Robbing The Cradle Of Civilization

A one hour documentary on the theft of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum and ancient sites throughout Iraq.

a stunning documentary
Toronto Star, Martin Knelman

Director’s notes:
This was a real sleeper of a story. We had a great time. But it was dangerous, and really saddening Basically the story was this. When the city of Baghdad was sitting there, bombed up real good, the Americans on their way in, the Saddamites routed, a bunch of people broke into the Baghdad Museum and went on the rampage, stealing irreplaceable antiquities, smashing up replica statues.

According to the Marine Colonel who investigated the thefts they was some real original stuff cherry-picked by expert thieves. We found out that these thieves were working for well-established networks of antiquities dealers based in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and the Arab Gulf States who in turn provided these antiquities for collectors in Europe (Switzerland, France and London) and America (mostly New York.)

And these are the neatest things. This is one thing I loved about this particular story. Cylinder seals. They’re like thumb-sized cylinders made of semi-precious or coloured stones, with little stories carved into their surfaces. Check ’em out.

The real ones were made hundreds of years ago before the birth of Christ in what was then Mesopotamia. That’s where Iraq now stands. Its mostly desert, and when we were there in July , hotter than Hades. I thought of Noel Coward’s song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun". That was us. Me the Englishmen, Alister my flinty-eyed Kiwi mate and dodgy-type soundman, and Kelly the Irish Montrealer, now a bit of a London toff on account of his extended residence there, one of the best/bravest cameramen in the business. Between us, all in our fifties , we packed about a century’s worth of war coverage. No fools here. Between the three of us we could pass a pretty good drunken weekend telling war stories in some wasted Marianne Faithful Mist and Bearskin Rug November English Manor Home but you don’t usually talk about these things going in. Kelly has some bad luck in lebanon years back and one wonders whether the bad luck is used up or hangs about for a return visit, its indifferent cool-ass thirteen year finger on the eternally indifferent cool-ass fucking trigger.

Mind you, in this heat.

Death is a watermelon fallen off the back of a wooden cart..whoops.

So I didn’t have to worry about nervous ninnies and all. Its terrible when you’re trying to direct a doc in a war zone and people can’t control their bodily functions or keep calling in their Bloor Street therapist on the satfone. This usually happens with “talent” , “hairs ‘n lips” on-camera correspondents the north american disease. Face-itis. My face, make-up in the desert. Onetime flying into Somalia with some drunken Ukrainians who chartered to me a hijacked Antonov from the Soviet compound in Addis, I drowsed off before take-off. Just after we lifted off from Nairobi I woke up , my nose bumping against a pair of come fuck-me carpet fabric designer ankle length cutey-boots , following the be-jeaned leg up to the megawattage smile of Christiane Amanpour. She informed me in that honeyed accent that I was no travelling on a CNN charter.

“ You don’t mind, do you” in that bee-stung Oxbridge Iranian “We’re all in it together.”

Yeah, I’m thinking, is that what yo’ Daddy said to The Shah?

Back to Iraq. To get there we drive in convoy from Amman Jordan about 12 hours to Baghdad. We stayed in a really nice little 3-storey hotel away from their suicide bomb target hotels. A few hours after we checked in we heard a US Marine had been sniped dead at the Baghdad Museum. The next morning , on our way to the Museum we heard that a British freelancer had been shot dead in the thieves market. While we filmed the exterior of the Museum with a jib arm (a contraption that takes about half an hour to set up) gunfire went off a few hundred yards over to our left. I thought it wise to retreat as soon as we got the shot.

I played this one close to the chest. We weren’t covering the war, such as it was, we weren’t interested. Man it was a bad show. End of the American Empire if you ask me, though history may show that to be a bit overstated mostly on account of the fact that the contenders are so pathetic on the tactics-of-war front. Makes it dangerous and all because it means they are forced to employ such nasty things as 9/11, gas attacks and nuclear suitcases.

It took me about 48 hours of looking at those shit scared American kids, completely untrained in counter-insurgency urban warfare to realise that Dubya had better withdraw asap. What it is , is this. You gotta have 360 degree eyes. Out on patrol platoons of US soldiers in 130 degree heat smoking Marlboros, listless with the Kevlar bullet proof vests, slow moving. Not saying Salaam, showing any hearts and minds friendliness. This is where officers, congressmen, pentagon planners all have blood on their hands. Easy pickings, listlessly dragging their sorry underpaid asses into Saddam city. One soldier at the university campus offered to get his brothers’ cokes at the cafeteria. PUTS HIS WEAPON DOWN. Carrying A case of coca-cola , unprotected, some raqqy kid seizing his immortality walks up, pop-pop.

One sad mama back in West Virginia or Amarillo or West LA.

