Singing on the Streets of Baghdad
Written by Cameron before and during
April 2003 trip to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
We will be returning to the Middle East in eight days. We feel called to
stay in touch with our brothers and sisters in the Arab world. As our
nation wages war we feel called to wage peace and will represent an
America that is rarely portrayed on TV screens. We wish to do all that we can to
cross the bridges of cultural understanding creating friendships and
connecting with the people of these countries through the power of their
We are members of a gigantic global voice now. We the People insist upon
our rights to trade and build and worship and sing and dance on this
beautiful green jewel of a planet... we have always felt our psychic
connection and now our internet connections are giving us voices and
votes which can be counted and we come from every corner of the earth and we
say to the old heirarchical governments: "Leave us alone! We have lives to
lead! Get out of our way! We are the people and we are the singers and
the lovers and the cultivators! We will dismantle the treaties of
We will learn each others' languages and songs and a global democracy
can now emerge. Those who try to keep their power by instilling fear between
peoples can no longer succeed. We have sung and danced together in
hundreds of tribal manifestations... oh the songs... oh the dances... oh the
courtships... we are done with rule by fear!"
Arrived at airport in Cairo at 3:00 am tuesday... yes, worried... what will
I say to the 25 million Caireens...?
I tell the taxi dispatcher in the airport that I am feeling very badly
because my American government has chosen the path of attack...
He looks into my eyes: "Is that the way you really feel?" he asks...
"Yes," I respond.
"Then that is what shall determine your destiny, my friend!" he tells me
with a smile.
Soon we were in the cab, slowly meandering toward downtown, bathing in the
warm welcome from the driver and his friend... we paused in front of the
the hotel ($10/night) so that we could take turns playing my nay (middle
eastern reed flute) and sing another song together... These people know
that people are people... yes, our government is angering a huge piece (the
majority, I'm afraid) of the world... but that is the government... we are
Come on people! Let's remember to be our lusty beautiful selves... someday
the emerging global democracy will gently make obsolete the current
fear-based governments/protection racquets... we only have so many precious
lives to lead... we cannot afford this waste...
So, yes, we have been bathing in the warm welcoming extended to us
universally here... it is so easy if you just welcome yourself... then the
whole world welcomes you...
Climbing up into the hotel to find 8 or 9 men and a woman with her newborn
girl gathered to enjoy each others' company and ours... singing...
talking... 4 o'clock in the morning... ...the next day a full 12 hours on
the streets... bazaars... the Nile... the music shops... exotic essential
oils and aphrodisiacs... the restaurant with kanun (middle eastern zither)
and riq (tambourine) players... customers singing along...
I am the first of an army of American soldiers who have already lost...
We surrendered our hearts to Um Kolthoum, the most famous Egyptian
Goddess-singer, and now wander through the ecstatic alleyways of Cairo...
Wherever we go we want to be free to "try that to"... Eternal children of
the world, we become the singers when we hear the song...
...we become the acrobats when we see the dancing...
...we become the vendors when we see the selling...
...we become the cooks when we taste the cooking...
We are Americans we are Chinese...
We are Arabs and we are Turks...
...and we won't be be ruled by a bunch of jerks...
So it only took half an hour for my apprehension to dissolve into this warm
bath of hospitality...
Yesterday we made a dozen new friends on the streets and in the
marketplace... all that is necessary is to say "yes!"
We weave through endless mazes of people, carts and cars... a human soup as
thick as the richest stew... confidence in the human heart reflects on all
sides through this, one of the densest and tightest expressions of human
faith on planet earth: Cairo
And we tell them that thousands of our American friends back home are
sending the greeting through our hearts and songs... late last night
playing ouds (middle eastern lutes) in the shops on Mohammad Ali street...
We tell them that hundreds of our American friends are contributing to
support our ability to be here...
We tell them that dozens of our Arab-speaking friends back in America are
helping us dive more deeply into the songs and language and meanings of the
beautiful ancient cultures of the Arab world...
So there is no doubt, you see...
There is no hesitation about the opening of all of our hearts...
The eyes, as always, speak the truth... There is no fear...
We are truly blessed to be here...
And yes, every moment the war is hurting our hearts...
The woman claps her hands in front of her news-stand on the street corner
in time to the music... she is happy about something... The grandmother
hobbles through the traffic on bent legs, wincing from the pain, but still
a part of this celebration of buying and selling, coming and going, talking
and listening and feeling... never stopping twenty four seven...: CAIRO
Those of you who know these parts of the world share already in knowledge of
these things we report... But others, who have never traveled here, or who
were not ready to truly join this vast human celebration, need to receive this
news: forget fear and join us here where the ancient wisdom speaks so clearly.
A rich person is not she/he who has the most, but rather she/he who needs
From Cameron and Kristina in Cairo, Egypt:
Today we held our own demonstration in Tahrir Square, in the heart of
downtown Cairo, the same square being used by the thousands of Egyptians to
protest the war being waged by America, "the last surviving superpower."
We did not have an anti-war demonstration. We held a peace and music
demonstration. We didn't have to explain it, really...
The Egyptians immediately were thrilled to hear us singing their music and
we were surrounded by dozens of smiling, dancing, clapping young men and
women. We sang for an hour or more. Kristina danced with young Egyptian
women... and men... A 3-year-old boy danced exhuberantly in the center of
the crowd. The old woman with missing teeth pleaded for another verse from
Abd El Halim...
At this very same moment, not too far to the east, many people are dying in
Baghdad because of the incomprehensibly strange dreamworld inhabited by
certain "heads of state."
