Planning a Park While Rome Burns
Sometimes my work is a little surreal when I hear what's going on in Iraq. I work for an environmental NGO ... not a Chicken Little-type NGO, but one that is relatively forward thinking and solution-oriented. The work itself is exciting and well, strange to say, grandiose. Some of these projects have the potential (the potential, mind you) to have a major (and we presume positive) effect upon the country. My boss, who has been at it for more than five years, three of them in Iraq, refers to himself as a bit of an addict now ... he doesn't feel he could go back to a normal job again. This is nation-building to him.
But spend five minutes listening to the news and you start thinking you are living in a dream world, building ephemeral castles that will come to naught. How can Iraq's nearly ruined environment be restored amongst all this horrible violence? Some might ask (and have asked) aren't Iraq's political & social problems a little bit more important that a few drained marshes and some extinct, endemic species?
There is a saying ... "fiddling while Rome burns" ... in other words occupying oneself with unimportant matters and neglecting priorities during a crisis. This comes from a story that Nero played an instrument while Rome burned, during the great fire in AD 64.
I don't believe this ... the environment is not an "unimportant matter" but actually a centrally critical matter ... without it we can not survive ... and we ignore it at our peril. I've said it before ... more people (and most of them children) are probably dying in Iraq from dirty water than from bombs and bullets.
One thing is sure, atleast for now we (I say we, but I really mean my Iraqi co-workers, since I'm cooling my heels in the relative safety of Jordan) seem to operate under the radar screen of most of the violence in Iraq. The shit can be hitting the fan on a nearly constant basis in Iraq .... but we just keep plugging away, quietly going about our business, working in the field and planning for projects that will (atleast we assume) make life better for Iraqis and people in the region in some bright future down the road. Afterall, even terrorists want to be able to drink a cup of clean water, right? Why should they trouble us.
But then why do they go after teachers and students ... and, good Lord!, even hairdressers?
When Tom Fox, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team, was killed ... my faith in our relative untouchability was shaken. If they could kidnap and kill such an innocuous, sweet guy like Tom, maybe they will come gunning for a few environmentalists next. And heck, if the terrorists don't get you, the Americans or the Iraqi police are just as likely to take a trigger-happy shot at you.
My Iraqi translator, who is now working with me in Amman, told me that after leaving Baghdad last fall the air was cleaner and the sky clearer as soon as he arrived at the Jordanian border. A pall of dust and smog seems to hang over Baghdad, over the whole country. I think there is value in working for a day when those skies will be clear again. So some do have to remain in Iraq ... planning for the day when people can have clean air and water ... when they can go to a park that protects their cultural and environmental heritage ... and look out over a vast marshland that seems to stretch forever and see birds and animals that can be found nowhere else in the world.