Liberalism amongst the ruins: Dan Cruikshank and the Lost Cities of Iraq

[This article first appeared on 3 February 2003 on the Electric Review website, which within only slightly more than a year would become a Lost Website. Just as well, really.]

Dan Cruikshank and the Lost Cities of Iraq (Sunday 2 February, BB2, 9 pm) provided more than its fair share of ‘can he really have just said that?’ experiences, but for me, at least, the most jaw-dropping moment came when our trusty narrator visited a Syrian Orthodox monastery ‘well within the Northern no-fly zone’, gaped briefly at the architecture, gave the ancient reliquary covering the bones of a local St Michael an encouraging pat, and the proceeded to quiz a monk about the state of interfaith relations in Iraq in the wake of the last Gulf War. Immediately, two things became clear. One was that Mr Cruikshank very much wanted the monk to say something along the lines of ‘Well, Mr Cruikshank, ever since the wicked Americans and the British started bombing us, radical fundamentalist Islam has become very popular and so our happy co-existence with our Islamic neighbours has come under enormous pressure’. The other thing that became clear, though, was that the monk was having none of it and instead ended up making equivocal little sounds while screwing up his face into ever more poignant grimaces of embarrassment. Whatever his answer, he obviously did not wish to commit it to Mr Cruikshank’s recording equipment.

Faced with this problem, Mr Cruikshank nodded, full of understanding as ever. Having concluded the interview, he stepped out in front of another of those staggeringly impressive panoramic views that dotted the programme like lovely fat currants in a rather ill-conceived pudding. Black-and-white-checked headscarf firmly in place, he turned his sunburnt face towards the camera and intoned a little homily, basically setting forth the sort of argument that he felt the monk should have made, had not the monk been too tactful, terrified or otherwise tongue-tied to make it — which was, give or take a degree of subtlety, that anything bad that happened in Iraq, architecturally or otherwise, was America’s fault. If, Cruikshank continued, America and Britain once again waged war against Iraq, things would only get much worse for the poor old Syrian Orthodox community and their neighbours. It would, in Mr Cruikshank’s words, threaten the ‘tolerant and peace-loving society’ now thriving under Saddam Hussein.

Or, anyway, words to that effect — it is hard, after all, to take accurate notes while making indignant references to Kurds, Marsh Arabs and political dissidents all at the same time. One doesn’t have to be much of an enthusiast for the forthcoming war to recognise that Saddam’s record minority rights is absolutely wretched — as is his record on most things. Yet from the empty museums (their treasures hidden from bad Americans) to the omnipresent overflying aircraft (flown by bad Americans) to the lack of a lucrative tourist trade (idle, unadventurous, bad Americans!), a catalogue of misfortune and misrule was effectively re-attributed away from Saddam’s own shambolic statecraft towards that George W. Bush and his allies in wickedness.

To say, then, that The Lost Buildings of Iraq had a strong political message is to do an injustice to the obvious. This was a campaigning programme, pure and simple. The point of the campaign was to try to discourage Britain from going to war with Iraq. This is, I suppose, the point at which one traditionally lays into the BBC for daring to spend our tax-money making whiny agitprop films, how dare they, etc., etc., but — respectful of tradition though I am — I trust ERO’s readers will have already formed their own views on the BBC by now. Suffice to say that the interest of The Lost Buildings of Iraq lay less in what was being attacked per se, than in the habits of mind left curiously unguarded by Mr Cruikshank in his haste to launch that attack. And here, Mr Cruikshank proved himself such an exemplary, old-fashioned, unspoilt liberal that he ought to be put in a museum himself.

Whisper it softly
The form of The Lost Buildings of Iraq was at least as interesting as its content. This was, first and foremost, Mr Cruikshank’s programme. As has long been the vogue in such things, he was the star of his own narrative, the ultimate subject of his own attention, and by extension, ours too. We watched with interest as he waved his long arms about, as he exclaimed ‘good Lord!’ at piles of bricks, as his nose grew ever more sunburned. He was seen napping in cars, drinking tea in a tent, checking into hotels and scaring the children of bandits with his geniality. His voice bridged the gaps in a rich, variegated soundtrack, offering not only his expert reflections but his personal experience and even his emotional state. Best of all, though, was his habit of not so much speaking as whispering to the camera.

