like a combination of rock and sand. That’s how I told the difference between them. The soil from Iraq had like hard stuff in it, and Kuwait was sandy.”

     “So it was an ‘underground’ project in Iraq?”

     “Well, it was just a favor. I didn’t expect them to stop. I thought wherever they were going they could just scoop a little dirt. They decided where to go pick it up. It was exciting . . . The Dutch troops were just leaving, because they’re done, the Dutch. The elections are done; they’re done. Nobody wants to be there. Now the British are going to put more troops in in. They’re replacing twelve hundred with six hundred . . .”
This was a conversation about dirt?

* * *

     Mesopotamia, the land at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, has always been called “The Cradle of Civilization,” because it is the site of one of the world’s first civilizations, dating back to c.3500 B.C. Sumeria, Assyria and Babylonia were three of its ancient states. Later, Baghdad became the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, the center of the Arab world during the 9th century, its golden age. Called Iraq today, this country is the heart-shaped centerpiece of the countries of Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. The heart reclines on its side, perhaps weary of the all the centuries of warfare and destruction enacted on the soil which gave birth to human culture.

     Today a new ideological “baby” is being put into the “Cradle of Civilization.” Only time will tell how the baby grows. In June 2004, political sovereignty was placed in the Iraqi Interim Government and the democratic election of its president, Ghazi al-Ujayl al-Yawr, was held in January 2005—the same day Common Ground 191’s soil was being collected and shipped back to the U.S. by the anonymous helicopter crew chief and our airline worker friend, a notable coincidence.

     The Republic of Iraq (Al Jumhuriyah al Iraqiyah) is mostly desert, with mountainous regions along the Iranian and Turkish borders in the north. The area surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is low-lying grassland, the lower plain including a fertile delta where the two rivers meet, forming the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which flows into the Persian Gulf. Iraq is a strategic location in so many ways: historical, environmental, geographical and of course international.

     If you remove the “S” from the word soil, you end up with “oil” and it is oil, the underground “black gold,” which fuels Iraq’s destiny today. And it was two underground, anonymous patrons of the arts who added the soil of this dramatically changing region to Common Ground 191, garnered on a most significant day in Iraq’s history, in perhaps the most adventurous story in our journal. Iraq’s soil has always been and is still culturally hallowed, and now that story becomes a unique part of our art project. Thank you Mssrs. Anonymous.





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