Saturday, October 09, 2004


Beautiful Death!

Homage to an unpublished Iraqi scholar

He went abroad to study engineering on a scholarship in the 1930's, switched to Economics after his first year in college and came back to Iraq with a Ph. D. during WW2.

After a short career in academia, teaching economics, he joined the then-young Iraqi civil service. For 25 years he contributed a great deal to giving this country its modern shape and held senior posts in that service. He was put to early retirement in the 1960's and spent the best part of the following 30 years studying history and economics.

I sometimes feel that no one knows of the existence of that incredible man. He certainly was one of the most outstanding people I have known. Throughout the 1980's and half of the 90's I never tired of talking to him, discussing things with him and listening to him for hours on end. He never ceased to amaze me with the depth of his universal knowledge and profound philosophy.

He actually lived beyond love and hate, certainly beyond trivial aspects of sectarianism and petty issues in politics; beyond the worlds so many people spend their lives in. His was a world dominated by concepts and the movements of history, economy and the forces of reason! At the same time he was watching like a hawk every little detail (including everything written in almost every newspaper he could lay his hands on and every word Saddam said on TV… and they were many!) But he was not a happy man.

He spent the last 30 years of his life reading and taking notes. He never shared those with anyone! After his death, I couldn't make sense of those notes – hundreds of notebooks packed with scribbles (I have no right to pry deeper). For some reason, he was convinced he would never be published! Only once in the 1970's, when I was in England, he sent me a manuscript of a paper (which, to me, looked more like a book!) for publication. He insisted on two journals specifically for some reason. I duly sent the manuscript… and it was promptly rejected by both! He never discussed the subject.

I still have a copy of that "paper" and it certainly makes very enlightening reading. The basic idea, as ever, is that the ancient Iraqis were creatures of reason and good book-keeping. He starts with several of the available ancient Sumerian "King Lists" and, through beautiful reasoning, demonstrates that the "unit" to measure the year changes over time. This naturally puts some rationale into those incredibly long years the ancient Iraqis and the Biblical figures lived and reigned (!). He produces a new, modified "king list" that looks more reasonable and goes back to the "beginning of time" in Iraq!!

A truly magnificent piece of investigative history! I often wonder what gems his writings may hold.


It was early in the morning of a pleasant autumn day in 1997 that I received the telephone call announcing his death; he had been having heart problems for several years. He was 83. I went to see him. He was lying in bed on his back, his right arm lying casually across his chest… and there was a definite trace of a smile on his face. He looked so peaceful. That peacefulness and that smile took away much of the pain that usually accompanies the death of a dear one. I remember thinking: now this is a beautiful death!

I had known that wonderful old man for decades. I sat with him and discussed all sorts of things with him for many, many hours. But now, seven years after his death, I can only remember his face in death, with that smile on it.

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