[ by Charles Cameron — life not quite as subtle as art, but echoing it nevertheless ]
Alissa Rubin, writing in yesterday’s NYT under the title On the Road to Samarra, Glimpses of Iraq’s New Fractured Reality, offers a realistic description of the road between the two cities:
About 20 miles beyond the northern gates of Baghdad, on the way to the embattled city of Samarra, site of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, the road empties out as if some invisible barrier has been passed.
From this point on boundaries are constantly shifting, with the Iraqi government’s control extending only a little beyond the side of the road, and sometimes not even there.
The 75-mile drive from Baghdad to Samarra plunges the traveler into Iraq’s precarious new reality. It is a world of Shiite militias, where many of the men carrying arms on behalf of the government have only the most tenuous ties to the Iraqi security forces. And it is a world where Sunni militants, who advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad in their initial burst last month before their drive stalled, often are no more than a mile or so away.
Travelers must read signs that would be invisible to a newcomer: Flags and uniforms signal safety or danger.
I can’t help but remember Somerset Maugham‘s account of that same distance, metaphysically measured, as quoted by John O’Hara:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.