interviewed by Jesse Holcomb
interview is reprinted with permission from
is a Christian ministry whose mission is to proclaim and practice
the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice.
I would like to hear generally about your trip to Iraq, but specifically,
I'm really interested in your experiences as a musician and a
songwriter there. How did it come about that you were a part of
this delegation anyway?
I kind of invited myself along. Bishop Gumbleton, I think, was
the one whose idea it was. I'd heard about it from my friend,
Linda Panetta, with whom I've worked around, particularly on the
School of the Americas stuff; she's been active in the School
of the Americas Watch for a long time. And at one point we were
sitting, having dinner in Philadelphia and she mentioned that
they were planning on doing this trip and I said, “Well,
you know, I could do that too.” I wasn't sure, but it looked
like it was going to happen right when I had the time. And from
that point, she mentioned it to Thomas Gumbleton, and he was fine
with it, and Johanna Berrigan also. So I became a part of the
trip. It was kind of down to the wire whether we'd cancel; they
had planned an earlier trip that they did cancel because of changes
going on in Iraq. So we were watching the events to see if it
would become necessary to blow this one off, but as it turned
out, we all felt that it was good to go, so off we went.
I read in a recent Canadian Press release -- I think it was by
Roberta Cohen -- about your trip. It mentioned that you found
some time to make music while you were there, and I was wondering
if you'd describe that experience; how it came about.
There were a couple of different experiences like that. Mostly
it involved me playing for people, which I hadn't really planned
on, but I've been in enough of those kinds of situations to know
that it does happen when you don't plan on it sometimes. So I
was prepared for it. I played for the -- well, I don't know what
they're called -- I was going to say ‘inmates,’ but
they're hardly that (laughter). A number of disabled women living
in a shelter that was one of the places we visited. I played some
songs for them [and] I played in the lobby in the lounge of the
hotel that we were staying at. There were a bunch of NGO people,
Canadians and Americans that knew who I was, and I had to practice
anyway for this tour that we're now on, so they got me to do it
in front of them.
most interesting point came when I got invited for lunch -- we
all did, actually -- by a visual artist that we had been introduced
to and who was fond of cooking a particular kind of fish that
they have there, according to a Sumerian recipe. It was just amazing
to be in a place where the people are using recipes that go back
2500 years or more. He said he was going to invite a young ud
player. Ud is the Arabic lute that's very characteristic of Middle
Eastern music and the precursor to the European lute and modern
guitar. And I got to play with this young guy who was quite good
and had a lovely singing voice, and he played and sang songs --
I didn't even know what the songs were about because, obviously,
he was singing in Arabic. But he played, then we had lunch, and
then I played and he started jamming with me so we ended up in
this kind of improvised jam that really worked. It was exciting
to play with somebody whose background was so totally different
but whose ears were really tuned. And we were both kind of careful
to not get in each other's way and to try to complement what each
other was doing, and it worked, really well.
Not everything works really well in Iraq these days . . .
speak any Arabic, so how were you, as a group, able to communicate
and interact? What were some of the challenges and some of the
possible breakthroughs, moments of clarity, or experiences with
the people you met?
Well, we were aided and abetted by people from the American Friends
Service Committee. They provided us the drivers, at least arranged
for us to have drivers who were local guys, so we always had somebody
with us that spoke Arabic, although the drivers were not very
fluent in English, they couldn't act as translators, but they
could troubleshoot if that came up. But as it turned out, it didn't
really. Most of the people we met spoke some English. And where
that wasn't the case there was somebody around who could translate.
We went to a squatter camp where somewhere in the neighborhood
of 500 families were living in this bombed-out building, which
is a scenario that's repeated around Baghdad, but in this particular
one they didn't speak English really; they might know a couple
of words. But we had people with us who were sort of our credibility
as far as homeless folks are concerned and who also spoke English,
so they were able to translate.
So are squatter camps and bombed-out buildings more or less commonplace
than the media are telling us? Describe some of the images and
urban landscapes you saw that left an impression or an impact
The thing that's interesting, that struck me about Baghdad right
away is that it doesn't immediately look like a war zone. It doesn't
look like a city that's been under attack as much as it has. There
are plenty of bombed-out buildings to be seen, but they're interspersed
because they were selected by the US forces so-called ‘coalition.’