Really, the Egyptians, polite and accomodating as always, seem as
nonplussed, confused, shocked and, yes angry, as you might expect. I think
they live more in the moment, most of them, than we do. You don't see them
holding the same tensions in their bodies...
For the last few days we have been learning a musical prayer in arabic. We
sing this in reverence to the tragedy unfolding.... "T'ala al batru
It's not clear that reverance is more appropriate than boistrous
The crowd trades songs with us... many songs we do and don't know...
Rhythmic chants and beautiful love songs.
A journalist from an Arab-language newspaper approaches and asks our
opinions... translation happens haltingly... these are not the rich people,
well-trained in languages... these are the people who call downtown Cairo,
this "village" of 25 million people, home.
We are gradually, now that I have an oud and can play on the streets and in
the restaurants and schools, becoming known in our little downtown
This afternoon, thanks to our precious musical connections in friendship,
we spent several hours playing with teachers at the Cairo College of Music
across the Nile on the island of Zamalek... These musical professors say
that it is always the same: the people and the governments belong to
different species. We, the people, watch helplessly while the govenments
wreak destruction... ...we choose to play another classical piece of
music... we have kanun, nay, oud and, of course, our voices and Kristina's
Really, I feel sick inside...
Tonight the men on our street, yes from our little downtown Cairo
neighborhood, who now know us from our little hotel, invited us to sing and
play in the tavern on the corner... Our songs were highly appreciated and
we were rewarded with many more bottles of beer than we could possibly
"America is 10,000 miles away..." mused one man, showing some anger, "why
are they coming all the way over here to kill our (here he used "our" in
solidarity with Iraqi people) women and babies? No one in Iraq has attacked
He told Kristina that she must write a letter to Barbara Bush about this,
assuming, I suppose, that she could drive some sense into her husband's
Really, I must just hope now that the war ends quickly so that fewer human
souls are maimed and killed. But tonight I am reading things on the news on
the internet about the numbers of deaths which are making me lose another
level of hope... I guess we all we hoping that somehow these so-called
"smart bombs" could miss all human targets... but it is simply not the
case... I can't go on in this vein... you can read the news for yourselves.
What I can do is tell you that today in downtown Cairo, in Tahrir Square,
Cameron and Kristina were welcomed and told that we could consider Egypt to
be our home any time we should choose...
Really, that is one of the very touching things we were told... and yes, we
are telling the people that thousands of people in America do receive our
e-mail messages, such as this one, and that news of the sweet nature of
Arabic-speaking people is getting out.
One of the men whom we met tonight has a farm back in Kentucky... He lived
in America for 25 years, raising horses and frankincense... After 9/11 his
barn was set on fire. Broken-hearted he returned to Egypt... Will he ever
go back? ...he shakes his head...
Really: for so long these tragedies seemed like something awful that could
possibly happen and we chose to hold hope that somehow they could be
avoided... Well... today the unthinkable horrors of war are a living
breathing reality staring us in the face... What are we to make of the
decision-makers who led so many innocent people into this place? We really
must make our feelings know. The writing is on the wall.
I'm sorry, but America, as the last surviving superpower, had every
opportunity to set an example of leadership with something more holy than
"might making right" and the deployment of, yes, weapons of mass
destruction... Who is responsible for losing and wasting that opportunity?
Empires who choose to rule with the iron fist... their days become
numbered... please, Americans, wake up... the flesh on one body is not
worth more or less than the flesh on another...
PS: We passed our camera around to the crowd in Tahrir Square... god
willing, the camera worked and there will be photographs...
Dear Musical Mission Friends,
It feels, from closeup here in the Egyptian and Jordanian Arab world, like
we are in a whirlwind of a million changing thoughts and emotions.
The Arab world is shocked that Iraqis would actually welcome the Americans
and surrender so easily.
Thank God the war is winding down and the lives of American young men
and women and the lives of the Iraqi civilians and "soldiers" (soldiers are
all-to-obviously just people too) will no longer be in such danger.
Everyone has been wrong and everyone has been right. No matter which
"opinion" we have been holding, pages are turning and the emotionally
charged logics are becoming obsolete.
A gardener here in Aqaba today said to Kristina, "Of course I was against
the war, but now I see pictures on TV showing happy Iraqis, so I now I am
happy for them and hope only for the best!"
Yesterday, while the looting in Baghdad continued, our Egyptian taxi driver
expressed: "No one knows what will happen or who will do what. But the
people remain the people. For thousands of years we are simply trying to
live in peace while the leaders are unpredictable. No one can stop these
wars. The people, like you and me, are helpless."
And when we arrived into Jordan our taxi driver and another Jordanian
passenger didn't even try to analyze the world with these two American
mystery characters named Cameron and Kristina. Once they discovered that we
sing and play Arabic music, they wanted to sing, which we did, as usual.
With the bond of musical friendship established it felt, as always, like we
were part of the same family.
The page has turned. We must not remain stuck in obsolete viewpoints. The
forces toward healing the wounds in Iraq must proceed as rapidly as
possible. For this to be achieved, hatchets must be buried and new
However mistrustful of the American government's motives for attacking
Saddam Hussein many of us may have felt, we must support cooperation and
growth. The old concepts of "good and evil" can, hopefully, dissolve. With
our united efforts and prayers we can move forward.
We have personally been creating friendships based on love through
music in both America and the Arab world, all the while knowing that our
Iraqi friends have been themselves divided about the merits of America's
attack on Saddam Hussein's rule: some seeing only evil in America's war and
others hoping for a quick American victory over Saddam's regime so that
things may begin again with a fresh start.
