The Standard of Ur

7,300 words

12.02.2103

18:37

My granddad used to tell me that there were only two things he was afraid of: sharks and somehow finding himself in Iraq. I am on my way to, of all places, Baghdad. For a long time Iraq was synonymous with violence and mayhem. Grandad didn’t live to see the change.

The British Museum, my employer, has sent me on this assignment. The trip is funded by the Iraqi ministry of energy, which is a good thing considering the state of the British economy. I can’t screw it up. I fought so hard to get this job. I was the first in my family to attain a full time job or FTJ as they are more commonly known. My father said—with teary pride—that it was only appropriate I got a FTJ at the British Museum because FTJs seem like relics of the past.

A part of me is afraid to make the trip. My name is Adam. I come from Hounslow. I’m 28. I have blond hair and can only manage rudimentary Arabic. In previous times I would have been a perfect target for kidnapping. I keep assuring myself that things are different now in Iraq, that I will be all right, but I can’t help the slight anxiety running like a current along my spine.

23:06

Shit, check out this hotel! It’s mega plush. I’ve stayed in Paris Hiltons before but this one is special. I guess the solar energy boom has been good to Iraq. At the airport I was met by two employees from the ministry of culture. A guy called Othman, mid-30s, burly, thick moustache, like that of the famous Iraqi dictator. He is going to be in charge of my security. He was accompanied by a woman, Ishtar. Early 20s, short curly hair, big oval eyes, thin and pointed nose, altogether very pretty. She seems polite, matter of fact, and pliable. Ishtar has a PhD in Near Eastern studies and is going to be my facilitator for the duration of the stay.

A note about my language skills. At University I learnt Sumerian and Akkadian. That’s how I landed the museum job. My Arabic is touch and go.

The foreign office advised that I don’t risk direct exposure to the elements, even at night when the temperature is more bearable. Draught is an even bigger problem here than heat. My bosses assured me that I would be supplied with water throughout the trip.

Othman and Ishtar took me to the car bay area inside the airport. We drove through one gate, which instantly locked. A second gate opened allowing us to leave the building. This double gate system is designed to minimise exposure.

In the ride from the airport to the hotel, Ishtar transferred an itinerary onto my tablet. It was mainly meetings with various officials from the ministries of culture and energy as well as a visit to the new museum in Ur.  Her oval eyes widened when I told her this won’t do. I didn’t come all this way to shake hands and take photos. I needed to see it.

“See what?”

“The first city.”

“This wasn’t part of the agreement.”

“I have to see it. The temple.”

“It’s not open to visitors.”

“If you don’t take me there then the transfer will not even be considered.”

Ishtar looked very irritated as she made a few calls. At the hotel, she told me that she will let me know in the morning if my request can be granted. I bid her goodnight and headed to my room.

On my bed, instead of the usual chocolates you get at hotel rooms elsewhere, there was a small bottle of mineral water.

13.02.2103

09:36

Ishtar showed up at breakfast. She told me that Othman will be picking us up in one hour and we will be heading to the first city, as I desired. I was astonished, as I had assumed she would have to battle through a hell of a lot of bureaucracy to make it happen.

“I spent all last night trying to arrange this trip. Most people I spoke to at the ministry were against it.”

“Why?”

“Bad things happen in the first city.”

“Bad things like what?”

“Just bad things.”

“Just tell me what bad things,” I insisted.

“It’s ever since the Germans completed phase three of the temple excavation. People have been feeling a little strange.”

“Did they unleash a virus?”

“No, I don’t think it’s anything that bad. Just follow my instructions and you’ll be fine.”

She got up.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll see you at the entrance in one hour.”

I watched her walk away. I am hoping that Ishtar might be someone I could invite to a Q&A session at the exhibition I want to organise. It will lend the enterprise an air of authenticity to have an Iraqi present.

I went to my room and screen timed my father. We argued for several minutes. He was worried about me.

“I’ll be fine, Dad.”

“Your grandad would’ve been dead set against this trip.”

“Grandad lived in different times.”

“Iraq, until very recently, was a dangerous place.”

“Twelve years is hardly recently.”

“I find it weird, don’t you?”

“What’s weird?”

“Their solution for the violence. It’s not right.”

“It works. That’s what matters,” I said whilst updating my status on social media, showing off about the trip I was about to undertake.

“Watch yourself, son.”

That was the longest conversation we’ve had in a long while.

13:30

We’ve been on the road heading south now for two hours. I’m riding in the hotel shuttle with Ishtar and Othman. The driver is a man called Abu Jaafar, in his late 40s. He has a jovial manner and his tanned face beams as he speaks.

