From January 25 to February 11, 2011, the world watched as Egypt convulsed in a mass uprising. Across the country, protesters from a wide range of backgrounds vented their anger at the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, which they accused of corruption and police brutality. They also protested against rising prices, high rates of unemployment, and a host of other grievances. Everyone from students to labor unions to feminists to Islamists marched to topple the regime.
I didn’t read many comics growing up. My pocket money was very limited and if I had a spare dollar, I was far more likely to spend it on a used fantasy or science fiction paperback than a comic book. It wasn’t that I didn’t like comics, it was simply a matter of practicality. A paperback would give me a couple of days of entertainment while a comic would only last an hour.
What comics I did read were never of the superhero variety. I liked grittier stuff like Sergeant Rock and Eerie. And of course every straight male adolescent growing up in the 1980s liked to sneak a peek at Heavy Metal.
Now that I’m older and have more spare cash, plus a kid getting into comics, I’m beginning to learn about a vast field of literature I’ve missed. Superheroes still don’t interest me (or my son) but I’ve found some really good stories set in the real world.
One of the best is The Sheriff of Babylon, published by Vertigo. A collection of the first six issues is out now.
The setting is Baghdad in 2003, as the American occupiers scramble to reorganize the country. Former police officer Christopher Henry has taken a lucrative contractor job to help train the new Iraqi police force. When one of his recruits gets murdered along with his entire family, Christopher tries to investigate the killing. He enlists the aid of Nassir al Maghreb, a former police investigator from Saddam’s regime who everyone from the CIA to a shadowy militia seem to be after. He also joins forces with Saffiya al Agani, a female Iraqi politician who spent most of her life in exile in the United States and has returned to join the interim government. Soon they find themselves in over their heads trying to make sense of Iraq’s Byzantine politics and warring factions.
Writer Tom King worked a brief stint in Iraq as a CIA operative and brings an insider’s knowledge to the story. Artist Mitch Gerards knows his subject too, and fills the larger panels with telling details.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time here on Black Gate bemoaning the loss of some of the places I’ve visited. ISIS wrecked Palmyra, Mosul, and Hatra, three of the most stunning archaeological sites I have ever seen. Witnessing historical wonders disappear at the hands of savages has become such a regular thing for me that my first reaction to the terrible destruction of the Nepal earthquake was, “Well, at least people didn’t do it this time.”
I’ve blogged previously here on Black Gate about spending some time living in Tangier, Morocco. The city is a good jumping off point to see northern Morocco, a region many visitors skip as they head down to Fez, the Atlas Mountains, and the southern casbahs. If they do that, they miss one of North Africa’s best preserved medinas, the 15th century marketplace of Tetouan, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tetouan is located in the saddle of two clusters of hills. Home to about half a million people, it doesn’t attract many foreign tourists and offers a look at an traditional medina and its market that have not felt the hand of international shoppers.
Last week I wrote about how I spent a month living in Tangier working on my next novel. Luckily my family came down with me for part of the time, and since it was my son’s first trip out of Western Europe I wanted him to enjoy himself and open his eyes a little. So what do you show a ten-year-old in Morocco? Well, besides the Casbah and the medina market, what better than an old pirate port?
Asilah stands on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and like many of the country’s ports started out as a Phoenician trading center about 3500 years ago. It’s most famous as the last base of the famed Barbary pirates, who started being a menace in the early Middle Ages. Their heyday was from the 15th to 19th century, when they terrorized shipping in the Western Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar. Several European interventions, including the United States’ first overseas adventure, failed to stop them. The rampant piracy was one the excuses the French and Spanish used to establish colonies throughout North Africa.
The Iraqis we see in the news almost always fall into three types–The Evil Fundamentalist, The Useless Official, and The Wailing Victim. The media have a hard time dealing with a broad range of characters, so they tend to fall back on these types again and again.
Of course the reality is more complex. While there’s no shortage of bloodshed and corruption, most of Iraq’s 33 million people go about their day-to-day affairs trying to live a normal life.
Back in 2012 I traveled to Iraq to write about it for the now-moribund travel blog Gadling. Click the link to read the series. Sadly, the photo galleries have been taken offline, but you can still read the articles for the moment.
Last week I shared some of my memories of visiting Mosul before it was taken over by ISIS. In that post I wondered if the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud would be destroyed just like Nineveh was. A day after the article went live, ISIS militants moved in and started smashing all the statues.
A week later they did the same with Hatra, an ancient site that’s less well known. This time they weren’t just smashing Iraq’s ancient history, they were smashing their own ancient history.
What struck me the most when I visited Iraq as a journalist in 2012 was how many people smiled at me. On the street, in mosques, in museums, people came up to welcome me to their country. There was a lull in the fighting and the Iraqis were beginning to allow themselves hope. Nothing brought that home to me like the first time I heard gunshots in Baghdad. Early in the trip I was in my hotel room when that distinctive popping noise came from outside. Peeking from my window, I saw a wedding in progress in front of the hotel. Some of the men were firing into the air to celebrate, oblivious to the sensitivities of hotel guests or the consequences of gravity.
Baghdad celebrated its 1,250th birthday this year. It’s been through a lot since it was founded by the Caliph al-Mansour in 762 AD, seeing more than its fair share of invaders come and go. Nowadays, Baghdad shows little of its former glory. It’s a dusty place of crumbling concrete buildings, blast walls, and traffic jams. Look harder, though, and you’ll find some of Baghdad’s former glory still shining through.