As I say, the page has now been turned. There has been a war and people
have been wounded and killed. It looks like it is about over. Those of us
who were not there can never know the exact feelings of those who were.
From here in Southern Jordan the latest Arabic comment to me today was:
"Six months from now things will be much better for the Iraqi people... We
will hope for this..."
And we just spent the last two hours down beside the waters of the Red Sea
here in the Gulf of Aqaba playing with thirty or forty dancing Arab and
Bedouin young people.
It all began when a tea vendor noticed my oud and invited us to play. We
played and sang. Before long we were taking turns playing my oud. There was
much singing and dancing. I played the nay (flute) along with many local
Bedouin melodies. Kristina and I were both pulled to our feet to dance. We
sang 4 or 5 popular songs and were treated to lots of free tea. We can send
Whenever someone asked me where we were from and I replied "America," I
thought I detected a slight hesitation or look of astonishment before the
hospitable "you are welcome... welcome to Jordan...!" ...or maybe it was
just my own feeling of sadness that made me have this perception... I don't
know... anyway, we didn't discuss the Iraqi/American situation...
And, of course, now we must turn attention back toward sending work and
attention and prayers back toward the Palestinian situation. Relying on all
the old hatreds will not bring a better situation for the millions of
living souls involved. Fresh and open-minded work is desperately needed.
Tomorrow we will travel north to Amman and, hopefully, visit with Iraqi
Complex allegiances surround us all:
When we visit our Arab friends, we offend some Americans and Persians and
When we visit our Turkish friends, we offend some Greeks, Armenians and
The list goes on and on...
Trying to live in this complex soup provides an opportunity for the most
sacred ways of being to float to the top.
Here are the latest results:
1) We should not indulge in humor at the expense of others. This creates a
way of thinking which eventually becomes an obstacle.
2) We should not create or play violent video or war games, nor watch
violent "entertainment." This contributes toward making this violence seem
3) We should never introduce violence of any sort into lovemaking. The
sacred connection between man and woman needs the fragrance and stillness
of a peaceful garden in order to manifest and deepen.
4) We should never believe in nor be convinced by the fears of others. Your
own trust in love and friendship is the only reality.
5) Trust the natural attractions that exist between us. Ignore efforts of
those who would have you feel guilty for accepting loving gestures from
6) Learn at least five languages in this lifetime. You will gain as many
souls. We live in a multi-colored garden and must learn to see beauty
through many ways of thinking and feeling and being.
7) Do not believe in "good" and "evil." We all contain each other. Through
an open heart we learn to include and understand everyone.
8) Do not pass up good opportunities. Whatever effort is required will be
transformed into ecstasy.
9) Do not give up.
10) You write this one... send it to me...
Sunday, April 13:
We arrive in Amman, the capitol of Jordan, by bus from Aqaba, a four or
five hour ride. Swarms of taxi drivers pounce onto us as we extract our
luggage from the bus. Kristina, offended at being treated like a newcomer,
fends them off and leads us out onto the street. "I feel like walking,
don't you?" she inquires.
We were here for several weeks not so long ago, back in November and
December. It feels like we need to reclaim our familiarity with the city by
walking through it. "Sure, let's walk," I respond.
We eventually find a familiar restaurant. We enter and ask the owner about
his birds: "They had an egg which hatched, but the poor little fellow died.
He didn't make it. But now they are busy making more eggs... this time,
This seems like the right place to pick up the thread from our previous
trip. Just before we had departed we had shared in his eager anticipation:
the parakeets in his cage had produced an egg and he was hoping for a baby
We dined on delicious food and made our way to the Al Saraya Hotel where we
were greeted affectionately by Fayaz al Kayali, the owner. Many of the
international motley brigade of Human Shields use this hotel. During the
next few days we sat in on their story-swapping and de-briefing sessions,
as they were just coming out of Iraq in considerable numbers. We began
becoming acquainted with 10 or 15 of them. The hotel staff of 8 or 10 local
Jordanian Arabs were eager for us to sing and play, so we brought the oud
and sang for a couple of hours with them downstairs.
Monday, April 14:
Still settling into Amman and the hotel, we do a few errands, call our
Iraqi friends, talk further with various Human Shields and yield to local
pressure to once again spend the evening playing Arabic music in the hotel.
Tuesday, April 15:
My birthday... Kristina buys a piece of cake for me in a little restaurant
to finalize our roasted chicken and rice meal.
We visit the Monzer Hotel across town where members of Voices in the
Wilderness congregate. I had met Kathy Kelly, founder of VITW there last
December and she had attempted to help us get into Iraq a few months
earlier. We had been invited by the Baghdad Musicians' Association, but
Saddam Hussein's government kept us out, denying our visas.
Not everyone understands or sympathizes with our attempts to bridge
cultural differences by reaching out and learning the other culture's
popular music so that we can enjoy and feel something sweet and visceral
together. The politicians understand political or military approaches. The
anti-war activists understand marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, civil
disobedience, information publication and petitions. Only the lovers on the
streets of the world understand what we are doing. Even then, it is not
something understood so easily with the mind as with the heart.
We meet Nassim, who helps run the Monzer Hotel, and he offers to set up a
car with a driver to deliver us to Baghdad, 500 miles away, for a
reasonable price: something only a quarter the cost of what the high-end
journalists have been paying. Our imaginations are sparked. We had not
expected to make it into Baghdad with the war going on, but now it seems
that the US Marines have occupied the city and fighting and bombing is
We tell Nassim we will be thinking about this possibility.
