This story was originally published in Kindred Spirit Magazine in the UK in 2007. This is the unedited, original version. A very personal story of my unusual own path to self discovery in Iraq two years ago. I am posting this on International Day of Peace and Global Ceasefire as part of the Blog 4 Peace campaign sponsored by the UN to illustrate that peace can be found in the most unexpected places.
I knew before I fully embarked that I was going on a terrific journey. I packed my art material’s, a guide to Chi Gung practice, some ambient sounds, and had the intention to perfect the ten minute Tai Chi form I had learned. Anyone would have thought I was bound for retreat or a relaxing holiday – but I was about to enter a strange and violent world. As I armed myself with what I termed “my spiritual support” the words of Thomas Hardy came to mind – “If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.”
I had volunteered to be part of British reconstruction effort in Southern Iraq and was set for a six month journey of discovery. Away from family life for the first time in thirteen years there was an unexpected freedom to be found at the British base in Basra. I was no longer required to clean, cook or wash clothes. With the mundanities gone all that there appeared to do was work and reflect. Another change for me was saying goodbye to my house in rural Cambridgeshire, and home became a small reinforced concrete “pod” containing only enough material possessions I could carry in my kit bag onto a military helicopter. I considered this a real freedom and already understood that I needed to shed in order to gain.
My new colleagues came from walks of life I had rarely encountered – soldiers, military, police, prison wardens and a 98% male environment. Previously I have sought diverse friends, but this was testing all my boundaries and although I asserted myself quite forcefully at times, I found I rarely had to alter my calm approach and my gentleness was often welcome and refreshing for some of my new adrenaline filled friends.
And as the physical situation became more and more dangerous, I began to see rays of sunshine, shafts of hope and the tenderness and compassion within those around me began to leap out. There was no doubt I was among truly remarkable people. I remember a young soldier came to my office. He was hot and tired after a long day on patrol, but his eyes were bright and good. He was part of the current military operation, where British and Iraqi troops went into deprived areas and “cleaned them up”. He had spent the afternoon repainting a school but had misgivings about whether he was “making a difference”. He had met a young girl with a hole in her heart who needed an operation but could not afford it – he wanted to help and had heard that I was someone worth exploring this with. The compassion he showed was a treasure, and I was to learn that there were other British civilian and military staff who regularly funded the studies and healthcare of some of the Iraqi people they had met on their own journey.
I was beginning to see that within every bad experience or situation, it is often laced with equal amounts of good. Considering Iraqi poet Mahmoud Darwish’s claim that Iraq was a “desert for those who look for God in the human being” (from his poem “A horse for the stranger”), I soaked in the glimpses of light which others seemed too often miss in this environment and began to point them out to others: The calm and jovial army Chaplain – “the Padre” who strode around the base with a biblical wooden staff and a cheery word for everyone he met; the heroic CNN journalist who lived in a dangerous part of Baghdad and had seen grotesque experiences in his personal quest for the truth; the Basrawi journalist who struggled through our tight security in order to bring me deliciously sweet dates from his own garden; and the kindness one prison warden showed in caring for a stray cat he had adopted. But none illustrates this more profoundly than the selflessness of our personal security team who would and have laid their own lives down to protect us. These riches began to fill me up as I understood the beauty and resilience of human nature and I recognised in myself, as my inner calm grew stronger with every rocket and mortar attack, what it meant to flourish in adversity.
And it was not simply to witness these little gems, it was seeing the whole. The good and the bad, to understand and empathise with a soldier or an Iraqi policeman in entirety is as valid and uplifting as understanding a wise sage or enlightened soul. Self discovery and development can happen when surrounding yourself with like minded people in peaceful flowing environments, but equally moments of real clarity can be found in real contrast, in difficult moments, and when facing death. It helped me to explore and recognise the extremes and possibilities within the human design.
In approaching my own spiritually I drew strength from my reflections and each morning I would wake and, after waiting for our security teams to clear the grounds of any unexploded munitions, I would creep to the banks of a nearby lake and feel the strength of the sand under my feet, coloured pink by the rising sun. Alongside the small bee-eaters and kingfishers diving for insects and fish, I began to perfect my Tai Chi, and loose my self consciousness to such an extent that others around me too wanted to learn. And so I learned not only what it is to have inner peace, but the added pleasure of inspiring calm in others.
I saw the poetry in my Iraqi friends. Each journalist I met introduced themselves on tatty business cards embellished with delicate flowers as an “artist”, a “writer” or a “poet”. I understood how poetry is central in Iraqi people’s sentiment and temperament. That despite unspeakable hardships, creativity and life continued to flow through them, as did Basra’s awesome Shatt Al –Arab waterway, in an unstoppable gush. Though peppered with barbered wire the river retained it’s sparkle and allure and overwhelmed me each day. Iraqi poet Badr Shair al-Sayyab writes in Death and the River, “are you a river or a forest of tears?” The answer for me was both, and more.
As I reached the end of my first tour I recorded my feelings in a diary. Sitting in an air-conditioned freight container with my art materials, my guide to Chi Gung practice, and ambient CDs stuffed into my kit bag at my side, I felt not just an overwhelming sense of being alive, but I realised a long sought after dream of “being here now”. Perhaps this is only possible after facing and witnessing death. Again I thought of Hardy and wondered if I had taken a good look at the worst. I reflected on how in my culture death is hidden, kept away and rarely spoken of and how unhealthy this was for the spiritual development. I wrote, “in this freight container lidded with corrugated metal, situated in the dirty grounds of Britain’s biggest military base in Iraq, I feel as free as a bird”.