They were the ones they actually tried to bomb. So you'll be driving
through a neighborhood that actually looks like a pretty functional
neighborhood, although terribly rundown after all the years of
sanctions, and then you'll come upon a large building that's been
blown to smithereens and then you turn out past that and you're
back to into something like a normal city again. So it's not a
rubble-strewn landscape the way you'd picture the way Hanoi must
have been, for instance, when they were bombing Hanoi; the way
European cities looked after the Second World War. It doesn't
give you that same impression. So the bombed-out buildings, in
a way, are a lot more striking because of that contrast.
an air of surrealism in a way, about the place, because you have
what half the time looks like it should be a functional city,
but it doesn't have reliable electrical power; no traffic lights
work in the whole city -- 5 million people in a city with no traffic
lights and lots of cars, and the cars are all older models, run-down,
bald tires -- because for years they had no means of repairing
anything. So streets are not in good shape, the buildings are
not in good shape, the cars are not in good shape. That was before
the war, and then the war has added to this scenes of bombed-out
were government buildings -- interestingly enough, the two ministries
that they didn't bomb were the oil ministry, which was fairly
predictable and the interior ministry, which I found very interesting.
That they chose to leave that standing. And immediately my suspicious
mind went to work and I said, "Well yeah, they wanted all
the records from there.” And a girl who happened to be sitting
near me when I said that said, "Yeah, that's what all the
Iraqis think too.” That's where all the secret police records
were, and all the files. And they didn't bomb that. I don't know
what the motive was, and you could ascribe anything to it, but
it was noticeable because those were the only two government ministries
that were not bombed. The oil ministry made perfect sense in the
logic of - I mean as much as anything made sense about that whole
exercise. But anyway, that's kind of an aside. But it was just
strange -- unlike any place I'd been in. I've been in countries
and cities that were at war, but the cities were not themselves
under attack. The vibe was very different in this case.
Are there any other experiences from this trip that captured your
I tried to write down everything that I could think of, and everything
I saw, so, I guess the only thing that made a really big impression
on me that I -- well, there's so many impressions, really. They're
not the kind of impressions that are readily reducible to songs
so far, but we'll see. Sometimes these things take time. Postcards
from Cambodia took a long time to write for the same reason --
it just was hard to figure out how to approach that.
Sunday morning that big bomb went off, which was the first morning
after that period of relative calm, we were told that we were
there during the quietest week that they could remember. And obviously
it heated up again pretty soon after we left, because that bomb
was just the beginning of a whole string of them that have been
going on daily, since. But that one big bomb at the entrance to
the CPA headquarters -- I happened to be standing there looking
out my window; the hotel room I had had French doors, opening
onto a little balcony which overlooked a regular street. And it
was a Sunday morning, which is not a holiday there. Their holy
day is Friday, so Sunday's a regular workday. People were going
about their business, 8 o'clock in the morning; people were walking
up and down, whatever. And there was just this big boom in the
distance. But what struck me was nobody registered it at all.
Nobody moved, nobody turned their head to see; there was no sense
that they'd even heard the sound. And obviously they did because
there was no mistaking it. I found that really telling, in a way,
and I assume it's because they're so used to things like that
happening that they're immune unless it's happening right next
to them. So that struck me with great force. That whole moment
is kind of etched [in my mind], because there was the sound of
the bomb, and it was a clear sky, a nice sunny morning, and it
was -- there was nothing to see, I was a couple of miles away
from where it went off, and -- although I didn't notice it rattle
or anything, my friends were having breakfast downstairs and they
said it rattled the silverware on the table. I wasn't aware of
that, but there was this moment of stillness after the initial
sound and then you hear sirens start up pretty soon after that.
People walking in the street, like I said, went about their business
and registered absolutely nothing. I'd like to be able to get
that into a song somehow.
It would get the wheels turning, I'm sure.
There was [another] moment -- coming down into Baghdad International
Airport is amazing. The airport itself is a modern, glass and
steel structure; I mean, it probably was bombed, but they repaired
it right away. And there are no commercial flights going in and
out of there; there were a couple of cargo planes and lots of
military aircraft around, but we flew in from Amman, Jordan on
a flight operated by an NGO called Air Serve that is devoted to
doing mercy flights and other kinds of stuff -- I assume they're
on a contract with the UN to fly in and out of Baghdad. But there
were about ten of us on this little twin engine (unclear) craft
plane, and it flies directly over the city of Baghdad -- directly
over Baghdad Airport. And then -- without lowering its altitude
at all, at the last minute, it just starts to corkscrew right
in over the airport so you're practically on your side for the
last few minutes of the flight in order to avoid ground fire,
of course, but it was quite spectacular. And then we get off the
plane, walk into this terminal, this big glass and steel terminal
that says Baghdad International Airport on the front -- and we're
the only people in there. There're four Iraqis in uniform manning
passport check booths, and some Gurkas that were part of a private
security company doing security for the airport that were standing
around. But other than that, we were the only traffic in the airport.
And that too -- as an introduction to the place, there's a strange
eeriness about that feeling in this big empty building.
So you made your observations and you registered facts while you
were there, but I'm wondering how you as an artist tell the truth,
as opposed to simply reporting the facts.