We head back to our own hotel to meet one of the would-be Human Shields who
arrived too late to make it into Baghdad before the bombing began: Stefa, a
Canadian woman who had never been an activist in her life but who had felt
driven by the apparent violations of international and human decency by her
dear neighbor to the south to suddenly purchase a ticket to Amman to "chain
herself to a power plant" in Iraq and try and save something. Failing in
her desire to get into Iraq, she had stayed at the hotel in Amman and
worked on behalf of the Human Shields who were in and around Baghdad.
Stefa had invited us to go with her and a Palestinian Christian/Jordanian
friend to hear a house concert of a young female singer accompanied by an
oud player who specialized in Lebanese styles.
Fawaz picked us up from the hotel. We were joined by Ibair, a woman who is
one of the top fashion designers in Jordan. We were in the company of the
upper class now, it seemed. Fawaz had been detained, or kidnapped, and held
incommunicado during the first few weeks of the war and had just been
released. I don't know why exactly. He had been active in trying to have
the sanctions against Iraq lifted for many years.
He and Ibair returned to our hotel after the concert and sat in on a major
debriefing of the Human Shields. I say "debriefing." I mean a story
swapping session punctuated with a lot of "well, what should we do now
We listened to the story told by David Lynn, an American Human Shield who,
after being a soldier in Viet Nam, eventually turned his energies to
anti-war activities. He, along with all the other Human Shields we have
talked with, denies that they were ever, as claimed by the media, requested
by Saddam's regime to go to certain locations. He was in a location in
northern Baghdad which was one of the last portions of the city to be taken
by the US Marines. Deciding at some point to go out on his own and see what
was happening, he walked some 15 kilometers through the northern parts of
the city. What he saw was the dead bodies of many civilians who had been
shot while walking or driving. Afraid to leave the shelter of their houses,
their families were just now emerging to bury these bodies which had lain
out in the sun for several days now. David witnessed these burials now
taking place, in spite of being shot at several times himself. What is
obvious is that there is no record-keeping involved.
When we did spend time in Baghdad ourselves a few days later, we saw
Marines for the most part trying to be polite, but we also witnessed about
three instances of Marines brandishing weapons and shouting things like:
"Move that fucking truck and move it quick, asshole!" ...this screamed in
English at uncomprehending civilians... Other Marines went out of their way
to say "Salaam we Aleikum" to Iraqis passing through their checkpoints,
through some of which we also needed to pass.
Fawaz and Ibair stayed at our hotel to listen for an hour or two and then
took their leave. We had thought perhaps to play music, but on this night
the discussions were paramount.
Wednesday, April 16th:
Up at 8:00 a.m., we speed over to the Ministry of the Interior, as Nassim
had suggested, to try and gain papers from the Jordanian government to be
allowed into Iraq. After the fall of Saddam's government, the Jordanians
instituted a policy of allowing only journalists to pass the border. We
are, in some sense, journalists, but we don't have official press cards.
The Ministry of the Interior refers us to the Press room at the
Inter-Continental Hotel. Instead of presenting press cards, we present an
introduction written in Arabic, which has been gradually evolving with the
help of several Arabic friends. The Jordanian officials read this, look at
us inquisitively... we sing them a piece of a song in Arabic, they smile
broadly and arrange a contact for us at the border so that we will be given
permission to pass into Iraq.
We head back to the hotel to meet Stefa. She has invited us to go with her
to meet Aida and her friend Sonia. Aida is a wealthy Jordanian peace
activist. She picks us up in her friend Sonia’s car and we head for a
bookshop, Books@Café, which contains a little restaurant. Once seated she
brings out an Arabic newspaper which contains the news that the Human
Shields organization had been infiltrated by the CIA who, according to this
article, worked inside Iraq to pay off the Republican Guard so they
wouldn’t put up a fight. The belief now is that Saddam and his high echelon
of family and ministers arranged a secret surrender with the CIA and were
whisked out of the country to some safe haven… There are various versions
of this story, I’m sure, but the point which Aida is trying to make to
Stefa is that being associated with the Human Shields is no longer an
honorable thing in the Arab street. It is now a suspect thing.
I congratulate myself privately on my decision to never associate myself
with any organization or government.
We stop by the Monzer Hotel and tell Nassim that the plan to enter Iraq is
a go: we have arranged to be permitted by the Jordanians to cross the
Evening comes and we take a taxi across town to meet with our Iraqi refugee
friends Ali, Su’ad, Haydar and Ahmed. We had spent several days living with
them in November and December and were very anxious to see them. Ali,
Su’ad’s eldest son, has been struggling to support them all with his
computer skills. One way or another they are surviving, but at the moment
Ali can only afford to pay enough phone bill to allow computer
communication; he can’t call out on his phone. But we could call him. Ali
follows a fairly strict set of Islamic rules. He doesn’t like to accept
help from us either, as this seems to offend his pride. We had to read the
ingredients on the box of chocolates we had brought for his mother to make
certain that there was no brandy and no pork fat in the chocolate. He
eventually allowed his mother to accept the gift.
Later, Kristina presented his mother with a gold bracelet, a gift we had
carefully calculated to be a way for us to get some form of money to them,
to help them just in case of emergency. Ali immediately announced that they
would not accept the present.
“It’s not for you!” I told him, laughing at his stubborness. “It is for
That seemed to settle the issue and Kristina’s gift to Su’ad became a
They returned a gift to us: a series of psychic readings from Su’ad which
addressed all our plans and ambitions as well as the outlook for all our
Su’ad had inherited a collection of seashells and other objects, like old
doorkeys and other relics from their family’s past, from her mother. And
she inherited the psychic gift, we are told, also from her mother.