This worked on several levels. First, it is human nature that when someone whispers, we listen extra hard to catch what’s being said. If someone is whispering to us, we feel we are in receipt of a confidence of some sort. But there was more to it than that, as I suspect Mr Cruikshank well knows. For despite all his icy denunciations of America, Mr Cruikshank prefaced the programme by pointing out that he would be very limited in what he could say to camera, because if he said the wrong thing, he and his film crew would be booted out of the country. Now, given that much of the hard work underpinning programmes such as this takes place not in front of the camera, but in the editing suite — editing and sequencing the raw film, adding in music and so forth — it would presumably not have been beyond the wit of man to edit in a new voice-over over the old film, in which Mr Cruikshank could say what he wanted to say without fear or favour. And by the same token, from his choice not to do this, one may surmise that there was something he preferred about the setup in which he could proclaim disingenuous things, apparently spontaneously, to a waiting camera.

And this, I think, is the real point of this hushed voice business. All that whispering to camera proclaimed that Mr Cruikshank isn’t just some weedy architectural critic — he is a real journalist, virtually a war correspondent, brave enough to go into really hazardous places, his camera crew trailing behind him. And this, in turn (or so sloppy conventional thinking would have it) means that he is a good person, and a person whom we ought to trust, because we have seen him real and unedited — despite the fact it takes a lot of editing to produce effects like this. Still, a satisfying impression of spontaneity, veracity and immediacy was created. In television, impressions are the main thing. Such impressions need not be straight-forward. One might have thought that the need to whisper when in the presence of his Saddam-lookalike ‘minders’ would have conveyed something negative about the regime, but in fact it could be read another way — as betokening a sort of generalised danger, a sense of geopolitical unease, as if Mr Cruikshank were less anxious about Saddam than about the jet fighters overhead.

Four thousand years in sixty minutes
The ostensible purpose of The Lost Buildings of Iraq was, paradoxically, to draw the viewers’ attention to the extraordinary archaeological and architectural legacy of the Fertile Crescent before they are lost. In some ways this was a magnificent idea for a programme. Not everyone, after all, associates this troublesome innovation called ‘Iraq’ with the ancient civilisations that grew up between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — the people whose kingdoms included Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Assyria, who virtually invented civilisation and whose magnificent artefacts will be familiar to many from, inter alia, the British Museum. But this, in a way, explains why The Lost Buildings of Iraq was perhaps doomed from the start to be about something else altogether — because its subject simply could never fit into an hour-long slot. In a different sort of world, this programme could have been an entire series, and a very good series, too. It could have taken an hour over each of the major successive civilisations, dealing with religion, politics and culture as well as art, a bit of topography and plenty of photogenic ruins. It could have avoided the nightmare of trying to talk about four thousand years of history in less than sixty minutes. In doing so, it would not have been forced to omit everything between the ninth century AD (the building of the amazing spiral minaret at Samarra) and the end of the last Gulf War. It then might have had something to say about cultural continuity (or otherwise) beyond simply showing a few Iraqis obediently asserting that these ruins are their ‘heritage’, it might have given an idea of how remarkable (or otherwise) the presence of that Syrian Orthodox monastery really was, and it might have actually provided more than a vague impression of size, majesty and wonder, much of it mediated through Mr Cruikshank himself.

But perhaps it is that latter point, rather than financial or logistical ones, that explains why we were given one programme rather than, say, five. For had Mr Cruikshank, or someone like him, made a serious programme about the history of the fertile crescent, he might have had to face up to some unpleasant truths. A longer programme would probably have required some sort of explanation of the twentieth century history of the region, not all of which Mr Cruikshank might find entirely agreeable. Instead of presenting these ruins as fragile relics of a shared civilisation, he would have had to admit that many of these cultures grew out of warfare, thrived on warfare for a while, and then were eventually finished off by warfare. Or to put it another way, it may be that the lion-hunting kings of Assyria would be less surprised by the mutual belligerence of Saddam and the Great Satan than Mr Cruikshank claims to be.

North-west of Eden
On the other hand, there’s no point in reviewing programmes that never happened. Let’s stick to the one that did. The narrative of Lost Cities of Iraq followed Mr Cruikshank on a short road-trip round the country, accompanied by various creepy-looking minders, as he toured a succession of ever-more fantastic honey-coloured brick ruins, most of them glowing refulgently against a lapis-blue sky. (Oddly, all the ruins seemed to be in the middle of nowhere — even at Mosul, which is not only one of Iraq’s largest cities, but one with a particularly charming Old Town, too, and some fine Christian churches.) Some of the names were familiar to me from the archaeology books of my childhood or from days of listlessly wandering around the British Museum to escape work on my PhD, back when the British Library still shared its site. Others were totally unfamiliar. As is the way with nicely-filmed programmes of this sort, though, all these images made me desperate to go to Iraq as soon as possible to see these wonders for myself — an urge that the lack of concrete information only encouraged. Mr Cruikshank’s response to these sites was articulated either in terms of superlatives, or of his own emotions, or sometimes both. All the sites, of course, were shown as being completely free of visitors, archaeologists or anything else in the way of life. And all of that, obviously, was the fault of the USA.