“ There’s No Life Like It” Coke spewing all over. Unbelievable.

But that’s another story and we weren’t doing it.

So we find out, duh, that this story is not as straightforward as we had thought. First of all, as in most of these kinds of environments, the truth is buckled and bent according to backstory.

First, the artefacts themselves are layered and layeed beneath generations of fraud and counterfeit. Sure a hundred years ago some British archeologist or German adventurer drew some original beauties out of the ruins and he wept at the eternity of it. You can see that stuff in the Sackler room at the British Museum. But Who Does It Belong Too? And ask yourself, in whose 21st century hands would it be safest. Why am I reminded of Cassius Clay throwing his Olympic Gold medal into the river in Louisville when they still wouldn’t serve him in the local restaurant.

Second, most of the stuff on display in the Baghdad Museum , the stuff the looters could grab was plaster, tokenism. The very origins of the place lay in Victorian guilt trippery that when with benevolent imperialism of the British who thought they should give the Iraqis a plaster replica of what they had tucked away in storage in drizzly old London, glowing with lost intent. In actual fact most of the good stuff was scoffed by the Germans and the British soon after they laid waste or bought off the local warlords.

When we got there to the museum past the ghosts of the sniped Brit and the whacked marine there was this delicious Englishwoman called Sarah Collins bouncing around the museum doors, supervising the unloading of a truckful of office furniture and a computer.

Moment she saw us with the old CBC camera she backpedalled into the shadows like we were a bad disease, which is probably a euphemism for what the British Museum protocol officer, after a few flagons of port, calls TV crews like us.

This is it about television and make no mistake about it, youngsters. We have power beyond our rights, our knowledge and our skills, and this creates understandable resentment from the various individuals and institutions and nations and fanatics behind the actual steering wheels of states,big institutions and chaos, a resentment which one must totally accept and sympathize with..otherwise , in the Big Game, you’ll be mincemeat. Have no fear, but respect fear mightily. Then , if you do yer homework (Basra-is-not-a-rash) you may get lucky and pick up the digital bludgeon again.

I don’t care which sub-faction of which sub-tribe under which ruler during which era it was..were they

Arabs or Jews or Christians…were they United or City….Churchill or Hitler..Reds or Blues..and in 8 seconds please.

Third the demand for these antiquities is almost entirely generated by Middle Eastern collectors , sucking Iraq dry across every border for decades. Open season on Iraq’s heritage. The Iraqis themselves, desperate for a decade for any dough, will sell their priceless heritage for a sou, too.

The guy sent by the American Commander General Tommy Franks, to turn the bad pr of the looting into a civilizing arm of the American invasion was a stroppy like fireplug called Matthew Bogdanos.

A Marine Colonel, so the research told me, an ex golden glove boxer, a classics student, a criminal prosecutor in NYC, the guy who had tried to nail Puff Diddy on a guns charge with J-Lo. He’s absolute box office, tight as a drum, better looking than most movie stars, ready to interview, a machine head of clips. We’re set up in a hall of ancient murals, Kelly has lit it beautifully, Bogdanos moves swiftly in and launches..”If you dare ask me some f***-ass left-lib canadian sitting in his goddam easy chair up north watgching maple leafs f***** question about why we didn’t protect this museum in the depths of a war zone when our young men and women were getting shot and killed by these goddam terrorists f*** this disregard for every convention of war using childrens museum as shields f*** that blah blah blah …this interview isn’t even going to start.”

I’m stunned. I’m too stunned to realise this is the equivalent of boxer Aaron Prior’s opening fusillade

In his fights ‘cept this white guy definitely ain’t on crack. Too stunned to realise that his permission to do this interview comes with a warning to kill this angle good.

“ And if you ask me about that I’m going to fact this interview isn ‘t even going to start.”

He’s leaning forward, his eyes protruding.

He slaps his weapon on his thigh. ( I cannot believe this shit)

“ And I’m better equipped than you…”

There’s a silence.

Friezes of the Assyrians looting defeated tribes stare at us.

[You see, there aint no way you’re gonna die in a situation like this.]

“ And I have to tell you , Colonel Bogdanos, that I’m a pretty dab hand with a cricket bat.”

And I’m also thinking I’ve come a long way to get nothing if he walks, and at this point I don’t think I’m going to find the thieves out there in blasted Baghdad.

But I have no choice but to spaniel on him.