“Hello, Mr. Adam. Welcome … welcome. This is my Kasir van. How you say Kasir in English?”

Before Ishtar had a chance to speak, I jumped in.

“Palace.”

“Yes. It is palace. It has everything. Water, cold, food. It is like Green zone. You know Green zone?”

The Green zone is the old name given to Government City. It is fascinating to me that locals still use this century-old name for the site of government buildings rather than its official name. An old professor of antiquity once told me that in Iraq, all historical eras, including deep antiquity, course through the veins of modern Iraqis. I looked at Abu Jaafar’s open, tanned face and imagined an old Sumerian builder constructing a city wall, out in the open, sweat beads gathering along his forehead like pearls.

“You smoke, Mr. Adam?”

“No, thanks.”

“It’s OK, you in Iraq. You can smoke. You no in West anymore.”

“Really, it’s very generous of you but no thanks.”

Abu Jaafar picked up a small electric shisha, took a deep breath, and let out a puff of vapour. The van filled with the smell of apples. He laughed heartily.

“Smoke make me happy. I smoke, I love all people. East, West, Shimal, Janoub. Everybody. We have palace van, we have shisha, we have music, we have water, we have the beautiful Ishtar who is always on computer.”

Ishtar looked up briefly at Abu Jaafar. I don’t think she smiled. She buried her head in her tablet once again and continued typing what seemed like an essay length email. Is she reporting to her superiors about me?

“Keep your eye on the road,” commanded Othman, brushing his thick moustache.

“Whatever you say, boss,” replied Abu Jaafar.

Did I sense a slight animosity between Othman and Abu Jaafar? Perhaps that is all in my head. From their names and from my rudimentary knowledge of Iraq, I can tell that Othman is a Sunni and Abu Jaafar is a Shia. But animosity between Sunni and Shia are a thing of the past now thanks to The Solution.

“Today is going to be a good day,” declared Abu Jaafar as he pumped the gas pedal.

I saw several old buildings with boarded up shops. It’s fascinating to think that as early as thirty years ago, there were shops facing the street and people walked on the pavement during the day. You could see people walking in heat suits, heading to the nearest shopping mall.

“So why are you interested in Uruk?” Ishtar asked.

“I’d like to organise an exhibition about the first city.”

“Are you sure it is the ‘first’ city? We’ve discovered new cities in the south, some think they are bigger and older than Uruk.”

“I’ve seen no publication to confirm that,” I replied.

“I have friends who are working on this. Sumer was a much bigger civilisation than you realise.”

Her voice was rising. I didn’t expect that Ishtar had this passionate side to her.

“Your friends need to publish if that is the case.”

Before she had a chance to reply, the car came to a sudden, jerky stop.

“Ibn el Khara [son of a shit],” shouted Abu Jaafar, momentarily losing his jovial nature. A man had run past him. We all stared at the man through the thick windows. He was naked, his arms raised to the sky. He ran into the middle of the road and stared at the sun.

“Ya Allah!” cried Ishtar.

“He won’t last a minute!” Othman shouted.

Abu Jaafar was blaring his horn, alerting other cars to the man’s presence.

I was scrambling for my camera, cursing my luck. It had snagged on the latch of my leather bag. The naked man’s arms seemed to rise higher and higher. Suddenly two policemen in heat suits ran towards the man with a reflective blanket. When they draped the blanket over the man, little strands of smoke swirled up in the air.

Cars behind us were beeping.

“Wait, don’t move!” I shouted at Abu Jaafar as I kept pulling at the stuck camera. More cars joined the orchestra of beeping and eventually Abu Jaafar ignored me and drove on. My camera finally dislodged. I turned it on and tried to film but it was too late.

“Shit!”

“Why did you want to film that?”

“He looked like Jesus. It was magnificent.”

Ishtar shook her head with disapproval and buried her head in the tablet. I realised that my fevered desire to capture the man burning in the sun on camera might have come across as somewhat callus so I asked: “Was the man committing suicide?”

Othman looked alarmed. I think he feared that what happened could influence my evaluation negatively. “It’s nothing, Mr. Adam. Nothing.” He then leaned forward and asked me if I had managed to film anything.

“Censorship, really? How quaint,” I said.

“It’s not censorship exactly, Mr. Adam. It’s just … this is a sensitive time for Iraq,” said Othman, brushing his moustache with his fingers. “We are transitioning to full stability.”

“That man didn’t look stable.”

“It happens,” said Ishtar. “Some people have the urge to breathe real air.”

