CULTURE

A Japanese writer visits pre-war Iraq

When the Japanese writer and poet Natsuki Ikezawa visited Iraq in the fall of 2002, his impression from the Western media was that he would encounter a militant mood and a strong anti-Western sentiment. What he saw proved the Western media wrong. «From a small bridge in Iraq» (Iraku no Chiisana Hashi Wo Watatte), a travelogue he wrote from his nearly one-month stay in Iraq whose Greek translation by Maria Argyraki was recently published by Olkos publications, is a pleasant and varied account of his observations. Unquestionably anti-American and anti-war, it casts a sympathetic glance at the Iraqi people and blends some unusual remarks on everyday life with useful facts on politics and the economy. The pocket-sized book also contains the black-and-white photographs that photographer Seiichi Motohashi (his album on the victims of Chernobyl is one of his most famous works) took during the trip. Like the text, they too show the peaceful, amiable side of pre-war Iraq. Ikezawa, an awarded poet in his country and a translator of Greek poetry into Japanese (he is also credited for introducing the work of the director Theodoros Angelopoulos in Japan) is moreover considered a political activist who has focused many of his writings on the global effects of the West’s cultural imperialism. His trip to Iraq was planned with an archaeological interest in mind but seemed all the more challenging in the light of the impending war. He traveled from Mosul in the north all the way to Nasiriyia in the south, and throughout seems to have retained the most positive impressions. He writes about them both with assertion and moderation, but does not claim to draw broader evaluations out of them. Ikezawa often makes discerning observations about what would appear to be life’s ordinary aspects and writes about them with a vivid and unpretentious style. He talks about the excellent food, the bountiful servings and the warm hospitality that he came across. He also notes that this sense of balanced life seems all the more important considering that the Iraqi people have already suffered the first Gulf War and the dire effects of the two-year Western embargo. At the time of the embargo the average monthly income dropped from $200 dollars to just $3 and in 2001 over 1.5 million people died as a result of the poverty and deprivation that the embargo brought along. Ikezawa also unveils issues that lie at the heart of Western prejudice. He talks about the position of women, their presence in public spaces, their attire (which he notes as far away from the strictures of Iran) and their exclusion from guest homecoming customs. Some remarks are unusual. For example, he notes that the only currency in Iraq is a 250 bill, which equals 0.12 euros. Everything is paid in multiples of that bill; a good meal, for example, comes to six 250 bills, the rough equivalent of one dollar or euro. In terms of politics, Ikezawa uses common sense. While not in favor of Hussein, he justifies his popularity as symbolic of a national sentiment raised against the prospect of yet another Western invasion. In respect of the decision of the American government to invade Iraq, Ikezawa is unforgiving. This is what sets the book’s tone and what renders this travelogue a tribute to peace and peoples’ right to their freedom. The epilogue by Pantelis Boukalas matches this anti-war mood. Also included in the book is a very useful chronology tracing Iraq’s history from 1915 to the present. The events which took place during the recent war are unraveled in detail. Read against the images of the smiling Iraqis that Motohashi took during the trip, these events seem all the more absurd. They are also appalling, which is what the book is meant to remind us of.