The next two hours were spent with Su’ad tossing this double handful of
relics into the air over a cloth and then reading their positions as they
landed. Ali translated from the Arabic to the English, a skill he has
mastered to a high degree.
Several times they looked into our plan to enter Baghdad by interpreting
these shells and could see only failure of this plan. Even death could come
to us if we were to try and make this trip. But the outlooks for all of our
children seemed quite good, although information about their past and
current struggles seemed quite accurate.
Leaving to return to our hotel at 2:30 a.m., we found a long walk awaiting
us in the cold, as there were no taxis in sight in that part of town.
Eventually we reached a larger avenue and found a cab for the rest of the
I lay awake until 7:00 a.m. digesting the various aspects of Su’ad’s
reading. Parts of it seemed to come clearly and other parts, including the
dire predictions about our trip to Baghdad, seemed to come from their
background and angle on reality.
Thursday, April 17:
After one hour of semi-sleep, I rose from bed to begin a busy day preparing
for the trip to Baghdad: we had to carry our own water and food and be
prepared to pay for things with small bills of US Dollars. We spent part of
the afternoon with Nassim at the Monzer Hotel discussion all of the
arrangements regarding our driver. Only Iraqi drivers would be allowed into
Iraq. And these Iraqi drivers and their vehicles were only allowed to enter
and park in one place in Amman. We communicated our arrangement made at the
press room in the Inter-Continental Hotel. We were to arrive to Ar
Ruwasheid, the last small town before the Iraqi border, and find a certain
man named Mahjed at the Shat el Arab Hotel, provide extra passport photos,
and there be given some kind of visa permitting us entry to Iraq.
We were able to contact Mahjed on Nassim’s cell phone, and he assured us
that he knew who we were from Maha at the Inter-Continental Hotel, and that
there would be no problem. The only thing was that he might not be there,
in which case we were to find his brother, Ali.
Nassim introduced us to our driver’s brother, a large man who assured us
that everything would be fine.
We returned to the streets to finish the errands of preparation for the
trip. We needed white cloth so that we would be able to wave white flags of
truce toward the US Marines if necessary. And we needed orange tape to put
large letters on the car saying “PRESS” and “TV” so that we would not be
suspected of being some kind of smugglers or infiltrators. We told Nassim
to have the Iraqi driver take care of that part, as we didn’t have a ready
source for the orange tape. Nassim had told us to call him at 10:00 p.m.
and find out where to meet our car and driver. He said we would be part of
an armed caravan, departing early the following morning from the Iraqi
border to travel together under protection of the US Marines through the
lawless and bandit-filled 300 miles of the western desert of Iraq. I asked
Kristina if she was certain she wanted to make this trip with me. “It seems
to be our path,” she replied with no hesitation.
All the years I had spent travelling through the low-rent districts of
south america, finding delightfully friendly folks around every corner, in
spite of the repeated warnings from wealthy people and rival tribes that
“surely I would be killed if I went there”, came together to give me clear
Armed with my musical instrument (my oud) and a handful of heartfully
memorized Arabic songs, we would sing with the people on the streets of
Baghdad, making our American nationality known and trusting in the music
and the basic goodness of the common man.
Calling from our hotel at 10:00 p.m., after scrambling for the rest of the
evening with preparations, Nassim told us to hurry and come over to the
Monzer Hotel; that he would accompany us to the Iraqi car and driver from
Friday, April 18th:
By 12:30 a.m., we were headed out of Amman toward Iraq with Imad, our
expansive, energetic and basically mono-lingual driver. I shifted all
(still not much) of my knowledge of Arabic into the front of my brain and
began getting to know him. Basic sentences take me a long time and a lot of
brain strain to find ways to use my limited vocabulary as creatively as
Imad seemed friendly and alert. He took turns initiating basic
conversations with me and Kristina: how old are you…? He was 29. He has a
wife, but no children. “God’s will,” he explained, adding that he had been
to the doctor but either he or his wife was infertile. He seemed obviously
quite sad about this.
After about 3 hours we arrived to Ar Ruwasheid, found the Shat el Arab
Hotel, and pounded on the doors to no avail. We found someone with a cell
phone and tried the phone numbers. The two brothers had their phones turned
off and were sleeping, we supposed. It was 4:00 a.m. Determining to wait
for another hour or so, we thought to maybe grab a nap in the parked car.
Suddenly a large German nurse appeared, in the middle of some
misunderstanding with her Jordanian drivers. I don’t think she was aware
that only Iraqi drivers were being allowed to cross into Iraq. She was very
upset and hoping that she could ride with us, although she still didn’t
have her visa. Imad quickly concluded that she was insane: “majnoon!” There
seemed no way to work things out with this big angry nurse, so Imad sped
off into the night toward the Iraqi border.
“No wait!” we told him. “We must find one of the brothers and get our
But Imad had decided to proceed. “We’ll miss the armed convoy if we don’t
go now,” he said.
Unable to convince him otherwise, we sped the last 50 miles to the border,
where we entered into a tangled mass of Jordanian officials in various
offices and behind various windows.
We would not be allowed entry without press cards… Signs on the walls
proclaimed in both Arabic and English: “The highway in Iraq is
exceptionally dangerous. Jordan does not recommend travelling.”
We produced our explanation about our musical mission written in Arabic
and, when they looked at us, we sang snatches of Arabic songs. Stunned,
delighted and amazed, the stamps in our passports miraculously appeared.
Imad had done a good job, also, of leading us from one official to another,
although at one point her had seemed ready to give up. It seemed to cost a
little more that we expected also… who’s pocketing the extra change? Imad?
