The following is an excerpt from Bowl of Cherries (McSweeney's Books, 2007) by Millard Kaufman.
The Last Mile
If you look closely at a detailed map of Iraq, you’ll find somewhere to the south, between the western shelf and the equally monotonous eastern plain, the province of Assama, a flat depression in the shape of a chicken.
The more ironic of middle East scholars have for years hypothecated that the name comes from some sour old joke, lost in antiquity, because Assama is Arabic for “Paradise,” and this place isn’t even close to the minimal consolations we might expect on earth, much less heaven. There are in Assama geographical nooks that are yet to be charted, chronicled, demarked, but unless they turn out to be a decided improvement from what we’ve seen so far, you might conclude from Assama that the earth is a very grotesque and tacky planet.
Even remotely, Assama has never reflected the exotic Araby of the Europeans who romanced about it more or less convincingly in the nineteenth century, managing to assure their armchair readers that they, the tale-spinners, were living in the middle of a travel poster chock-full of exotic flora and fauna. Lions and panthers (much bigger than presently existing species) did at one time, according to no less an authority than h. G. Wells, roam the wasteland, which is to say the entire province. These days there’s nothing to kill around here but humans and gerbils, the sand rats of the desert, and a few other wee beasties that manage to survive the desolation of the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of mesopotamia, as the region between the lower Tigris and Euphrates was called for millennia.
A rumor persists among a minority of the locals—the majority are skeptical and secular—that Qurna, where the rivers converge, was the biblical Garden of Eden (perhaps the source, however dubious, of Assama’s name). Down through the centuries, the province has never achieved anything to match its mythic eminence. Triumphs are rare; history has behaved disruptively with the place. With the oldest cities on earth, Mesopotamia is often called the cradle of civilization. it might with equal certainty be called the birthplace of sustained barbarism. There were clashes from 4500 BC on, hot spots, flare-ups, skirmishes, even pitched battles among Arabs, Persians, mesopots, Assyrians, Babylonians, Berbers, but manhood didn’t show signs of deep, irreversible impairment until warfare on a grand, gangrenous scale
was introduced around 2076 BC, when the first big parade of bullies and kleptocrats stormed into Assama.
Assama was the jumping-off place for invasion because an east-west road spills irregularly across the Rub al-Khali, from the beak of the chicken to its tail. But the legionaries from Europe or Asia spent little time in the Empty Zone. Didn’t take them long to determine that the southerly wasteland, scalding by day, freezing by night, had little to offer. There were no beads or bangles to snatch, no fields of bright minerals to pluck. Nothing to fossick for or fight over. Consequently, Assama achieved neither fame nor notoriety as a battlefield; rather it supplied a warpath to an access road running north, along the chicken’s midsection. It led to the flush and fabled cities of antiquity—Baghdad, Babylon, Ur, Urik, Nineveh, Samara. The intruders plundered one or another of them or as many as they could.
King Rimsin of Larsa (Ellasar in the Old Testament) defeated Babylonia in 2076 BC. His successors were decimated by Hammurabi around 1770 BC. Tiglath-pileser I, ruler of the Elamites, took Babylon in 1110 BC, calling himself “King of the World.” Shortly thereafter he lost the world title, along with the city-state, to the Assyrians. Doggedly the Elamites tried to retake it, finally succeeding under Tiglath III in 728 BC. Then came sennacherib, King of Assyria, who spent most of his reign (705–681) warring against Babylonia.
In 586 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of the Chaldeans took Babylon; Cyrus the Great took it from the Chaldeans in 539 and founded the Persian empire. King Xerxes of Persia took the road west, leading an expedition against the Greeks. He was slaughtered at Salamis in 480.
Alexander of Macedon took Babylon in 381 BC, defeating Darius II of Persia. The Persians took another dreadful beating by a Roman army invading Mesopotamia in 242 AD. A raggedy-assed swarm of Arabs conquered southern Mesopotamia (at the site of present-day iraq) in 640 AD. The saracens crossed the road and got as far as Tours before the Franks, led by Charles martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, crushed them in 732 AD.
