Abundance Beyond Generosity: On The Road to Babylon on Day 11 by Steve Clemens
It was raining this morning as we left for the city of Hilla and the nearby ruins of Babylon. We were riding in a 20+ passenger bus with members of the Muslim Peacemaker Team as we headed about 45 minutes north of Najaf. Deborah, a delegate from Boston had asked Sami Rasouli a question about the structure of the Arabic language in comparison to English. Sami was explaining the difference between a “request” and an “order” when someone is asking another to do something and the conversation flowed into a discussion about our differing cultures. Because of his long-time experience both as an American and an Iraqi, Sami has been an ideal guide in helping us navigate between the two cultures on this journey of reconciliation.
Sami started talking about the culture of generosity in Iraq and gave this illustration: many individuals have approached him about hosting our American delegation. Some want generously want to take us to a restaurant and buy us a meal. The restaurant might be even a five-star rated establishment but you will still order only one meal each when you are there. Other Iraqis have asked to host us in their homes. Even though our delegation is only 7 foreigners and are accompanied by as many as 7 additional MPT members, one host had made enough food to serve 100 people! That is abundance. The host not only has welcomed us into his home, already a gesture of honor and respect, but in providing so much food so no one could possibly go hungry communicates a measure of abundance which flows out of his hospitality.
The host and his family did not eat with us – they waited until his honored guests had their fill and only then, as we gathered in another room for fruit, sweets, and tea, did the family members eat. Sami tells us that other Iraqis are vying for the opportunity to host us, outdoing one another. Here in a land without reliable energy from the national grid or clean enough water from the local treatment plant one might expect a culture of scarcity and protecting what you’ve gotten already. Of course there is some of that; Iraqis are humans and humans often fall short of the goals set by themselves and others.
We witnessed the flip side to abundance as we stopped to visit the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel of Hebrew Bible fame. It is located in a small town between Hilla and Najaf. The grab for power and the use of authority to exercise that power over others depends on scarcity rather than abundance. After walking through the souk to get to the path to get to the site where the bones of the Old Testament prophet, exiled to Babylon, were buried, our group was halted by an Iraqi policeman who told us we couldn’t enter. After an animated back and forth between Sami, Ishan (an MPT member) and the three policeman who gathered, Sami tells us we must leave for our own security.
After returning to the bus, Sami tells us the policeman noted there were foreigners in our group and this local policeman wanted to exercise his authority by being able to tell us “No!” The excuse given was that the tomb was under repair and they were afraid we’d take pictures and make it look like the Iraqis weren’t preserving this historical site properly. Sami speculated however that the real reason might be because he saw foreigners and we might be Jews because many of the foreigners visiting are Jews. Despite all the deference given to “People of the Book” by those promoting inter-faith dialog, many ordinary Iraqis, just like typical Americans, are often influenced by negative stereotypes promoted by the media or politicians.
Another classic example of power rather than generosity/abundance was very evident at the ruins of Babylon. Across the Euphrates River, on a hill overlooking the partially excavated site of one of the most famous cities in the world, is a palace constructed by Saddam Hussein. That megalomaniac fancied himself as the new Nebuchadnezzar, and he promoted himself as the Lion of Babylon. After all, he had much of the wall of the city rebuilt during his reign to the dismay and scorn of real archeologists who wrote off the work as inauthentic. Even some of the bricks are inscribed with Saddam’s handwriting in a way to mimic the real bricks that have writing dating back to Nebuchadnezzar’s age. For Saddam, ruling a country with an iron fist wasn’t enough – he imagined himself as an historical figure. Maybe he is correct: he’s now viewed historically as someone who produced great and lasting danger and destruction to his own country.
But let us return to abundance. Sami is a great storyteller. He regaled us with an account of a US soldier and a Najafi civilian resident. After an encounter at a checkpoint, the man from Najaf invited the American soldier to visit him in his home – provided he came without his uniform or his gun. When the American arrived, the Najafi invited others of his friends to come meet the American. They clambered to invite him into their own homes – again with the same conditions, no weapons, no uniform. He was feted with tea and the Iraqi hospitality and he left realizing that “the enemy” was just like himself. When the soldier returned to his barracks, he told his fellow troops about his experience and he was quickly disciplined and removed from that base. If you question who is the enemy, you can no longer be trusted to follow orders is the presumption made by officers in charge. After all, if the enemy is one you can break bread with, they actually become human rather than stereotypes. Thus abundance, generosity acted upon becomes the heart and soul of nonviolence.