“ I don’t want ask you anything that’s not your version of what happened..” and without missing a beat, Sean Penn Turns Nightline and says “Right where do you want me?” and I’m thinking I should just pop this little martinet one good cracker on his rocky little jaw for all these strutting martinets I’ve had to kow-tow to, especially the goddam cartoon American military, from Granada through Guazapa and Tingo Maria and Kandahar and now here in the heart of their biggest and nastiest screw up since ‘Nam. But I know I gotta keep him so the first two questions are big looping softballs down the middle of the plate, let the classicist in him wax wise, Lord Clark meets the Brooklyn Brat, and when I feel he’s sailing along I ask him in the most economical and respectful tones about the American claim that Baathist militia were using the Museum as an machine gun nest he doesn’t walk, but spews it out like a Steadman rainbow. It turns out over the next few months of this documentary Bogdanos is a good source, a solid performer, a straight shooter. And although he exagerates the danger to the Americans coming into Baghdad, lots were whacked since our interview and he probably felt that, as should we all.

What you learn in a war zone is that the politicians are light years from the action. Maybe they pay. I don’t think as heavy a price as the dead boys and girls in Iraq. But my Nation right or wrong…phew..high octane.

Then there was Saddam. The moment I clapped eyes on the sistine chapel wannabe mural on the ceiling at the entrance of the museum I realised we were dealing here with an individual with extremely bad taste. Unfortunately, there’s no international convention against bad taste. The old "Comrade Robert Plants a Tree" syndrome. His benevolent killer face smiling sweetly down like some headache cameo.

Now some will tell you that he was bad for the antiquities purloiners. Four smugglers had been executed.

Others will tell you he was up to his armpits in it, members of his own family charged with moving precious stuff in and out.

After three scorching weeks in iraq we hightailed it to Jordan, where we filmed some dodgy dealer and onto to Israel and into the bowels of the Old City where I had the One Conversation one has on these shoots that never gets into what you see on TV.

Its the One Conversation that is A Truth.

It was with a third generation Palestinian dealer.

“ Why are you going after us” he said. “We are the little men in this trade. You don’t think all the rich people do this thing? Ask the Prince of Jordan. Ask the Foreign Minister of Egypt. Ask the President of Iraq”

Yessir the rich buy themselves protection, people in gutters are just laid open for us the camera-wielders.

“ Brrr-Brrr”

“ Yes”

“ President Assad, please.”

“ One minute”

“ Yes”

“ President Assad?

“ Yes”

“ Its Robin Benger of the CBC”

“ Ah yes, Robin. What a pleasure. I have been expecting your call.”

“ Well I won’t take up your time. Do you have precious Iraqi artefacts that you give to distinguished guests or display or sell for millions.”

“ Yes of course. Would you like to come over, film some, and do an interview with me?”

“ That would be very nice”

“ Good. Is 7 tonight okay”

“ Excellent”

“ See you then.”

He’s right of course, though as Barbara Frum once said, assume everyone is lying.

A business broker I met in Baghdad who represents American oil companies; An antiquities expert at the Field Museum in Chicago; and the top antiquities investigator in London all told me this. When a Sheik wants to make a gift to a powerful foreign statesman or businessman it is often a cuneiform tablet or cylinder seal.

I’m at the fabulous home of George Ortiz in Switzerland. He says he loves great antiquities with a passion that’s hard to deny. He is sitting in a living room as big as a huge barn, with beautiful works of art tastefully set back. Not displayed. But set-back. He is the jaguar to Saddam’s pig when it comes to matters of taste. Aznd by God that’s gotta be more than an opinion. Its a function of wealth and education and culture, I’m afraid.

Earlier, in his exquisitely lit underground vault, surrounded by exquisitely delicate centuries-old three headed piglets and kings and multi-sworded hecubas, a pistol embedded in yellow leathered holster, resting atop a foot ladder he says.

“ I’m obsessed”gesturing to his prizes “They are like a beautiful woman you cannot live without” he says.

“ And would you rather they stay in the hands of a local warlord or Taliban-like state”. His lips pull back to reveal teeth with Kieth Richard stumps. He’s a little bit diamond-right of course, but you, as the journalist/filmmaker don’t decide that. You the j/f give it to the viewing audience to decide, some of whom will notice the teeath, most of whom will not; Give him to them, along with the other blackguards in this sad and epic story. Such a story that even the glittering sliver that we produced made for an interesting hour of television.

Some months later I am in Cape Town interviewing ex South African President F.W. De Klerk. In a display case a gift from the Government of Israel, a cuneiform seal. Thing of beauty, I think, thing of beauty.
The moral of this story
The moral of this song
Is that you should never find yourself

Where you do not belong. (Dylan)
The moral of this story
The moral of this song
Is that we are messing the Gods,
Stirring up their most secret and precious possessions.
Putting a price on eternity can be a dangerous thing.

Blood from a skull torn by the smugglers bullets and in the palm of the
dying man’s hand
A quartz cylinder
With a picture of a girl
Among reeds.
For this we give you
The Mall

And the
With air-con. ”
RNB 9 Jun 04


Robin Benger

First Aired
CBC : October 29, 2003