Saladin defeated Saif ud-Din to take Mosul in 1176 AD. Hulagu Khan, grandson of Jenghiz, sacked and burned Baghdad in 1258. The mongul Tamerlane, who hated jokes and was said to have been born with bloody clenched fists, took Baghdad in 1400.
The British arrived in 1915 and took over the territory six years later when they invented Iraq by gerrymandering a large, irregular cut—as much as they could grab—of Mesopotamia, which is why Assama looks like a chicken. Cartography was determined by oil; it was known that just about all the rest of Iraq gushed with the stuff, but somehow it had given Assama the slip. Damn place was indeed a desert eccentrically surrounded by a vast oasis of oil.
Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. Assama’s boundaries may zig or zag once more, to the degree that it no longer resembles a chicken but perhaps a kangaroo or a porcupine, or it might be gobbled up by a neighbor, even by a neighbor on the other side of the world, and disappear, as it once nonexisted, like a guppy ingested by a piranha.
It’s in the air—the air once redolent of myrrh, spiceberries, and frankincense, the kind of balm associated with Omar Khayyám. There were palm plantations and marshlands festooned with moss until 1991, when Saddam destroyed them to clear his fields of fire.
Now the air is troubled by an infinitude of invisible mites combining gunpowder, cordite, and corpse-rot, and churned up by Humvees and tanks and the decay of young people torn limbless by land mines. The devastation is eerily illuminated by the combustible blight of burn-off from the oil fields. Dysfunction and instability as far as your red eyes can see.
Midway across the chicken road at about the fowl’s navel (designated for geographic, not anatomical orientation) it is bisected by an offshoot to the north. Where the two arteries converge is the provincial capital, a dilapidated town called Coproliabad, christened by the Romans when they passed this way to consolidate the eastern reaches of the empire in 242 BC. At the center of Coproliabad is the jail. I am in the jail, which proves that despite the more heralded hazards of war and mountaineering, deep-sea diving, and space probes, man’s ancient and honorable pursuit of tight corners can still be satisfied in the most disreputable places.
I’ve never had a tendency to feel sorry for myself but this time I think I might justifiably yield to it. Incarceration even in polite societies is, I’m beginning to suspect, a galling experience. Languishing is not the word for it. There’s no chance of busting out, and I’m tired. My stomach is deranged from Assamic cooking. Worms and wavy arrows, pinwheels and hieroglyphs dart and wheel and collide across my peripheral vision. I suffer from the
clanks, which I suppose is not unusual for a man charged with murder and condemned to die by a provincial mandate. I’ve tried suicide by the only means available, which is by eating the food they serve me. That accounts for the diarrhea, a fate certainly not worse than death, but it’ll serve till the real thing comes along.
The jail is a shithouse, and that’s not a metaphor. It is fashioned, like all the public buildings and private dwellings in the capital, of human excrement, well salted with sand, an additive of shale, and, most important, an agglutinate, marvelous but unidentifiable, to solidify it in a state as costive as concrete.
The Mesopots have a tradition of urban ingenuity that goes back 6,000 years to Ur and Kish. They built fantastical structures—towers and ziggurats, buildings seven stories tall of sun-broiled bricks painted in unexpected combos: pastels of green, blue, pink, and yellow.
But the buildings of Assama are unique. Nobody else in our planet’s freaky past has ever constructed works of art and architecture whose chief ingredient was excrement. it is not only feces that the Assamans make practical use of; they are a relentlessly retentive people who hate to part with anything of themselves. They preserve toenails (ground) for curatives, hairballs (plaited) for amulets, and urine for use as a skin conditioner. Pondering such eccentricities as well as my own predicament, small wonder I can’t sleep. I pace my cell in the hot, dead-aired dawn, which holds the fierce stench not of my surroundings—in Coproliabad one grows used to that in about two weeks—but of death.
My death, of course. It’s in the blue-black air, a raw, acrid chemical stink. It’s in the dirgy music strummed on a two-stringed gourd of a guitar and plunked with a jagged shard of coconut to the beat of two coconut shells bouncing off each other like cymbals, while a discord of rackety voices sings my disaster, in the process rattling my fillings and scaring off the bustards poking through the garbage.
From Bowl of Cherries by Millard Kaufman. Copyright © 2007 by Millard Kaufman. Published by McSweeney's Books.