“Is that what he was doing?” I asked.

She shrugged. “There is a movement happening. People demanding climate reform. They are asking for the right to be in the open air again.”

“Did you ever experience the open air?”

She shook her head. At that moment I wanted to put my arms around her. To give her a consolatory hug. It is still possible to breathe real air in England. I am privileged.

“I am sorry that you …”

“Don’t be,” she snapped and buried her head in her tablet again, typing away furiously. She doesn’t make it easy to get close to her, that’s for sure. She’s certainly not as pliable as I first thought.

This was a while ago, now everyone has dozed off. I am feeling sleepy, too. I’ll stop typing.

15:45

It took another hour since the last journal entry to reach Uruk, the first city. I don’t care if Ishtar is right and Uruk turns out not to be the first human city. I’ll call it the first city in my exhibition. Sometimes with history you need a semi-myth to fire the public’s imagination. At a time of crisis for cities around the world: over population, pollution, heat, floods, draught, old viruses resurrecting from the melted ice sheets, at such a time, there will be curiosity to cast our collective minds back to the first city, even if such a place never really existed. What is known about Uruk is that it was here that writing first emerged at around 3000 BC, give or take a thousand years depending on who you read. The city housed 10,000 people, some say as many as 50,000 people. Here was the first system of writing developed, but perhaps more importantly for our times, it was here that the first consumer product was invented: the disposable beveled-rim bowl, a kind of tin foil of its day, probably used for handing out food to workers. And here I was, finally, standing on the ground I had read and thought about so much.

In the van we had scrambled to put on our heat suits. Ishtar slipped into her suit quickly and elegantly like a child sliding down a water chute; Othman being a bear of a man, struggled into his; Abu Jaafar was already wearing the leg part of the suit. He wasn’t meant to leave the van but curiosity got the better of him.

“I come to Uruk child. Five, six. With father. Allah yerhamah [God have mercy on his soul]. You could be outside in real air back then.”

“Stay in the van, Abu Jaafar,” commanded Othman.

“Ostath Othman, bes khames dagaek. [Mr Othman, just five minutes].” He then pleaded with him some more, I only caught fragments of the Arabic, but I think he was saying that he wanted to glance at the temple and then head back to the van.

“Is it dangerous?” I asked Othman.

“No, no, not dangerous. It’s just he is the driver. He has no business getting out of the van.”

“Leave him be,” interjected Ishtar. “If he wants to see the temple, he can. It’s his right as an Iraqi.”

That put Othman in his place. Abu Jaafar’s face beamed once again and he quickly finished putting the rest of his heat suit on.

When we came out of the van, I had a momentary panic that I hadn’t sealed the suit properly and that my skin was going to burn like that of the naked suicidal man we had seen earlier. But once we saw the remnants of the temple, I soon lost all apprehension.

It was magnificent. This particular temple was only discovered about fifty years ago by a German team. The excavation was supposed to be done by Britain but the money for it couldn’t be raised and the Germans stepped in like smug saviours.

Over the door of the temple was a huge statue of the goddess Inanna, holding the rod and ring of justice, both Mesopotamian symbols of divinity. I approached the main gate of the temple, but as I stepped closer I realised that it had been sealed with a wooden door. A combination lock was on the latch.

“Can we go in?”

“No,” said Ishtar firmly.

“Why not? I want to see what’s inside.”

“The structure … it’s not stable.” I could sense she was lying. I noticed beads of sweat on her forehead through the visor of the heat helmet she was wearing.

“Are you okay, Ishtar?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” she lied again. “Have you seen enough? Shall we go?”

“We just got here,” I said, taking out my 3D camera.

I stepped back and eyed the statue of Inanna once again. Her ample breasts, her exposed belly, her round hips all spoke of femininity and fertility.

“It’s for you, this temple,” I joked. I don’t think Ishtar could see that I was smiling.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s for the goddess Ishtar, your namesake. That’s why they built it.”

“Actually, it’s for the goddess Inanna.”

“Well, Inanna was the precursor to Ishtar who is the precursor to Aphrodite who is the precursor to Venus.”

“Oh please.”

“What? It’s true.”

“Aphrodite and Venus are all about beauty and sexual power.”

“Inanna and Ishtar had plenty of sexual power.”

“Inanna was a goddess of war. You Europeans took our deities and turned them into wet dream fantasies.”

“You say that like I was personally responsible.”

“What are you doing here, Adam?” She was sweating profusely now.

“I want to document the site.”

I began to record the site with the 3D camera. The footage would be fantastic for the exhibition.

