My visit to China was the adventure of a lifetime, especially as I was approaching my 40th birthday. But I didn’t go to China to buy goods or to trade them. I didn’t go there for some sort of medical treatment and I didn’t arrive there with any of the sorts of Iraqi media delegations that travel frequently to China, but that never bring back any real news.
And soon I find myself in Beijing, a big city crammed with people. The only person I know there is my friend, Yao Ming, a poet who speaks Arabic like an actor in a television series that’s been overdubbed. I met him online around seven years ago.
Yao Ming was waiting for me at Beijing airport. I was much taller than him but this proved not to be a barrier. We hugged one another and we both shed a tear of joy. Finally, Mosul had come to Beijing!
Yao Ming is familiar with many Iraqi poets and enjoys traditional Iraqi maqam music and the Arab dish, kibbeh; he dreams of one day visiting Babel and its historic, archaeological sites. Like some kind of computer, he can also recite the names of Iraq’s major cities and the country’s national days.
As we sat together in one of the popular cafes on the outskirts of Beijing, I felt downright ashamed when he told me the exact dates that the Safavid dynasty ruled in Iraq as well as the date of Iraq’s independence from Britain.
Yao Ming invited me to a poetry reading. I only understood one word the whole evening and that was “jiuzhou” which is another word for China. The longest poem took one minute and ten seconds to read. But the 80 or so men and women who attended were serene and listened carefully to the poets.
About 20 poems were read but there was no applause whatsoever. The only time people clapped was when a young Chinese lady climbed the stage and said, in a lovely voice: “the People’s Republic of China welcomes its Iraqi guest”, according to Yao Ming’s translation.
There were nine cameras documenting the event. I gave my friend Yao Ming a commemorative plaque with a picture of Mosul’s famous Habda minaret on it. And I gave another to the president of the Beijing writer’s union.
The next day I learnt that most of the capital city’s newspapers, its news agencies and some of its satellite stations had written or broadcast items about the two plaques. I was told that the Chinese Ministry of Culture planned to hold a meeting of high ranking officials to discuss an appropriate response to the gesture.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell Yao Ming that in Ninawa giving someone a commemorative plaque has become common practice, more common than offering sweets at a special occasion. I was too embarrassed to say that these days, plaques are given to everybody and that the walls in Iraqi people’s houses are filled with plaques, medals and certificates of honour. I also didn’t tell him that it was enough simply to attend a seminar, conference or festival or to verbally congratulate the head of some association or union, to get such a plaque or such a certificate.
Somehow I felt it was patriotic duty not to reveal the secrets of my state, the province of Ninawa, to the Chinese people. I didn’t tell him that most of the people working for different television stations in Iraq are the ones getting most of these plaques and certificates. They receive them from members of the district and provincial councils as well as from heads of unions, associations and committees, and from well-known and lesser-known personalities – all of whom want to secure some air time so that people will remember them.
And another thing I didn’t tell Yao Ming: unofficial numbers indicate that in Mosul, around 2437 plaques were handed out during the past year as well as around 4568 certificates of appreciation.
None of these awards were given to local writers or journalists because they had won any kind of Arab, or international, award. I also neglected to tell Yao Ming that none of the people who received awards were athletes or artists, who left their marks on a playground, on a stage, in an exhibition or on a sporting competition.
Yao Ming hugged me again when we arrived at the airport for my flight back to Iraq. Before saying goodbye, he began to recite a piece of poetry that waxes lyrical about the Tigris River and Iraq’s greenery.
Then in proper, formal Arabic he told me that, “the Ministry of Culture, after consulting with me, has chosen this piece of poetry and printed it onto 150 commemorative plaques, the number of writers and authors registered in your province. We would be very grateful if you would distribute these plaques once they arrive in Iraq”.