Dear Mr President,
Another day, another stunt. Not a plastic turkey this time, but a star studded event at the Kennedy Center, featuring the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra, who have been flown in by the State Department for a' healing' event after the illegal invasion and destruction of their country.
Michael Kaiser, Cultural Ambassador for the State Department thought the event would be: "a wonderful way for Americans to learn about Iraqis and for Iraqis to learn about Americans." The Ambassador apparently is unaware that Iraqis knows all about Americans, Iraq was, after all, the country which brought the world all we call civilized, writing, mathematics, the first written records, the first laws, the wheel. Baghdad (formerly Dar Es Salaam
- City of Peace) was dubbed 'the Paris of the ninth century.' Iraq and Palestine have the highest number of Ph.Ds, per capita, on earth. Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, is 'the cradle of civilization.'
Iraqis have been particularly excercised by America since Hiroshima Day 1990 when the most draconian embargo ever administered by the UN was imposed under pressure of the US. Name just about anything one takes for granted from books to bed linen, disinfectant to deodorant, fly spray to film - and it was banned or blocked by the US and its little friend, the UK.
Mr President, as you sit in the front row of the auditorium with Laura, you will no doubt notice that Conductor of the Iraq Symphony Orchestra, Mohammed Amin Ezzet, has very disfigured hands. His neck and chest, too, are disfigured appallingly. For nearly thirteen years, all spare parts for electricity were also vetoed, which led to a burns epidemic as the poor resorted to candles, even a wick in a bottle of kerosene - which routinely exploded. The better off bought cheaply made lamps in the market, which also exploded on an ongoing basis. People resorted to inventive ways of cooking, which also routinely led to tragedy.
The thoroughly democratic embargo left few unscathed. Mohammed Amin Ezzet is the gentlest of men, to whom his music and family is all. Three years ago he had had just celebrated winning a pan-Arab award for composition, orchestration and conducting of an original piece of music. Returning home, he went to his study to compose, his wife, Jenan prepared the next day's rice, placing it to cook slowly overnight, on top of the gas heater - the electricity was off. Her nightdress touched the flame. Mohammed, hearing her screams ran and threw himself over her.
Jenan was so burned, that in hospital, only her mother was allowed to see her - and prayed for her death. She died the next day. Mohammed's arms chest and hands are damaged beyond repair. When I visited him in hospital two weeks later, he was still too ill to be told of his wife's death. Jenan means 'bright eyes.' Two years later, he said quietly, he wished he had died too.
Your father, his successor President Clinton and your Administration, even vetoed strings for this orchestra's violins, parts for their flutes, lutes, oboes. They were denied music scores. They managed, however, to largely keep going and played, poignant, superb music, marred by the odd flawed or missing note due to lack of parts. Some orchestra members left the country to earn hard currency to send home to help their families in the grinding misery of the embargo. Their venue in the Al Rashid Theatre (named after Baghdad's seventh century founder) became pretty battered and run down, but hearing them play Chopin, Swan Lake, or Strauss brought tears to the eyes, their courage and battered setting and instruments, somehow heightening the beauty and their indomitable spirit.
Last year, Mr President, a Chicago based campaigning group called Voices in the Wilderness took with them to Baghdad, spare parts, strings and music scores to this orchestra. Your government is threatening them with either ten years in jail or a fine exceeding one million dollars. Your troops allowed the orchestra's precious theatre to be looted and ruined after your 'liberation' and members of the orchestra, friends of the founder of Voices, Kathy Kelly - who was in Baghdad, not safely in Washington, during the war - went to her hotel and broke down in tears. They had survived the embargo, the 1991 onslaught, a maiming, Jenan's and a number of other deaths due to 'embargo related causes', but it was your your actions which reduced them to collapse.
So as you spin the upbeat news story of the Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra coming to town, get into 'healing', shake Mr Ezzet's scarred, misshapen hand, and listen to Bizet and Beethoven, what about another bit of healing - putting out a hand to Kathy Kelly and Voices and rescinding the nastiest, pettiest act of its kind in modern history. Penalizing humanity.
Enjoy the concert - oh, and don't go offering them turkey at the reception, sorry for the pun, but it didn't go down too well.
Felicity Arbuthnot has written and broadcast widely on Iraq and with Denis Halliday was senior researcher for John Pilger's Award winning documentary: 'Paying the Price - Killing the Children of Iraq.'