“You are supposed to be here to evaluate whether we can get the Standard of Ur back.”

“I know that. But I’m also fascinated by Uruk.”

“This is not why the British Museum sent you. You shouldn’t even be here. You should be in Ur, inspecting the new museum we’ve built.”

“Uruk is what, fifty kilometres from Ur. All this will be tourist trail once the museum opens.”

“This is a personal project, isn’t it? A way for you to get a leg up in the world. Typical European, climbing to the top on the back of Orientals.”

I could see that the sweat was pouring down her face now.

“It’s not like that. Look, I was thinking that you could be a guest speaker at my exhibition.”

“I don’t want to play the role of the native informant, thank you. And besides, I’ve seen London in VR.”

“Virtual reality doesn’t do it justice.”

“It’s nothing, a city in decline.”

“That’s not true.”

She steamrolled me. “And your British Museum is not a museum, it’s a thief’s den done up like Disney.”

“I think you and I got off to the wrong …”

“Do your job, Mr. Adam. Evaluate. And evaluate fairly. The Standard of Ur belongs to us and you know it.”

She headed towards the van, leaving me guiltily clutching my 3D camera. I mapped the site as best I could. I noticed Abu Jaafar standing before the statue of Inanna, mesmerised. He too was sweating profusely. Strange that I felt just fine inside my heat suit. Abu Jaafar seemed transfixed by the statue, as if he was communicating telepathically with Inanna.

“Abu Jaafar!” I cried to him so he would turn towards me and I could capture him fully on camera. But he didn’t move. Then as if he had a delayed reaction, he snapped back to reality. “She is a beauty, no?” he said. I nodded. The cheerful smile returned to his face. He walked slowly back to the van, taking occasional glances at Inanna over his shoulder.

As I continued my mapping, I thought about the Standard of Ur. This is an object that has taken pride of place at the museum for the past four centuries. It is not physically impressive like the Assyrian winged human-headed lion, being nothing but a hollow box about eight, nine inches wide and some twenty inches long, yet it is a remarkable window into another world. The box is inlaid with a mosaic of shell, red limestone, and lapis lazuli and decorated with scenes of war and peace. On the peace side, you see in one panel the king enjoying a drink with his companions, attended by servants and entertained by a musician playing the lyre accompanied by a longhaired male singer. The details are so clear, you are transported to that royal scene, almost hearing the music. On the war side, in the lower panel you see the king’s chariots running from left to right with increasing speed, like the frames of an old fashioned film. Underneath the rapidly moving chariots are the trampled naked enemies of the king, who lie bleeding. And right there on that small, seemingly insignificant box that dates to around 2500 BC lies the entire gamut of human civilisation.

The Standard was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in the late 1920s in the corner of a chamber, lying close to the shoulder of a man who may have held it on a pole, which is why Woolley called it a ‘Standard.’ Yet subsequent investigations have failed to confirm this assumption so the box has retained an air of mystery all these centuries. What was the purpose of it exactly? We can only guess.

I can understand Ishtar’s desire to see the Standard housed in an Iraqi museum. Yet I have to make sure that this unique object will be properly looked after. The museum is facing hard times at the moment and the price the Iraqi ministry of energy is willing to pay for the Standard could ease our financial burdens. Exhibitions like the one I am planning could be better funded and the museum could become relevant once again as it was in previous centuries. Yet can we really part with such a priceless object? Is that the right thing to do?

When I was done, I went back in the van. “Don’t take off your heat suits,” announced Othman. “We’ll soon be in Ur.”

14.02.2103

03:15

So much has happened! I don’t know if I’ll have time to write it all down.

As we drove towards Ur, we all could sense that something wasn’t right with Abu Jaafar. He was swearing at the cars that overtook him. He started to drive rather fast and didn’t mind the potholes as he had done before. Every time the van went over a pothole, we all smacked our heads on the van’s roof.

“What the hell is the matter with you, Abu Jaafar?” Othman said in Arabic (or something close to this).

But Abu Jaafar kept driving faster and faster and cursing under his breath.

Ishtar pleaded with him to slow down but to no avail. We were being thrown around as Abu Jaafar switched from one lane to the next.

“Slow down, you idiot, or I’ll have you fired!” Othman said in Arabic. He may have used ‘animal’ instead of ‘idiot.’

Suddenly Abu Jaafar started screaming in English at Othman:

“Shut up, bastard! You shut up. You are dirty Sunni. You are shit. You shut up when I talk. You shut up.”

He now turned around and began flashing Othman with a hand gesture (waggling the middle finger).

“Fuck you, dirty Sunni. Fuck you.”

