BECAUSE OF THE PRINTING schedule of the Sunday Magazine, this column gets written about three weeks before publication. As a result, I have had to write Sunday columns in Amman, Jordan, and in Berlin and in Prague -- wherever I happen to have been when the deadline came due. This one is being written in Baghdad, Iraq, during the first week of January.
I am writing today about a man I recently met here. Along with a colleague, I went to his house. It was a rare chance to visit an Iraqi at home, even if this Iraqi is hardly typical. In the first place, he is middle-class in a Third World country. Second, he is a somewhat famous composer. He travels widely, attends festivals here and there and, in Iraq, is sometimes called upon to compose pieces for state events. Nevertheless, he declares himself nonpolitical. "I am not political," he says with an extraordinarily winning smile. He is convincing.
Having made that declaration, he
laughingly pleads ignorance to a host of questions, some of them not really political. Knowing nothing about politics, he is not sure why Iraq invaded Kuwait, although he is quick to denounce Kuwaitis themselves. On other matters he is open and gregarious, but when it comes to the actions of his country, he smiles broadly, shrugs his shoulders and offers no opinion. For what it's worth, his wife backs him up. Yes, she says, no interest in politics nor in the house nor in the children. Only in his work. Hearing that, he laughs.
Listening to them, I instantly, although silently, condemn my host. What he is saying, I think to myself, is that he is indifferent to other people, especially to human rights. When the word "politics" is used in an Iraqi context, it hardly suggests zoning laws and city council elections but, instead, who gets to live and who gets to die. This is a country of torture and midnight executions, and so I insist, to myself of course, that my host be involved, that he not consider himself a one-man backwater, a remote hamlet of a person, cut off from the news and therefore not accountable for it. Get involved, I think.
All this, of course, is an instant reaction to his words, but I dwell on them a bit afterward as I listen to him talk. My reaction, I come to think, is provincially Western. I am thinking of people I have met in the West, people who have told me, maybe because I am a journalist, that they do not keep up with the news because, well, you see, they don't have to: They're not political. Now, I am not talking about voting, which is something else entirely, but of a sanctimonious obliviousness. I am fascinated by this assertion since it seems to me to be a proclamation of ignorance, selfishness and impotence. It says the troubles of the world are not my concern and, even if they were, I could do nothing about them.
Years ago I wrote a column about a lawyer from Detroit who went to Moscow as a tourist and fell in love. He saw a woman walking in Red Square and was smitten. He approached her. They
walked for a while and she invited him home to meet her family. Months later, they were married, but she was refused permission to leave the country.
The lawyer went home to Detroit, where he started a campaign to get his wife to the United States. I was among the many people he called. I begged off. In those days, there were many such stories. The lawyer persisted, and, finally and with some reluctance, I wrote about the couple. That column was read on the Voice of America and the woman heard it in Moscow. She knew then, the lawyer told me, that someone out there cared, that she belonged to a sort of community.
This is what I think when people tell me they are not political. That they are out to teach the poet John Donne a thing or two: A man can be an island. He, she or we can opt out of the community of people and not, really, give a damn about anybody or anything that's more than a postal zone away. Torture and jailing are beyond my comprehension, but I think these things would be even worse if the victim thought no one out there cared, that the world was indifferent. This is what I think about when people tell me they are not political, and I condemn them for it.
But now, in Baghdad, outside the safe, familiar context of the West, this man may have been saying something else. I listened carefully, listened with my eyes to hear his body language, to see what I thought was the exaggerated insouciance whenever a political issue was raised, and I thought I detected something else: fear. This is a terrible land of terrible deeds (a book written about it is called The Republic of Fear). No one who has been here does not feel the terror. And so I thought, Who am I to judge this man? Would I be braver? Would I do any different? Would I have been one of those to have stood up to the Nazis or the communists, or would I, like most people, have just looked the other way -- not have been political?
I don't know. Really I don't. But I do know that I would like the Americans who say they are not political to meet this man in Baghdad who also says he is not political. My guess is that my Iraqi host would be mystified by the Americans and judge them as I first judged him -- with contempt. And maybe, though the link is just a wee bit tenuous, he would say to them that the ultimate reason he cannot be political is because people who have the freedom to exercise pressure, and monitor government and in other ways be engaged, choose not to be. And this gives a lot of power to those who are.