Scenes From a Pandemic: 50

3 05 2021

by Vijay Prashad

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

In the pandemic year, artists from 30 countries have created posters reflecting the defining crises of our time. (collage: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, from its Hybrid War poster series with International Week of Anti-Imperialist Struggle)

Waiting for Catastrophes

Chatting with a friend in Baghdad

I’ve been calling friends around the world to ask them how they are doing in the pandemic. Abbas, a veteran reporter in Baghdad, says that there have been over a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Iraq, and he does not know anyone who has been vaccinated. Journalists, we joke, using Trump’s phrase, are “enemies of the people” and not essential workers. “Not sure when I’ll get a vaccine,” Abbas said.

Conversations with Abbas meander into the necessary topics. US troops are pulling out from Afghanistan. There are only 2,500 of them left. What will remain when they’re gone are all kinds of mysterious assets: trainers, private contractors, ghost advisers (namely, from the CIA). No one knows how many of those there are, and few talk about it. Abbas tells me that after the Iraqi Parliament refused to let US troops linger in Iraq, such contractors (and the CIA) remained, many of them in the Kurdish-dominated north. This past February, a missile strike that hit Erbil airport was directed at these US assets. “Two strategic defeats for the United States,” Abbas says. In Iraq’s case, the advantages of the US withdrawal certainly went immediately to Iran, which has close relations with a large section of the Iraqi government; but the advantage also came to Iraq, whose confoundingly compromised government is nonetheless trying to exert some sovereignty over the fractured country. In Afghanistan, who will be in charge? Certainly not the titular leader of the country, Ashraq Ghani, who is—as they used to say about Hamid Karzai—merely the mayor of Kabul. There is a lot of jockeying for influence: among the Muslim Brotherhood states of Qatar and Turkey, and of course India and Iran. There’s been little mention of China, but it has an interest in a stable Afghanistan so as to build its Belt and Road Initiative linking China’s Pacific coastline to Europe. “These are the Vietnams of our time,” Abbas says.

Nothing is so clear. As we talk, the muezzin from the Razavi Mosque calls the faithful to prayer, his loudspeaker jarringly near. Abbas lives in what used to be called Saddam City, the bulwark of the old Iraqi Communist Party. It is now largely beholden to forces loyal to the Sadr movement and its many factions. Older left orientations have dwindled away over the past two generations. There is a 1951 report written by Haji Yousuf Chang to the US government asking Washington to finance an insurgency against communism not only in China but across Asia. I quote it in my book Washington Bullets. A decade later, Saudi Arabia’s royal family would do just this (with CIA backing) through the World Muslim League. There was large-scale attraction to left-wing ideas then. The promotion of a Saudi variant of Islam was used to divert it. This is exactly what undermined the communist movement from Lebanon to Iraq, and now into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Two friends on the phone talking, their ‘how are you doings’ sliding into politics, the world, Afghanistan, war and the dangers of ‘falling for it’.

The muezzin’s call, beautiful in its resonance, carries our conversation along, to the new information war about Xinjiang. Abbas laughs, “Never thought I would see the day when the United States becomes the defenders of Muslims.” I remind him that Ronald Reagan called the Mujahideen “freedom fighters.” These are the worst elements in Afghanistan. “Yes,” he says, “we fell for it then, and we keep falling for it over and over again.”

Falling for it. Yes. During one of my first conversations with Abbas, more than a decade ago, we spoke about an event that has receded from public consciousness. The Human Rights Caucus of the US Congress held a hearing on October 10, 1990, on the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The most powerful testimony came from a young girl named Nayirah. She spoke about seeing babies removed from incubators, left on the cold floor, as the incubators were whisked to Iraq. It was a searing image. The story was repeated by the press and by politicians to drum up support for bombing Iraq in 1991. A year after the Gulf War, John MacArthur revealed that the young woman, Nayirah al-Sabah, was the daughter of Kuwaiti Ambassador Saud al-Sabah—and the entire atrocity had been cooked up by a Kuwaiti government front group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait and the pr firm Hill & Knowlton (with help from the CIA). There was good reason to oppose Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but this was not one of them. This was a pack of lies.

Something in the story about atrocities in Xinjiang smells like that public relations operation in 1990. The man at the center of the latest “information” is connected to the US-backed Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and to the Jamestown Institute, which has links with US intelligence. His evidence looks detailed and rational, but even a slight inspection shows great anomalies. Whereas until yesterday no one in the West knew anything about Xinjiang—the world’s largest cotton producer, two and a half times the size of France—now everyone spits out ‘genocide’ and ‘forced labor’ without hesitation. Abbas and I think about the shallowness of media concern for the way information is managed. “Remember the time when they said Qaddafi was doing genocide in Libya?” he says. After the Libyan war, human rights groups studied the facts on the ground and said there was no evidence for that. Words like ‘genocide’ are routinely weaponized in the wars of our time.