One of these officials? Both? But later, back in Amman, Nassim said that he
had told us to expect to pay that exact amount for our visas…
No matter… After two hours of “negotiating”, we were speeding across no
man’s land toward Iraq. “Enough with the Jordanians!” exclaimed Imad. “I
don’t like them!”
We approached a checkpoint manned by US Marines. Imad, the ultimate
horn-honking, aggressive taxi driver, tried to nose his way into the front
of two lines of cars waiting to be checked by the Marines. “No, Imad,” we
told him, “this is not going to work with these guys…”
Soon we were escorted back to the beginning of the lines and made to wait
“Americans, huh…” the Marine checking our passports muttered… “you guys
must be crazy…”
Soon we were speeding down a divided highway made of concrete with metal
guard rails between the lanes headed toward Baghdad. Iraq obviously had, at
one time, had money to spend on highways much fancier than anything we had
seen in Jordan. But soon we were weaving around bomb craters punched into
the concrete and passing the burnt husks of trucks and buses and cars and
Imad winced with pain as we passed each one. “And that bus there,” he
explained, “was not even Iraqi… it was from Syria!” he exclaimed.
We had read about the bombing of a Syrian bus in which several Russian
diplomats died, along with 10 or so other passengers.
We covered two or three hundred miles and passed the Euphrates river. Palm
trees began to appear as water became part of the landscape. We passed
clusters of burnt, overturned or abandoned Iraqi tanks, and more bombed
trucks, buses and cars.
Other car and truck frames which had not been burnt were periodically
visible beside the highway. “Ali Baba! Ali Baba!” exclaimed Imad.
Eventually we realized that the looting which has been publicized in
Baghdad, extended out onto the highways. If your car runs out of gas here,
or otherwise becomes inoperable, and you have to leave it, when you come
back you will find all its working parts stripped and gone.
Baghdad is Burning.
"Ali Baba!" screams Imad and points at the mobs of looters, thick on the
streets and at their work as we wind into central Baghdad. We detour around
the edges of what the press called "the biggest anti-American demonstration
Imad, our driver, who has brought us all 500 miles of the way here from
Amman, slips at high speed through the smoke-filled intersections. No
electricity means no traffic lights. No government means no laws. Drivers
make up their own rules. Imad makes up for the loss of order by leaning on
Six or eight of the nearby highrise buildings have flames leaping out of
their windows. No water means no putting out these fires. Who is torching
this city? Why? We find the last unoccupied room in the Al Fonar hotel,
carry our packs, food and water through a US marines checkpoint, into our
room and head out into the city, oud in hand. Within 25 yards of the coils
of US marine razor wire, a group of Iraqis point at my oud as ask for us to
play. I begin playing Um Kolthoum... "No, no!," they shout, "Saddam Hussein
taught us not to like Um Kolthoum." I pass the oud to one of them who plays
a taqasim (improvisation) in the style, it sounds like to me, of Farid al
Atresh... Then it's my turn again. I begin with a famous vocal and oud
mawal (introduction) written by Iraqi composer Mohammed Al-Gobbanchi and
made more famous by Syrian singer Sabah Fakri. This hits the perfect note, it
seems, with the crowd; eyes close, heads bob and shake with appreciation... A
conservative man in a tan galibiya (traditional arab gown) approaches:
"Since you are Americans, I would like to send a message to Bush with you:
the Americans must leave! We will build a new government ourselves!
Government coming from the outside... we will kill them!" Meanwhile, a few
feet away, two men are telling Kristina the opposite message: "We are
thankful to Bush for ridding us of Saddam Hussein." An excited young man
approaches and introduces himself as the author of a book about Arabic
musical scales (maqamat from Iraq) and very enthusiastically offers to take
us to a music school to meet a great master oud player whom he respects. He
is apparently oblivious to the fact that the city around us is in flames...
We pass by the Tigris river thinking there might be a nice spot for more
singing there, but the marines are using the park beside the river for a
Returning toward the main streets, we come to the circle where the whole
world watched on TV as marines used a tank to help Iraqis pull over a huge
statue of Saddam. A man driving by in his car spots the oud and inquires if
we play it: "Yes, we are Americans who love Arabic music and who play the
oud and sing," I tell him. He parks his car and we begin singing for him
and others who randomly approach. The pedestal with fragments of Saddam's
demolished statue stands in the background as we sing Abd el Halim's
"Sawah," a song about a man who is missing his lover as he walks for days
and weeks like a stranger in a strange land... As I sing, I scan the
eyeballs in the crowd... they are so happy to see us singing... we announce
several times, as people inquire, that we are Americans who love Arabic
music. Some of the eyes are uncertain at first, but not for long as people
melt into the songs and join in the singing. The man with the car says he
plays the oud also and is anxious to take us with him in his car to his
house to play music. He, too, seems to find his encounter with us more
important than the fact that the city is in flames. It takes 5 or 6 polite
declinations from us to postpone this offer until another time. I add his
phone number to my list of musicians to contact in the future... Hundreds
of international journalists throng the spaces around the Palestine and
Ishtar hotels, both nearby. They peer out from the rooftops with the latest
high tech portable video gear. Grim-faced and red-eyed, they go about their
story writing with cigarettes lit, adding to the smoke...
We just proved, to my own satisfaction at least, that America could have
invaded Iraq with battalions of our own citizens trained to play ouds and
sing just a few songs in Arabic. But the journalists, for the most part
anyway, don't seem to be interested in covering anything that doesn't come
wrapped in violence.
At this point, as I later calculated, I had enjoyed only one hour of sleep
in the last fifty-seven. Feeling more and more groggy with exhaustion, I
suggest taking a break in the hotel room. Kristina is eager to continue.