Along the way, there were a few detours. The Syrian Orthodox monastery was one. Another was a terrible thing — a British military cemetery dating from the First World War that had apparently survived very well until the past decade or so, in which it had been destroyed. A hermit lived under a shelter made out of broken tombstones. Mr Cruikshank evidently found this distressing, although the presumably this, too, could be added, in however elliptical at fashion, to the American government’s charge sheet. Finally, near the end of his journey, he visited Qurna, the town that has long been believed to have been the original Garden of Eden. Shabby and faintly down-market, its Tree of Knowledge stood withered and dead in a dusty little plot. Beyond it, the river glittered and gleamed inscrutably. The imagery here was no less compelling for being so very obvious.

Perhaps, ultimately, these things simply come down to matters of faith. Mr Cruikshank is doubtless neither foolish nor wicked, but he appears to believe that buildings are more important than people. This is not to say that he does not believe that people are important — I am sure he does. But he shows every sign of thinking that great monuments, being part of some sort of shared heritage, are more important than virtually anything. In The Lost Buildings of Iraq, there were only two points where he showed what appeared to be genuine anger. One was at a site at which Saddam, who likes to style himself as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar II, is helpfully re-building one of his predecessors’ palaces — unfortunately, destroying the actual archaeological site in the process. When Mr Cruikshank noticed a brick stamped with Saddam’s name in the ancient Assyrian fashion, the ardent contempt that swept across his face surpassed description — could anyone do anything worse?

But worse was to come. At Ur, he dutifully climbed the ziggurat, accompanied by his minder. Ur is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is also, however, close to Basra, which is to say, on the main road connecting Bagdad with the south and, indeed, Kuwait. The guide had shown him bomb-damage to the base of the ziggurat left over from the last war, but at this point, Mr Cruikshank uncharacteristically mentioned American reports that Iraqi military aircraft had been parked nearby. The guide denied this. Atop the ziggurat, however, Mr Cruikshank was able to see (but not film) a large airstrip, very close indeed, full of military planes. And here his indignation very nearly did get the better of him. How on earth could anyone possibly use these precious relics, these fragile treasures as propaganda — let alone (although Mr Cruikshank didn’t say this, clearly it is more to the point) as a sort of ‘heritage shield’?

And this, I suppose, is the crux of the thing. Mr Cruikshank didn’t want to know about political dissidents, or Kurds, or Marsh Arabs. Beyond the odd cursory vox pop, he didn’t seem to have much interest in how present-day Iraqis understand and articulate their own history. (A good programme could be made on this, though — if Mr Cruikshank has forgotten that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple, Saddam almost certainly has not.) For Mr Cruikshank, what mattered was architecture, civilisation, the shared nature of — well, the sort of decent, civilised, polite things that Mr Cruikshank represents.

In a way, of course, he has a point. As the proud grand-daughter of a colonel in the United States Air Force, even I have to admit that the USAF has a terrible record when it comes to balancing military and ‘heritage’ priorities, not only in places like Pisa and Monte Cassino, but more recently in the wholesale destruction of important Serbian Orthodox churches and the frankly bizarre decision to allow bomber crews returning from the former Yugoslavia to discharge unused munitions in the Venetian Lagoon. And although as a Christian I know that a single human life is more valuable than the loveliest Gozzoli fresco — well, that’s no excuse to destroy a Gozzoli fresco unnecessarily, is it?

The Lost Cities of Iraq was fascinating as well as infuriating. It failed, for me, in its smug assurance that a certain set of liberal values — not least, the worship of Art and Culture and Civilisation as ends in themselves — was the only set of values on offer, coupled with its tendency to act as if the greatest enemies of these values were the United States and Great Britain. This just didn’t make sense, and it showed. The result was, even as televisual tourism goes, a faintly disreputable exercise — if also, at times, a genuinely moving one. I am not sure I support war against Iraq. Indeed, I’d dearly love to see for myself the ancient cities so telegenically hinted at on Sunday, and I hope they survive for many millennia to come. But to suggest that the reason not to fight is in order to preserve some ruins — ruins, no less, thrown up by long-ago warrior civilisations — is grotesque beyond belief. Can he really have said that? Alas, I am afraid he did.

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