The United States is notionally pulling its troops out of Afghanistan at the same time as it seems to be deepening its commitment to military action against China. Abbas laughs. “If they could not subdue us,” he says, meaning Iraq, “how will they fare against China?” It is true. But we are dealing with callous people who have contempt for world health. If they want a war, they might get a war.

Vijay Prashad is chief correspondent for Globetrotter, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and chief editor of LeftWord Books. His most recent book is Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations, with a foreword by Evo Morales Ayma. He was a speaker at Kopkind in 2010.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 28, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: After May Day

Our dear friend Peter Linebaugh wrote an appreciation of the late Noel Ignatiev, a steel worker and scholar, for May Day. It’s also a story about steelmaking and consciousness, elemental things, and unfinished business.You can read the full story, “In the Smithy of His Soul,” on CounterPunch. Below, a bit of it.

Iron ore. (detail: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals)

The archaeologist and historian V. Gordon Childe explains that the metal worker was the first crafts person in human history preceding even the potter and the weaver. The craft involved discoveries of geology and chemistry and transformation under heat. Smelting and casting were not simple procedures. The abstruse knowledge or craft lore was bound with magic, and eventually the workers formed a “mystery” or guild.

Iron ore originating in the Mesabi of range of northern Minnesota was shipped from Duluth in freighters upon Lakes Superior and Michigan. Here I must make another digression. Well so it seems. Actually it gives us two clues as to our unfinished business.

Many of the miners in the Mesabi range were Finnish, specifically ‘forest Finns’ who migrated at the beginning of the last century. Oral poetry maintained the memory of the mythic origins of the world. My colleague, Mikael Lövgren, explained to me that in Finland these became the Kalevala, the national saga. And were brought to the Mesabi iron range of Minnesota by Finnish miners and metal workers. A blacksmith and shaman, the archetypal artificer, named Ilmarinen forges Sampo, a wealth-making machine, or talisman, often interpreted as the sun. Ilmarinen is akin to Daedalus. There are many stories of his search for a wife and his failure, until he forges a woman of gold! With bellows, forge, and ore he fashions cross bow, skiff, heifer, and plow. These creations do not please. He then creates Sampo, solar like source of energy and power.

The eternal magic artist,
Ancient blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
First of all the iron-workers,
Mixed together certain metals,
Put the mixture in the caldron,
Laid it deep within the furnace,
Called the hirelings to the forging.
Skilfully they work the bellows,
Tend the fire and add the fuel,
Three most lovely days of summer,
Three short nights of bright midsummer,
Till the rocks begin to blossom,
In the foot-prints of the workmen,
From the magic heat and furnace.


Leave my native fields and woodlands,
Never shall I, in my life-time,
Say farewell to maiden freedom,
Nor to summer cares and labors,
Lest the harvest be ungarnered,
Lest the berries be ungathered,
Lest the song-birds leave the forest,
Lest the mermaids leave the waters,
Lest I sing with them no longer.

The clues here are first, gender, and second, meaning myth. The steel worker for all his brawn, bravery, and bull cannot have whatever woman he chooses. Certainly not if she must leave the harvest and the birds. He may be allied with the fire, she is allied with earth and air. The problem of climate change will not be solved without smashing the patriarchy. She simply will not have it. Such is the meaning supplied by the tale of Ilmarinen. Superstition or class consciousness? It was part of the lore of the Finns. The other clue may also be found in West Africa.

The Yoruba deity, Ogun, was the orisha, or spirit of iron and metal working. Among the Mande of West Africa the forge was an altar and sanctuary as well as a place of craft. Iron smelting was active in Dahomey and Benin cultures from six centuries B.C.E. Children were apprenticed to learn the nyama, an axiom that knowledge is power if property articulated. The weapons and the agricultural implements upon which material subsistence depended were made by these iron workers. They are also strict gender regimes. Robert Farris Thompson writes, “Thus, across the Atlantic, iron instruments are all, in the end, the children of Ogun, carried on his broad and mighty shoulders…. Oguin marches only with the spiritually vital and the quick of hand.” It was Ogun who throughout African America, Bahia to Haiti, accompanied the liberation fighters against slavery.



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