For a land that has experienced such suffering – under Saddam, then under the Americans, and then under attacks from the Isis cult – Robert Fisk finds that a profound dignity nevertheless remains
On the road north of Amara, the storks have built their nests on top of the electricity pylons. Some of these aerial homes are more than six feet wide, a cluster of sticks and long grass at the top of the iron work by Mr Siemens’ descendants. From these fairy houses, the birds espy each other. You can also see their long beaks pointed down as they survey the tiny people of Iraq below them, driving sheep or – amazingly, in the early summer heat – waving green flags in the central reservation of the highway, inviting Shia Muslim pilgrims to stop for free food and water. This is a generous tradition and it is all true. Villagers really do gather beside the road and wave at the drivers heading north, many of them Iranians on their way to Najaf and Kerbala. I got caught in a traffic jam of pilgrims waiting to eat. Not a dinar is paid for this act of kindness.
Perhaps the storks, sweeping down from their pylons on their kite-like wings, appreciate the weird architecture of piety and money below, the human ability to build shrines of such blue- and white-tiled magnificence beside rows of grey garages and cheap concrete furniture stores, lining the old road towards Basra. Can we not create beauty and absolve ugliness from the countryside where the floodwaters are now seeping back into the land of the Marsh Arabs, “droughted” by Saddam in the terrible 1990s? But then I remember how the hovels of the poor were built right up against the European cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Perhaps one gives meaning to the other.
It is the same in the great shrine cities here. You can stumble your way through dust and exhaust fumes before you reach the burial place of the Imam Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. In Kerbala, the mosques of Hussain and Abbas nestle amid streets awash with grime and slaughtered animals hanging from hooks in fly-blown butchers’ shops. And yet I grew used to it.