A recurrent image from trips to the Middle East is the caravan. I saw two, in Tunis and Sudan, scruffy versions of movie ones. Noisy and smelly, they resembled nightmares. Modern trucks have replaced them in volume, but only where the original routes were charted centuries ago. Some trucks haul several containers in a bizarre conga line, like those crossing the Australian deserts. Faster versions, then, of the old caravans.
However, where there exist no such supply routes among sparse and scattered settlements and oases, the packed camel trains remain. Yet even here cargo planes penetrate, delivering modern construction, farm and military hardware. Like long ribbons, these remote rural routes connect old market towns, outposts, forts and government stations, filled with civic and religious buildings, old men and children.
This is how they beat us in Iraq. Long caravans crawl from the far-off, clandestine sources of arms and munitions to the cities and towns where they fight us. They use the same method as drug traffickers, such as the “mules” stringing from Mexico into the U.S.
The powerful image of the caravans resonates with me. Terrorists use ancient, traditional routes, unknown to outsiders. Trucks, vans, cars set up for desert use, loaded with weapons, and the secret soldiers that use them, the assassins. Their paths seem like those of magically long mother snakes, winding in from their nests, first to staging areas, and then to Baghdad, the mosques, both Shia and Sunni, the open-air markets as well as the walled-in bazaars, like those in agricultural towns across Mexico. On to the highest value targets—the police stations, barracks, military academies and even high schools and colleges, where they void their cargoes of death. Caravans of Russian, North Korean and Chinese arms, as in the 60s.
On the other hand, what of our forces? Our massive, complex, utterly modern fortresses, like giant clinics of democracy, with teams of political doctors, nurses and epidemiologists. Soldiers of mercy, spreading out to cure and care, as well as defend and attack. “When it’s time to kill, kill!”, my mother used to say.
Burpee’s program of providing vegetable seeds to Iraq began in early 2004 when my good friend, John Agresto, was tapped to lead the CPA’s efforts to reconstruct Iraq’s colleges and universities. All of them have large agriculture departments. High on their list of needs was good seed, so they received nearly 3,000 pounds of tomato, melon, onion and squash seed. DHL helped us by contributing free transportation. The officials at the Department of Defense were cooperative and extraordinarily efficient.
The modern Iraqi diet isn’t much different from the rest of the countries in the greater Mediterranean regions. However, they especially love the light green skinned zucchini, with its creamy, slightly sweet flesh. Women use them somewhat like we do the potato, stuffing and baking it with meats such as lamb and various herbs and spices. Compared to our zucchinis, it is prettier and more delicious. Also, the Iraqi farmer is highly skilled—he can grow anything. The only drawbacks are lack of seed and urban violence, which disrupts the produce markets and causes crops to languish and rot.
Often I think of the Iraqi farmer when my day is going rough.