Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Foosball and Baathism

In stark contrast to the difficulties of wiping out the insurgency, the visible remnants of the former regime have been completely removed. Driving through Baghdad, the places where statues stood or paintings of Saddam glowered are easily identifiable. But the pictures have been painted over and the statues removed. The palaces that still stand are unmistakably Saddam's, but these are home to US government operations, and their former purpose and history is only evident in the architecture or the lore that surrounds certain features.

One piece of Iraqi history that is easy to overlook is the tomb of the intellectual father of Ba'athism, Michel Aflaq. His name is usually mentioned before his co-founder, Salah al-Din Bitar, because Aflaq was born a Christian. Both were European-educated Syrian intellectuals who worked as school teachers and later in the Ministry of Education. After a falling out with the Ba'athist Syrian government, Aflaq sought refuge in Iraq. Saddam was eager to bolster his Ba'athist credentials and welcomed Aflaq in return for his support.

Wikipedia's entry mentions that Aflaq is buried in the Green Zone, on the site of the new American embassy. The construction site of the future American embassy is vast, easily three or four times the mall in Washington by my estimates. A recent article tries to depict its size, but it seems even more expansive than the description. Soldiers manning the site told me that the embassy will be a virtual city, complete with its own water and trash collection services.

Last Friday I went to visit the grave. The PSDs who had to escort me were not pleased and had little patience for tourist excursions. I didn't know the location of "FOB Union III" and lost among the embassy construction, it was difficult to find. As foreign nationals, they weren't allowed to enter the premises, and we exited our armoured vehicle and walked the five minutes from the entrance of the base to the mausoleum.

The exterior of Aflaq's tomb

Aflaq is rumoured to have embraced Islam before he died. Apparently, whoever planned his burial did not want to leave any doubt about his religious affliation. The exterior of the mausoleum, which looks like a traditional mosque.

When you look inside, and before you get to the headstone, you pass a foosball table. Weights and a bench press are adjacent to the tomb. The US military has converted the interior to a rec room. A dusty chandelier is attached to the ceiling, which is decorated with a sort of faux-mosaic. The walls have been covered with wood, for reasons that are not immediately evident. Perhaps to allow for bookshelves? Two stairs lead down from either side of the grave to cramped, makeshift barracks constructed with plywood. There are dozens of soldiers who live beneath Aflaq's grave. The empty display cases next to the rooms suggest that the area might have been a museum earlier.

A view from the entrance

A lone book and water bottle sit on the tomb, which is covered in dust. The inscription on the headstone features Sura al 'Asr, and does not say who is interred.

Paying proper respect?

What will happen to this landmark in the future? Compelling but flawed arguments can be made for its destruction. Baathism was a fascist ideology, and its founder should not be commemorated. However, it was only in practice that Baathism became odious. As it was conceived by Aflaq, Baathism was grounded in freedom, nationalism, socialism, and Pan-Arabism. Incompatible ideals, perhaps, but few intellectual systems are flawless. Leaders like Saddam and the Assads in Syria distorted the ideology and used it as a source of legitimacy for their baseless, corrupt dictatorships. Aflaq envisioned a secular, modern state that united the Arab people across sectarian and national rifts. As Iraqis struggle for a post-Saddam national identity, surely that is a vision worth preserving.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a brilliant article about Michel Aflaq, the little known father of the Bathist party. This is a fantastic piece of living history, fully illustrated. Than you. Please give us more.

January 03, 2007 7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Despite the fact that the tomb stands erect to commemorate the man who came up with the "Facist" Ba'athist ideology, it is truly a pillar of progressive, liberal 20th century Arab intellect, and hence must above all be respected more than to be littered with remenants of a lounge for American soldiers!!
I am frightened by this lack of etiquette and respect to a fallen man's place of rest, and while this maybe a gross comparison, this really seems a barabaric act of grave robbing, where what has been stolen is not material, but more importantly, the pride, honor, and work of a great man.
Imagine the defiling of a memorial such as the Lincoln Memorial, or the White House for that matter? Wait, why bother imagining -- this is a merely a step backwards from what is happening in Jerusalem.

Blog author, you don't have to post this publicly, but i would more then appreciate conversing with you more on what you know about this tomb. I am a student reporter from Swarthmore College in the US, and was thinking of doing a piece on FOB Union II -- this seems like the twist I was begging for. Our show is called War News Radio, you can find it and listen to it online if you so please. If you wish to contact me, ask me in a response to this post, and i will gladly oblige. thank you very much indeed for this wonderful revelation --

March 07, 2007 11:19 AM  
Blogger housediggity said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. I think its premature to harshly criticize their treatment of the tomb. I heard that there were earlier discussions about razing the tomb entirely. Lets be glad that didn't happen.

I don't follow the comparisons to Jerusalem.

Glad to discuss further. My email is housediggity@gmail.com

March 07, 2007 7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 31, 2007 8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your historical reflection on Aflaq and your suggestion that original baathism represented the very legitimate Arab aspirations of true self determination, cultural rebirth and freedom.

We in the west seem to think we must control and create Arab aspirations in our own image - an illegitimate western aspiration certain to bring untold grief to the area and to the world (It already has) unless we abondon it now.

We must recognize outright the hopes that baathism at its historic core represents and give them space to evolve healthily.


May 25, 2007 8:19 PM  
Anonymous Samier said...

It should be razed to the floor after the Americans finish using it, we don't need founders of our demise and destruction being commemorated and celebrated.

He wasn't an intellectual, he laid the basis for the destruction of the Arabs and after going to Saddam whom we all know was a brutal dictator, what intellect drove him to Saddam.

We see a fool buried there at the moment and if Iraq and the Americans have any decency they should demolish it for the sake of the thousands killed.

May 30, 2009 5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this shows primitive nature of the Neo-cons Americans....

July 31, 2009 11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aflaq's tomb is now the "Baghdad Mall". Locals have been allowed to set up small shops to sell bootleg DVDs, trinkets and rugs to the people on FOB Union. The grounds and water garden have been let go to ruin. This is far from the first case I have seen of Americans trashing Iraq's cultural heritage. When the Iraqis get their country back they aren't going to be happy.

May 07, 2010 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything in and around Union III never belonged to the Iraqi people. It was a playground for Saddam, his family, and his cronies.
Mainstream Iraqis never had the chance to enjoy it. Hopefully that will soon change and ALL Iraqis will have access to the current International Zone plus the Oasis that surrounds Baghdad International Airport (BIAP).

May 19, 2010 7:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an update: FOB Union III has been handed back to the Iraqis. Not sure what they're going to do with it. I heard that Michel Aflaq's body was disinterred and taken to France or Syria before the war.


February 25, 2014 8:10 PM  

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