She asks a Marine behind the hotel if we could interview him. “Not while
I’m on post,” he replies. “But if you go down this street, there is a
little place for coffee where Marines hang out… but I don’t know if I’d
recommend it… we’ve got snipers on the roofs of all these hotels…”
We are searched by other Marines before being allowed to proceed. We ask
for the location of this coffee shop and a higher-ranking Marine says, “You
mean one of my men suggested this? He should not have. Which one is he?”
“I don’t remember,” replies Kristina, not wanting to get anyone in trouble.
We proceed through coils of razor wire down the street, but are told we
cannot go toward the “coffee shop.”
Leaving the area cordoned off by the Marines, we re-enter the city and find
a restaurant which, surprisingly, is open and we eat some chicken and rice.
“What snipers do you suppose he was referring to? I asked Kristina.
“Well, Iraqi snipers, I assumed…” she replied.
“I thought maybe he meant Marine snipers…” I suggested. We didn’t have a
We wander back toward the hotel. I’m more and more groggy with exhaustion.
We hear what sounds like a gunshot. Kristina backs behind a concrete wall
away from the center of the street. I doesn’t occur to me to worry, for
some reason, but I back into the more protected area also. No one out on
the street seems to pay any attention, so we continue walking.
We enter our room. I lie down on the bed and pass out for two hours.
Opening my eyes in the late afternoon I announce to Kristina that I am
ready to go back out… But now she is feeling worse. The smoke from the
burning city is making her sick at her stomach and giving her a bad
The hotel we are staying at is also used by people from Voices in the
Wilderness, an organization founded by Kathy Kelly, whom, as I mentioned, I
had met in Amman back in December. The purpose of VITW was to witness and
report from inside Iraq about the effects of the sanctions and the war on
the lives of Iraqi people. Kathy had been here in this Al Fonar Hotel with
a few other VITW members for the last two months or so and had, like the
Human Shields, been unwilling to leave when the bombing started. She is an
activist with a track record of having succeeded in walking the fine line
required by Saddam Hussein’s government to be allowed entry, although they
had had to live under constant surveillance by their Iraqi “minders” in
order to do their reporting. They had deliberately tried to avoid
association with the title “human shield.” But there are now fines being
imposed on her and her organization by the US government, so she is
disbanding the organization known as Voices in the Wilderness.
We accepted an opportunity to ride back to Jordan in a car with her and
another VITW member, Kathy Breen and a French surgeon who had been in
Baghdad during the last month.
Saturday, April 19th:
We leave Baghdad with Sattar, a good friend of Kathy’s, as the driver at
about 9:00 a.m.
Once again, we wind our way out through the burned and looted sections.
Today there seem to be fewer flames leaping out of the tall high-rise
buildings. The smoke is clearing a little bit. As we exit the city center,
Kristina begins to recover from her night of vomiting from the exposure to
We learn from Jaques, the French surgeon, that he had volunteered to be
here for the last month, since the bombing began, and had worked in a small
hospital every day staffed by Iraqis who had welcomed his help. He said he
had performed 72 surgeries himself and assisted with countless others. At
the most intense time, he said, they received 150 wounded Iraqis a day for
3 days in a row. I told him how much I admired his work. He seemed like a
tough little guy with tremendous dedication. He had come to Baghdad from a
stint of surgical work in Africa in Ivory Coast, another war-torn country.
Kathy Breen, a nurse, had worked and lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia for 10
years, and Germany for 6 years. I sang her a song from Cochabamba which I
remembered from my years travelling in the Andean world.
And Kristina and I sang Arabic music with Sattar.
When we arrived back at the Jordanian border, the police there smiled and
requested more songs from us again. We obliged and their smiles broadened
Sunday, April 20th:
Monday, April 21:
Evening spent visiting Ali, Su'aad, Haydar, Ahmed.
Su'aad cooks fabulous dinner for us. We discuss the readings from the
shells which had predicted that we would not go to Baghdad. We agree that
the reading had been close, perhaps meaning that our trip to Baghdad would
be difficult. In reality, the reading had seemed quite accurate about our
children and other family members.
Ali's English is really quite good. Haydar's is better than we had realized
We show them our photos from Baghdad. We discuss the question of who it is
that is setting all the fires. Haydar agrees that the best guess is that
the looters, many of whom are very poor and very young, just get carried
away with the destruction and, after looting, light the place on fire. At
this point it doesn't seem that they have any plans to ever return to Iraq.
Many stories about their family lives: the little 4-yr-old girl now
promised in marriage to "Yamudi" (Ahmed)... Ali's near death experience at
birth and feeling of never having been welcomed... The family trend of
having firstborns be girls... Su'aad's disappointment at never having a
baby girl... hence all the photos of baby Haydar dressed as a girl...
Su'aad gives Kristina a vest made (beaded) by a favorite aunt... and
We will see them next trip, whenever that is... insha'allah...
Tuesday, April 22:
Send stories to Ariana. Visit Jihad's music store... learn maqam...
Talk with Stefa at hotel... tomorrow: back to Cairo...
After a month in the Middle East: Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Amman, Cairo...
We have sung popular Arabic songs in the hearts of all these cities in the
streets with whatever people happened to be there.
All we are saying is Leave the TV, come back to the People... take the time
to learn a song in a foreign language... go there... there is nothing to
fear... forget the politicians and the "experts"... we have everything we
need already: just ourselves and our smiles and our songs...
I give up...
The horror of death and war washes past and nothing is solved.
