For me (and probably for most other people in the “West”), Iraq is distant and inaccessible enough to qualify as a “never-never-land”: a kind of psychic Terra Incognita such as was once common on medieval world maps, and to which you added your own prejudices and unconscious imaginative content.
My own introduction to this “territory of the mind” was several years ago when I first reached for my atlas to study the contours of another fabled land — Afghanistan — about which I was hearing so much in the press. Despite the brightly colored map in front of me testifying to its reality, the more I gazed at it, the more I realized that I couldn't see it properly through all the various filters of myth and poetry.
Yes, I knew well that Afghanistan existed as a real state with definable borders. But at that time (during the reign of the Taliban), it was recognized by only two countries in the whole world. So in a sense, it existed, and yet it didn't exist. Yes, it had cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Herat etc., but how real were they if you ignored the ruins and bomb craters? How many buildings were left standing? I didn’t know.
Afghanistan is also situated among fabulously high mountains, reminiscent of William Blake’s Heavenly Jerusalem. It was a land perched high above the world of everyday reality, immune from its laws and conventions.
To enter this Afghanistan (whether physically or mentally) was to undergo severe psychic dislocation. I was conscious that the modern world hardly reached beyond those rounded borders emblazoned on my map. Everything I considered familiar and necessary to normal life was missing there. Instead, myth, metaphor and symbol were the normal currencies of everyday life.
Many centuries ago, the philosopher Suhrawardi coined the term “Na Koja-Abad” (Nowhere Land) to refer to a mythical, but nevertheless real place, situated in a kind of interworld between the realms of the senses and those of the intellect. Later Shi'ite traditions referred to it as “Hurqalya” and mentioned its two emerald cities (Jabarsa and Jabalqa) capable of being perceived solely by the Creative Imagination. (This is not the “imagination” of fancy or of wish-fulfillment, but the “Imaginatio Vera” of the medieval philosophers: a kind of organic mirror where — according to certain Ishraqi philosophers — images from the material world and archetypal forms from the sphere of the intellect are able to come together and react). Hurqalya was believed to be the real theater of life, bubbling up images into the conscious mind in the form of myth and legend.
Today, the affairs of Afghanistan have faded from our collective consciousness and Iraq has taken its place as the unlikely theater of world diplomacy and War on Terrorism. It has become an international stage where future political vectors are revealed and implemented.
Over the next few months, (whether we want to or not), each one of us will be entering our own personal “Iraq of the Mind”. We will be entering via the virtual reality of electronic pictures on our TV screens; via the disembodied voices whispering to us from radios; via carefully chosen photographs in the newspapers; via anonymous reporters on the Internet. Once we enter that dangerous psychic territory, we are likely to find all our personal prejudices already waiting for us there: all our old demons and obsessions, our own “evil empires” and private “Al Qaidas” will be staring us squarely in the face. And we need to be aware of the real dangers from this Virtual Iraq of the Mind.
Who knows, perhaps we might even catch a glimpse of the fabulous emerald cities — for in the coming months, many fairy stories are likely to be offered to us in place of the reality.
Ryszard Antolak is a writer and teacher based in England specializing in Persian History and Philosophy.