We were now in the opposite lane. A big truck was heading straight at us. Othman leapt across the vehicle. He turned the wheel of the car.

The van spun off the road, crashing through a metal barrier and tumbling down a sandy hill.

I couldn’t tell where I was or which way up we were. We tumbled for what seemed like infinity. Then eventually the van came to a halt on its side. I must have passed out for a good ten minutes. When I awoke I was totally disoriented. I found that I was alone in the van. I undid the safety belt and landed with a thud on the side of the van. I then crawled through the shattered windshield. When I emerged from the van, there were feathers everywhere. And a horrid sound that sounded like screaming. Up on the hard shoulder of the motorway I could see the truck had come to a halt and the back door of it had flung open. And now there were chickens everywhere. The chickens were walking around, cooking slowly in the sun, squawking like the insane. I looked towards the desert away from the motorway and I could see my companions were walking, zombie-like towards the horizon. Amongst the chicken squawking, I could hear another sound. Human screaming. Instinctively I pulled a heat blanket out of the van and ran towards my companions. Please God, let her be alright. Why was I so worried about a woman who clearly detested me?

I ran on unsteady legs. Ahead I could see Ishtar walking like a shell-shocked soldier on a battlefield.

“Ishtar, wait!”

I grabbed her by the shoulder and turned her so she would face me. Her heat suit had been ripped at the chest so that her left naked breast was jutting through. My heart was thumping in my chest. She must be burning. But then I looked again at her breast and it seemed unharmed. How can that be? I didn’t know what to do. I hesitated to touch her. Yet I knew that I had to act quickly so I cupped her breast and shoved it back through the torn suit then covered her with the heat blanket.

“Ishtar!” I tried to catch her gaze. Her eyes couldn’t focus at first but then suddenly she looked at me. I felt as if I were staring into a stranger’s eyes. I then heard a horrible scream coming from up ahead. I made sure the blanket was secure on Ishtar’s body before running towards Othman and Abu Jaffar. When I arrived I saw Othman had mounted a supine Abu Jaafar and was smashing his skull repeatedly with a rock.

“Othman, stop!”

Othman raised the rock and brought it down sending bits of skull and brains flying everywhere like a mince machine gone haywire.

“Stop it, Othman!!”

This time he did stop. He found something in the mashed head of Abu Jaafar that he was looking for. He held it up against the sun. It was a computer chip.

He stood, pocketed the chip, and headed to the highway. Ishtar and I followed him. The truck driver was on the hard shoulder, wearing a cheap heat suit and looking panicked. Othman told him that he was from the ministry of culture, which made the man eye him suspiciously. There was nothing cultured about how we looked. Othman borrowed the man’s tablet and made a call.

We were put up in a small hotel in Ur. It was adequate but hardly the Paris Hilton. A doctor was sent to examine us. Nothing was broken. We did not need hospital admission, just some alcohol to clean the few scratches on our bodies and a plaster or two. It took a while to check us in. I asked Ishtar if she was all right, if she could be on her own. “I just need a hot shower,” she said softly. The clerk explained that there was enough water in the tank for all of us to shower but that the hotel had run out of bottled drinking water. “There must be some shops around selling water,” I said. He shook his head. “There is no water in the entire town.”

I collapsed on the bed of my room. I was so exhausted. All I wanted to do was fall asleep. I then heard a knock on the door. It was Othman. He entered, sat on a chair by the small breakfast table, and lit a cigarette.

“I am so sorry about Abu Jaafar,” he said.

“What happened? Why did he go berserk?”

“I don’t know. I will have the chip in his head analysed.”

“Are you telling me that The Solution doesn’t work?”

“It works. It works very well. You have to believe me but …”

“What?”

“I’ve heard that some people who visit the Inanna temple, well it does something to them.”

“If that’s the case, why did you agree to us going there?”

“Nothing this bad has happened before. People complained of headaches, things like that. Maybe there is something in the temple ground interfering with the chips. The Germans stopped the dig. That’s why the temple door was boarded up. Maybe the more they excavate, the worse things get. I don’t know, I’m speculating.”

“Did you have to kill him?”

“We can’t take a chance. We can’t go back to how it was. The violence.” Othman took out a brown bottle from his pocket.

“I got you this.”

I took the bottle, opened it, and sniffed.

“Whisky?”

“Yes, locally made. Don’t worry. It’s good. It’s the closest thing to water I could get you.”

“Do you want some?”

Othman shook his head.

“I don’t drink. I got it for you.”

He got up.

“Is there any way I can persuade you not to mention what happened today in your report to the British Museum?”