The wounds will last forever, but I cannot hold any attitude... the giant
Nations and Armies and Religions yield to the magnifying glass:
we are all nothing but PEOPLE... with individual faces, ears and noses and
the human shields...
the palestinian christians...
the palestinian moslems...
the anti-war activists...
the coptic christians...
the us marines...
the republican guard...
the voices in the wilderness...
the south africans...
In the past few weeks I have heard something bad about each one of
I have also looked into the eyes of each of these...
I've seen suffering in each...
I've seen fear...
I've seen joy...
I've heard each one maligning another...
Where do we stop?
Are we seriously supposed to choose sides between all of these?
I give up... I represent no side... And I will sing...
Saturday, April 26, 2003:
Dissolving out of Egypt, out of Jordan, out of Iraq...
What is the meaning of "Cameron and Kristina go to Baghdad"?
Cameron and Krisina: First American musicians to play Arabic music in
Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein! ...does this mean something?
Are we part of the "mop up" operation which follows invasion by the US
Marines? ...is this the meaning?
I know! It's about Fear: don't be afraid to trust your own reality... ...is
this the meaning?
I remember our train ride yesterday to Maadi, in southern Cairo yesterday.
We were surrounded by women and children giggling and laughing
uncontrollably all around us. We talked with them with our limited Arabic
and English abilities... the men in the railroad car broke into beaming
smiles and laughed and laughed... I know the meaning of all this: Egyptians
are in a permanently good mood! I remember our-flute playing friend Kadry
shrugging off the painful memories of his open-heart surgery with laughter.
The children playing in the dusty streets outside his small house in Maadi
were laughing uncontrollably...
But what does this have to do with Baghdad? Inside Kadry's living room we
showed him and his daughters photos from Baghdad... What meaning does this
Soon we will be back in America. What will the meaning be there?
The further away you are from some place, the more the things which are
happening there are seen symbolically.
Cameron and Kristina enter Iraq. So what?
We watch the Egyptian man who lived in Baghdad for ten years burst into
tears when we show him our photos from Iraq... Why did we go there and sing
with the Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad? ...to help this man have his
It is the fighting, death and destruction: the war which creates the tears.
It is the maps which create the wars. It is modern technology which creates
the lines on the maps. In the old days the lines were more fluid... empires
were more like lakes... and they left puddles behind when they receded...
These lines in the middle east which define the edges of Jordan, Iraq,
Saudi Arabia... they were drawn by the British after World War I... no
wonder they are in the wrong places... and puddles are no longer allowed!
...now the lines must need serious adjustment... the politicians must
create serious arguments with serious symbolic meanings so that new lines
can be drawn...
Asking the question: "What does this mean?" is a violent action with
potentially violent consequences... Meanings, like national borders and
boundaries, are traps.
Meaning gives birth to "right and wrong."
As soon and there is "right and wrong," there can be suspicion and mistrust.
Cameron and Kristina enter Baghdad. Previously sacred lines have been
This means everything and it means nothing.
As soon as something is seen as "sacred," the possibility of "violation"
arises... ...like parking meters: here is a spot beside the road which
means nothing. It is totally empty, except maybe for a tulip or something.
Then comes the parking meter.
Now we have a sacred spot. Violation is now possible.
This is the same with Jordan and Iraq: with Saddam Hussein in power,
Cameron and Kristina could go to Jordan. But stepping over the line into
Iraq to play Arabic music was not possible. We tried and failed.
Now Saddam is gone and his meanings are gone.
Cameron and Kristina still had to sing their way through the Jordanian
police: three times, to three different groups of police, in order to
obtain visas to the no-man's land called Iraq.
But now they are not a violation inside of Iraq.
We can celebrate this new freedom! But don't turn on your TV or you will
see new fighting about to happen as the map-makers: the religious fanatics,
the global power and oil brokers, whose very existence depends upon their
being walking symbols of cultural belief systems, line up to define new
boundaries and create the roadmaps for new violations.
Sleep is good. It gives us a rest and it gives us the chance to go to bed
in one place and wake up in another! All the meaningful energy we
accumulated yesterday somehow dissolved in the night and we woke up in a
new land this morning! Different scenery! Different borders! All because
one mood dissolved and another was born! Now we can get out of the same bed
but go on a completely different adventure!
We wouldn't have gotten across the border between Jordan and Iraq without
our ability to sing in Arabic on cue: twice at the border, where only
reporters with press cards were being allowed to cross, the stern faces of
uniformed Jordanian military police melted as we began to sing Daret el
Ayam. Imad, our driver, ever the go-getter at the front of every line, also
helped pilot our way through the swimming sea of Middle Eastern red tape.
Instead of a visa, we offered a flyer in Arabic, composed through the joint
efforts of many Arab friends, which explains our Musical Mission.
Watching the crowds of Arab men and women work things out as they come up:
the dilemas of passports and paperwork, the fixing of the broken bus
engine... we can't help but admire the immediacy of the attack.
Communication happens from the insides of the common thought bubbles...
It's like telepathy: everyone already knows exactly what the subject at
hand is. No one wastes time trying to redefine it. No one wastes time
trying to determine who is qualified to address the issue. Everyone is
qualified. It is a high speed theater, with everybody using full body
language and vocal drama to act out different sides.... When a consensus is
reached, it is not ever even stated: everyone simply knows what it is. Then
the nexd problem on the agenda is immediately addressed while some silent
activity rapidly accomplishes the paperwork necessary to implement the last
The European/American way is very very different: no vocal pyrotechnics, no
impulsive hody language. Decisions will be made sometime in the future by
some "experts" qualified by their abilities to dodge the current subject
matter and replace that with some historical analysis.