I don't know how it will work out, I mean, I have no idea whether
I'll get a song out of this or not. It's hard to really address
it as a songwriter per se, without having a specific song to talk
about. But in terms of telling the truth of what was there, I
can do two things. I can give my own impressions, which I'm doing
right now, and I can quote the people who I talked to. Because
what I can bring back that people don't already get from watching
CNN [are] the feelings of those people that we met, and the ideas
that they have about their situation, and so on.
Were the people open to you?
Very much so, and even when there wasn't language [in common].
The Iraqis generally have a longer stare threshold than we do.
And they look you right in the eye and they kind of ‘gimlet-eye’
when you walk into a room. Like in the couple of the hospital
visits that we did, for instance, there'd be people standing around
and they'd kind of be looking at you. And as soon as you said
hello, they'd break out into these great big smiles and say, "you're
welcome!” It was this beautiful sense of hospitality right
away, soon as you indicated any friendliness at all. And I think
they become used to seeing foreigners as intruders, obviously,
and occupiers, and people who go around acting like occupiers.
When you see the news media people -- the mainstream media people
at least -- and the military, and the CIA or whoever they are
in plainclothes with guns, they're going around in armed convoys
of matching white suburbans wearing flat vests and, you know,
it's really conspicuous and an unmistakable statement is being
made whenever they do that. "We're running this place right
now.” The Iraqis are a very proud people and they're very
sensitive about stuff like that, so for us to actually be there,
kind of on their level, I think they found that quite appealing.
And they were very open. They're people who like to talk anyway,
just like we all do. I mean, you get to talk to somebody from
outside who hasn't heard your story before, they're happy to tell
met a wide range of people, everybody from the inhabitants of
this squatter camp and everything in between. Women's groups,
human rights groups, a fair number of religious people because
of Bishop Gumbleton's particular priorities. And it was really
interesting. I had no idea, for instance, that there was a Christian
population in Baghdad or in Iraq. There are and they go back to
the earliest days of Christianity. They're referred to as Chaldean
Christians, and they speak Aramaic. I thought that was dead! These
are things I'd never seen anywhere in the media, and as is not
unusual, the mainstream media are oversimplifying the situation
in Iraq, in a not very constructive way. I think a lot of Iraqis
felt that the media are creating some of the divisiveness that
we're hearing about between the Shiites and the other folks, for
instance. That before the war, and up till the war -- till Saddam
had fallen, there was none of that. You could go anywhere in the
country and everybody was equal and nobody dumped on anybody else
because of their faith. And they still feel like that is there,
except the media are creating this atmosphere of tension and insecurity
particularly around the Shiite majority's desire to establish
an Islamic state.
Speaking of religion in Iraq, did you get a sense of the role
faith plays among the people? Either in a civic or personal sense?
I'm not sure if I met a big enough cross-section of people to
really have a good handle on that, but certainly it played a varying
role. It actually struck me as being very similar to how it would
be in North America if you were to make a trip like that. Obviously,
as I said, we met a lot of people, a lot of religious leaders
and other religiously affiliated people because that was part
of what Bishop Gumbleton wanted to do. And it was very enlightening
to do that, but among the other people that we met, I'd say it
was about 50/50 between people who appeared to have put their
faith in a central position, compared to people who were more
secular in their inclinations, not particularly concerned [with]
the faith. The women's groups, for instance, were not keen on
the fundamentalist view of women, particularly the traditionalist
view. More than once we heard somebody say -- a woman would say
this is -- she would talk about the fundamentalist vision of an
Islamic state and refer to it as "their” idea of Islam.
Making a clear distinction between their interpretation of scripture
or tradition and what's really there. I've been reading the Koran
but I've only gotten a little way through, so I can't address
what it says about that.
big thing on everybody's mind and the thing that you really notice
is fear. Not so much of the Americans, although that's an issue,
but of crime. Because there's no law and order. The existing law
enforcing systems were shut down, and, I mean, the country doesn't
have a constitution, doesn't have a real functioning government.
It has a police force now, but that police force spends most of
it's time defending itself against people who see them as collaborators,
and bombing them and shooting them and so on. So people are really
nervous about sending their kids to school in case they get kidnapped
or sold off into who-knows-what, or in case there's just violence
there. The US military is staging house raids almost daily, looking
for whatever, and people get stopped sometimes in the course of
those things or disappear into the prisoner system. Iraqis don't
have a very good handle on that because they're not allowed contact
with people that are arrested; none of the legal safeguards that
we think should be in place are in place on any level. So if your
husband or mother or cousin or whoever gets arrested, it's going
to be months before you find our where they are or what happened
So this atmosphere of fear -- this bleakness, lack of infrastructure
. . . I mean, these are things that you've seen before.