I raised my hand, indicating that I didn’t want to have this conversation.

“I will leave you with this,” he said, putting a flick knife on the table. On the handle of the knife was a map of Iraq.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s just a precaution, in case more people turn the way Abu Jaafar did. I doubt you will need it.”

I closed the door behind Othman and went back to the bed. I lay across it without taking off my clothes. I began to think about The Solution.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the USA, Britain, and their allies a century ago, the country descended into chaos. Sectarian warfare, terrorism, and chronic corruption were endemic. I’m not an expert on the period. My field is deep antiquity. However, I know that it is a matter of intense debate amongst historians who study the post-invasion period whether the chaos unleashed on Iraq was a deliberate policy by the invaders or a series of unintended consequences.

The chaos continued in one form or another for the best part of the past century. There were periods of stability, certainly, but not sustained stability. Violence was always around the corner. A bold method had to be tried.

A group of Iraqi computer scientists and neurobiologists carried out a small-scale experiment in Mosul. They implanted computer chips in the brains of the inhabitants of segregated neighbourhoods. The chip dampened any sectarian bad feelings that the neighbours had for one another. The experiment was a resounding success and it was debated in parliament whether a nationwide rollout of the chip was in order. This happened during a period of intense violence, and as a result, the motion was passed.

Opponents of The Solution argued that sectarian antagonisms were not a natural or inevitable feature of Iraqi society. Communal antagonism before the 2003 invasion was minimal, they said. The flames of sectarian violence were fanned by the USA and her Gulf allies on the one hand, and Iran and her cohort on the other. Supporters of The Solution said that this explanation, whilst true, did not solve the problem on the ground. Something radical had to be tried to bring long-lasting stability and The Solution was the best option. A referendum was carried out and the supporters of The Solution won by a slim majority.

The chip was shot up the nose of the subject, its robotic part cutting through the blood brain barrier. The chip took control of synapses critical for manifesting hate. A fine balance had to be achieved. The subject couldn’t be turned into a gushing mess incapable of retaining some reservation about others. What was needed was a removal of animosity to the outer group, sufficient to create a functioning society. The effect of The Solution wasn’t immediately felt in a reduction of terrorist acts (it was hard to get to the terrorists anyway so most of them were not chipped) but in the changing wider societal values. People started to hire others for jobs based on merit rather than sectarian identity, bad mouthing members of a different sect or ethnicity behind closed doors lessened considerably, a general atmosphere of good will prevailed. All this eventually led to a sharp reduction in violence and lawlessness. The Solution worked. Until now.

I could tell that Othman was not looking forward to report to his superiors that the chip appears to be malfunctioning for reasons unknown. The stability of Iraq over the past twelve years was already translating into a flourishing economy and increased tourism. All that was at stake now.

Still, I had a job to do. I wrote a first draft of the report on my tablet.

I was exhausted when I finished. I lay on the bed and soon a dream took over. I dreamt that a doctor reached with a fine tweezers through my ears and pulled out a Solution chip from my brain. I was amazed in the dream to have such a chip in my head. How did it get there? I felt elated after its removal, experiencing a tremendous surge of power and freedom. I was no longer Adam but Dumuzid, the husband of the goddess Inanna. I was flying in search of the goddess. Through the cloud I could spot her ahead, her wings spread out, beating. I flew faster. I wanted to be with her but couldn’t catch up to her. Suddenly she stopped, turned around. It was Ishtar. She let out the most piercing shriek.

The shriek turned into a buzzing sound. Someone was pressing the buzzer outside my room.

I opened the door. It was Ishtar.

“Did I wake you?”

“I wasn’t asleep,” I lied.

“I couldn’t sleep either.”

“Come in.”

She sat on the same chair Othman had sat on earlier. She took out a cigarette.

“Do you mind?”

I shook my head. She lit it and inhaled deeply. She was tapping her feet nervously against the table.

“There is no water in the hotel. I can’t shower.”

“But the man downstairs said …”

“He lied.”

“Are you thirsty?”

“A little. Why? Do you have some water?”

“Not exactly.”

I put the homemade whisky on the table. I found two glasses and poured. I handed her a glass. She took it apprehensively. I tapped her glass with mine. She downed her glass in one go.

“Wow, take it easy.”

“More.”

I poured another measure of whisky for her. This time she drank it more slowly.

“That feels good,” she said closing her eyes, savouring the taste. She then opened her eyes and said, “Have you written your report?”

“I wrote a first draft.”

“Have you sent it?”

“No.”

“Don’t mention today. Today never happened.”

