Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"The color has nothing to do with the past or the present"

Caption: Iraqi railroad engineer Abdul Latif Salman walks along Saddam Hussein's old train near Baghdad in the Al Jazeera documentary "Witness: The Green Train".

Image credit: Screenshot of this Al Jazeera video by Cujo359

Something I don't discuss here, because it's seldom relevant to anything, is that I've always been interested in trains. Yes, I have some model trains. Every once in a great while, I even pull them out of their boxes and run them.

So when I saw a video at Al Jazeera about trains in Iraq, I was especially interested. First, of course, to see the trains. There's another reason, though. Trains go everywhere in a country that's prosperous. They do that in America, even, though they're far more likely to be freight trains. Back in the day, they used to say that you could see a different version of America from trains. You could see peoples' back yards, the industrial buildings they try to keep away from the rich parts of town, and lots of other things you wouldn't see taking a car, let alone a plane. And so it seems to be in Iraq, too.

Here's a quote from the Al Jazeera web page for the video:
Once upon a time Iraq boasted an extensive railway network criss-crossing the country. But like so much else there, trains were a victim of the years of conflict and now only a skeleton service still runs.

Sixty-one year-old Abdul Latif Salman has a unique connection to the railways and a personal history that mirrors the turbulence of recent decades.

In his youth he was one of three drivers assigned to Saddam Hussein's private luxury train.

He was later a prisoner of war in Iran for ten years and his son was killed by a bomb attack on a government building in Iraq.

Witness: The Green Train
That last paragraph says so much about Iraq. In a way, the American invasion was only the latest in a long line of miseries the Iraqis have had to endure over the years. Their war with Iran, years of Saddam Hussein's rule and the embargoes it brought on, and finally the invasion and the civil war that followed have come one after another to this once prosperous country.

The title of the report is "The Green Train", a reference to the color the train that runs from Baghdad to Basra used to be. They're painted blue now, for reasons that Abdul Salman doesn't understand. His thought on that is the title of this article: "The color has nothing to do with the past or the present." It seems like Iraq's leaders have taken a page out of our book - if something is unpopular, make some quick superficial change, and people will feel better. At least, such must be the theory behind that sort of rule. Whatever it is, I don't think it works very well. The only green train I saw was the old train of Saddam's, still in a train yard where it had been stripped bare by looters after the Iraqi government collapsed.

As we follow Abdul Salman we see the realities of the new Iraq - the road blocks, the almost constant presence of security people, the lack of crowds. Salman is a fan of movies. He mentions having seen The Birds and Psycho, for instance. He mentions that in today's Iraq, a few hundred people gathered together in a crowd would be too tempting a target for bombings. Things weren't like that before the invasion, he says, and I'm sure he's right. Maybe if there's any lesson we should learn from the disaster of our war in Iraq, it's that this is what happens after. We should also remember that there are reasons you don't want government so small you can drown it in a bathtub. We drowned Iraq's government, and the result was years of chaos.

People keep talking every September about how I'm supposed to remember 9/11. I say they should remember this. Remember Abdul Salman's decade as a prisoner of war, in a war we helped continue because we didn't like what Iran did to us. Remember his dead son, killed in the unrest that followed the invasion. Remember the cinemas no one can visit for fear they'll be killed thanks to that unrest. Multiply all that by tens of thousands of times, for everyone it happened to in Iraq when we invaded the place. Remember what misdirected anger and obsessive fear can do to a country, when you have the power that we do.

Remember that, for fuck sake.

As someone who is interested in trains, I can see something of American rail fans in Abdul Salman. He knows the history of his country's trains. He talks about Agatha Christie having ridden trains there while she and her husband lived in the country. You can imagine him shaking his head as he relates the story of how American armed convoys expected his coworkers to stop a train for them. He wonders why they have to change the color of the trains, when the color they were was something people knew.

Abdul Latif Salman sees a part of his country many people probably don't. If you want to see what Iraq looks like today, watching this video is well worth the time. It's something you're not likely to see on U.S. television for many years to come.

UPDATE: Changed the paragraph that referred to the death of Salman's son. His son was killed by a suicide bomber.

No comments: