Taking things for granted. Or, as a very dear friend of mine used to say to me, “There you go.” I am sitting in Baghdad airport, waiting for my little Flying Carpet Airlines 20-seater prop aircraft to take me home to Beirut but the local Iraqi station manager, Mr Ghazwan, has not turned up like he used to. Without him, I can’t enter departures or check in.
Back in January, he was here, telling me he wouldn’t forget to take me through security, talking to an Iraqi officer who looked remarkably like him, telling the officer to look after me. Ghazwan spoke careful, grammatical English and would laugh at himself when he made mistakes.
So I call Ghazwan’s mobile and an old man answers. I want to speak to Ghazwan, I say. “Why?” Because I need to know when he’ll be at the airport. There is a kind of groan from the other end of the line. “He was killed.”
I sit there on my plastic airport seat, unable to speak. What? What do you mean? “He was killed by the enemy,” the old man says and I hear the receiver taken from him.
A young woman now, with good English. “Who are you?” A passenger. English. I start apologising. No one told me Ghazwan was dead. Even the Beirut travel agents still list his name as a Baghdad contact.
The young woman – it is his wife, or rather his young widow – mutters something about him being killed on the way to the airport and I ask when this happened. “On the 14th of March,” she says. I had last seen him exactly five weeks before his death.
And the story comes out. His brother was a security guard at the airport – presumably the officer who looked like him whom I had met in February – and the two men were leaving home together to go to work in the same car when gunmen shot the brother dead and killed Ghazwan in the same burst of fire. I apologise again. I say how sorry I am. There is an acknowledgement from the young woman and the mobile is switched off.
Taking things for granted. I am back in Beirut, watching the new Pope visit his native Germany. He meets Cologne’s Jewish community. He talks of the wickedness of the Jewish Holocaust. He should. He speaks warmly of Israel. Why not?
Then he meets the Muslim community and I see them on the screen, heads slightly bowed, eyes glancing furtively towards the cameras. To them he lectures on the evils of terrorism. It all seems logical even though I can never quite shake off the knowledge that the Pope was a wartime German anti-aircraft gunner. Anti-abortion, anti-gay and, once, anti-aircraft.
But then I sit up. In his first address, there is no word about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its expanding settlements on other people’s land, against all international law. And the Muslims, well, they do have to be reminded of their sins, of their duty to extirpate “terrorism”, to preach moderation at all times, to stop the scourge of suicide bombers.
And suddenly I am shocked at this profound lack of judgement on the Pope’s part. Yet meekly aware that I had myself gone along with it. It was the Pope’s job, wasn’t it, to apologise to the Jews of Europe. And it was his job, wasn’t it, to warn the Muslims of Europe.
Thus do we fall in line. Yes, he should apologise for the Holocaust – to the end of time.
But might not His Holiness, the former anti-aircraft gunner, have also apologised to the Muslims for the bloody and catastrophic invasion of Iraq – no, no, of course there’s no parallel in evil, scale, etc – but he might have at least shown the courage of his predecessor who stood up against George Bush and his ferocious war.
Taking things for granted. In Baghdad and then in Beirut, I read of the latest “anti-terror” laws of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. Of course, of course. After suicide bombers on the London Underground, what else do we expect? Our precious capital and its people must be protected.
Having been three or four trains in front of the King’s Cross tube that exploded on 7 July, I take these things seriously myself. And were I back on the London Tube today, I’d probably be trying to avoid young men with backpacks – as well as armed members of the Metropolitan Police.
And after all the panjandrums in the press about our wonderful security forces, I’d also be taking a close look at these fine and patriotic folk. These are the men (and women?) who lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These are the chaps who couldn’t get a single advance trace of even one of the four suicide bombings on 7 July (nor the un-lethal ones a few days later). These are the lads who gunned down a helpless civilian as he sat on a Tube train.
But hold on a moment, I say to myself again. The 7 July bombings would be a comparatively quiet day in Baghdad. Was I not at the site of the an-Nahda bus station bombings after 43 civilians – as innocent, their lives just as precious as those of Londoners – were torn to pieces last week.
At the al-Kindi hospital, relatives had a problem identifying the dead. Heads were placed next to the wrong torsos, feet next to the wrong legs. A problem there. But there came not a groan from England. We were still locked into our 7 July trauma. No detectives are snooping around the an-Nahda bomb site looking for clues. They’re already four suicide bombs later. An-Nahda is history.
And it dawns on me, sitting on my balcony over the Mediterranean at the end of this week, that we take far too much for granted. We like to have little disconnects in our lives. Maybe this is the fault of daily journalism – where we encapsulate the world every 24 hours, then sleep on it and start a new history the next day in which we fail totally to realise that the narrative did not begin before last night’s deadline but weeks, months, years ago.
For it is a fact, is it not, that if “we” had not invaded Iraq in 2003, those 43 Iraqis would not have been pulverised by those three bombs last week. And it is surely a fact that, had we not invaded Iraq, the 7 July bombs would not have gone off (and I am ignoring Lord Blair’s piffle about “evil ideologies”). In which case the Pope would not last week have been lecturing German Muslims on the evils of “terrorism”.
And of course, had we not invaded Iraq, Mr Ghazwan would be alive and his brother would be alive and his grieving widow would have been his young and happy wife and his broken father would have been a proud dad. But, as that friend of mine used to say, “there you go”.