“I cannot not mention today. I was sent here to assess if the Standard of Ur will be safe and how can I make such an assessment after what happened?”

“What happened was an anomaly. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even when Iraqis from one sect hate someone from another sect they never, ever express it in the open way Abu Jaafar did. I don’t understand it.”

“He lost all inhibition.”

“You must omit it from your report.”

“You know I can’t do that, Ishtar.”

“I was a little girl when the violence was still endemic in Iraq. Before The Solution. I remember what it was like. What happened today, a driver going nuts, that’s nothing. Do you understand? That’s nothing.”

“You wouldn’t be shaking if it were nothing. I can see it got to you.”

“You mustn’t put it in the report.”

“Iraq is not ready for the Standard of Ur.”

“And who are you to decide?”

“Keeping the Standard at the British Museum allows researchers from all over the world to examine it in a safe and stable environment, that includes Iraqi researchers.”

“Give me a break.”

“Will you stop with your anti-Britishness for a minute, Ishtar, and think about what I am saying?”

“I have one word for you. Lady Layard.”

“That’s two words.”

“Austen Henry Layard excavates in Nimrud and Nineveh. Finds unique cylinder seals. Instead of treating them with the respect they deserve, he turns them into a necklace for his bride, Enid, who shows it off to Queen Victoria. And you at the museum display that necklace with utter pride. You know what that’s like? That’s like me going to Britain, chipping at Stonehenge to decorate my parents’ patio.”

“What does this story prove? Do you know how many artefacts we have in our possession, how many we have restored, catalogued, made available to researchers? You can’t hang your judgment on one story.”

“The Standard belongs to Iraq.”

“The Standard belongs to the world. Imagine it is brought to the Ur museum and some guy goes nuts like Abu Jaafar and shoots all the tourists coming to see it. And whilst he is at it, he shoots up the Standard itself. All this and much worse happened in Iraq in the last century. Incredible artefacts were lost to the world. Is that what you want?”

“You are treating us like children, deciding what’s good for us. Do you know how insulting that is?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“So you’ve made up your mind?”

“Ishtar, if you were in my shoes, if you were asked to report back to your employer, what would you do? Would you lie?”

We looked for a while at one another. Finally, she shook her head.

“There is only one thing left to do then,” she said. “Drink.”

We went through the bottle at a fair pace. The more we drank, the more relaxed we became. We talked about what attracted us to ancient antiquity, about the evolution of cuneiform writing, we quoted passages from the epic of Gilgamesh to one another. She put on music on her tablet and showed me a local dance. A lot of feet stamping was involved. She laughed every time I made a misstep. I was holding her hand when she lost her footing and bumped into me. Was that deliberate? We were very close now.

“I remember it,” she whispered.

“Remember what?”

“You touching me out in the desert.”

She took my hand and placed it on her breast. She then grabbed my head and kissed me fiercely. I was surprised at how things had escalated. One minute we are practically shouting at one another, the next kissing passionately. Of course, I realised that there had been a spark between us the first moment we met, hidden under layers of antagonism.

She pushed me onto the bed and straddled me. I wasn’t used to losing control. I tried to turn her so that I would be on top, but she pinned me down. She was incredibly strong with a lean and muscular body. I put my hand on her breast again. I remembered how lost and vulnerable she was in the desert. Now she looked powerful and self-assured. Her Sumerian eyes were looking deep into my soul.

She took me inside her without breaking eye contact. We began to rock and I was trying hard not to come too early. She was riding me wildly. I felt like a horse that was being broken by its owner.  Who is this woman? What does she want from me?

We made love three consecutive times. She had the energy of a she-devil. When she finally rolled off me and fell asleep, I felt immense relief mixed with regret. I wanted the love making to last forever and I wanted it to end. I feared and wanted her all at the same time.

I’m glad I got to the end of this entry before Ishtar woke up.

I’m going to recommend that the Standard is not returned. However, I will go ahead and organise the exhibition about the first city. I will convince my bosses to invite Ishtar to speak about it and the Inanna temple. Perhaps Ishtar will like London enough to stay longer. I like the idea of us becoming on and off lovers.

I’ll get a few winks now.

23:59

Adam woke to the smell of coffee that Ishtar had brought to bed. To Adam she must have seemed like a woman transformed. Did he think that his cock had this magical effect on her? Probably not. He had enough self-awareness to know that might not be the case. Yet he was clearly pleased with how things had turned out. “You don’t have to do that,” he said with a smile as he took the coffee from her hands.

“The water is back. You can have a shower if you like.”

“Okay.”

There was something almost endearing about the way he said okay as if they had been a couple for a long time. She watched him go into the bathroom, heard him sing as he showered.

He stood before her, drying himself. He looked at ease as if he had done that a thousand times.

“I need your help,” she said with the expression of a powerless woman.

“Ishtar, look, I can’t change the report.”

“It’s not that. I need help with something else. Will you come with me to the Inanna temple?”

“You want to go back?”

“There is something I want to show you.”

She rented a car and drove with Adam along the same highway where they had the accident. She drove at a leisurely speed. They spoke about the possibility of her visiting London, of being a guest speaker at the museum. They traded anecdotes about being the geeky kids at school. They spoke of their first love.

“Today is Valentine’s day,” Adam said.

“I know that,” Ishtar replied, not taking her eyes off the road. She enjoyed the silence that fell between them.

When they arrived at the temple, Ishtar led the way.

“Where are we going?”

“Inside.”

“I thought you said we can’t go inside.”

“What I want to show you is inside.”

Ishtar unlocked the combination lock to the wooden door. The temple was dark. Her eyes took a while to adjust to the darkness. Ishtar found a lamp, which she lit. There was a set of stairs descending below the temple. Ishtar led the way down the stairs, holding onto the lamp. It was a long flight of stairs and they were now deep under the earth. They finally reached a spacious chamber. Ishtar lit the lamps there and the room was soon bathed in a misty yellow light. Adam seemed mesmerised by the relief paintings all around. Various depictions of the goddess Inanna. Her magnificent wings, her owl-like talons, gripping the backs of two lions. In the middle of the space was a stone platform.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“We think so. We’re not sure.”

“For humans?”

“Animals, most likely.”

“Why do you need my help?”

“There is an inscription, very early, pre-cuneiform. We can’t decipher it.”

“Ah, you need the big bad Brit to do the job.”

“Something like that.”

“I was just kidding.”

“I know.”

Adam bent over the stone.

“Where is the inscription?”

“If you lie on your stomach over the stone, you’ll see it better. It’s at a very odd angle.”

Adam did as he was instructed. By this point he had total trust in Ishtar.

Ishtar looked at his supine body. The one that, a few hours earlier, had given her some pleasure. She thought about stopping. She really did.

Ishtar plunged Othman’s knife in Adam’s back. The groan Adam let out was more in surprise than in pain. She turned him around. She wanted him to see her face as she plunged the knife with the map of Iraq in his heart.

“You took a trip in the desert and you never came back.”

Plunge.

“But before that you sent the report. All is well. Iraq is ready for the Standard.”

Plunge.

Adam spit out blood. It covered Ishtar’s face and chest. She wiped it off.

“Ishtar!” he groaned.

“I am not Ishtar.”

Plunge.

There was a flicker of recognition before the light went out entirely in Adam’s eyes.

It wasn’t hard for me to break into his tablet back at the hotel. Find the report and change the wording. This journal, which Adam must have thought was so secure, I hacked in six minutes. I copied it onto my tablet and deleted it from his. I decided to write this final entry, as I’m sure one day, long into the future, this will see the light of day. But for now they will never find Adam’s body. He went into the desert, got lost, and died. It happens. Silly Brit.

I told him. He didn’t listen. I told him Inanna was not Venus. She is much more than a sexual fantasy.

I am Inanna. And I live.

 

Hassan Abdulrazzak is of Iraqi origin, born in Prague and living in London. His plays include Baghdad Wedding (Soho Theatre, 2007, Belvoir St Theatre, 2009, Akvarious, 2010), The Prophet (Gate theatre, 2012), Love, Bombs and Apples (Arcola Theatre, 2016 and UK tour. Golden Thread, San Francisco, 2018) and And Here I Am (Arcola Theatre, 2017 and UK and Middle East tour). His contribution to anthologies include Iraq+100: Stories from a century after the invasion (Comma Press, 2016), A Country of Refuge (Unbound, 2016), Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic (Saqi Books, 2017) and A Country to Call Home (Unbound, 2018). He is the recipient of George Devine, Meyer-Whitworth and Pearson theatre awards as well as the Arab British Centre Award for Culture.

 

1 Comment

  1. What happened to Othman? What happened to the heavy-handed sectarian violence? Why is there random sex and love-making in a serious geo-political debate? Why does the point of view shift very awkwardly from first person to third person? Whiskey will not hydrate you…
    Why is there a boatload of exposition dumped halfway into the story? There are a ton of plotholes and incoherence here, and the story started off so well and promising. Are you not going to address the first half of the story?

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