Not quite in the same mix, though. It's a really different vibe
from Nicaragua, for instance, where everyone was at war. Everybody
felt the presence of warfare and you were kind of on one side
or the other. Maybe if you went to Nicaragua now it would be more
like this, like what I saw. But my experience of Nicaragua under
the sandinistas was [that] there was very little crime -- not
significant amounts of street crime, robbery, or any of that kind
of stuff -- it just wasn't happening. And here it's actually the
main problem, aside from the bombings. But people are just really
worried. Those who can afford to have armed guards have armed
guards around. The street that our friends are living on, landlords
on that block had hired these guys to keep an eye on their property.
So there's always several men with AK-47s standing around in the
street. In their street. But their job is to prevent petty theft
as much as anything else, but they're the closest thing to a regular
police force you're going to find, except in very limited circumstances
where the Iraqi police are kind of working with the Americans.
I'm tempted to say its kind of more of a middle-class fear. Because
Baghdad was a well-to-do city. I mean, it was a thriving first-world
city before the sanctions started. It doesn't have the vibe of
a third-world postcolonial place.
The final lyric on your recent record is the word "hope.”
And I've noticed that you seem to occupy what in my perception
is an ambivalent space in your recent songwriting, between what
might be a temporal disillusionment and an eternal longing, something
like what we hear in All our Dark Tomorrows. But there's also
a juxtaposition of redeemed carnality against the backdrop of
something foreboding. In light of the situation there in Iraq
and elsewhere in the world, how can there be hope and meaning
in such a grim context?
It's very hard to generalize about that, but for me, I feel that
everything is unfolding as it must. Not from detail to detail,
moment to moment, necessarily, but in the broader strokes. I think
that the things I encounter are things that God has at least permitted,
if not deliberately put in my way. And therefore hope or not-hope
is kind of a non-issue. It's just about reality. We all make up
this universe together, or creation -- if you want to call it
that. And everything that happens touches everything else that
happens, and that applies to us and to our own personal movements
in both our interior and exterior as much as it applies to what
we might think of as accidents of nature. Creation is an unfolding
thing and we're part of that unfolding in our excesses; our violence,
our coldness toward each other, our lack of humility, our lack
of compassion are as much a part of that unfolding as their opposites.
So personally I don't feel like anything's going to happen to
me that isn't supposed to happen. Therefore, what's to be hopeless
about? And it doesn't require courage to think that way; it's
just the way it is. And that doesn't take free will out of the
picture either. I feel like I'm confronted by choices all the
time. I have the capacity and the freedom to make choices.
In effect, yes. And choices are made, inescapable; even if I pretend
not to make a choice I've still made some kind of choice. So over
the years I've sort of come to appreciate the value of actually
deliberately making the choices instead of pretending that I wasn't
doing that. I use the word "hope” in that song Messenger
Wind and other places because it's a word for something that we
all feel in our hearts, but if you actually analyze it, it's just
Are there any political-moral imperatives that have gripped you
after your visit to a country at war?
The thing that comes immediately to mind is that George Bush has
to go. One way or another he's got to get out of there, and his
gang with him. [But] it may not happen in the next election. I
worry about this, because Americans like things to happen right
away or they give up on them. If the attempts to unseat Bush do
not succeed this time around, what I really hope is that people
won't get discouraged by that, [but will] feel even more driven
or inspired to work for a stronger opposition to him next time
around. Or to what he represents, because it won't be him. The
neo-conservative agenda is an inhumane, thoughtless, disaster-laden
agenda, and it's got to go.
In light of this American short-term memory, this capacity to
be easily distracted -- what do you think it would take to reach
and inspire a younger generation to respond to these global power
That's an interesting one, because I think a lot of young people
are responding to what they see as the phoniness of the world
-- what they see as encroachments on their own future, by business,
for instance. They're the ones driving the World Trade Protests
and all that. The young people. And yet they're not showing up
to vote, which suggests that there's a cynicism about the voting
process or a lack of faith in it, certainly, and I think that
lack of faith is well founded. But at the same time, it would
be really helpful if that energy and that willingness to move
forward could be channeled into the electoral process. I think
that we'd all be better off for it. So that's a challenge, I don't
know how you do that. There are things like Rock the Vote and
all that, and that helps, but I think that's where there needs
to be a real push. To get young people to feel that they can actually
make a difference by voting.
Do you think that music in any way plays a role in giving a language
to these feelings? Can it help?
Certainly it can. It has to be the right music though, because
kids aren't listening to everything. It requires credibility on
the part of the people that are making the statements to them.
Kids will see through phoniness right away. If somebody stands
up and says "get involved in this or that” and they
don't look like they know what they're talking about they're not
going have an influence of any valuable kind. In some ways youth
has to find its own way. That's always how it is. I remember in
the Sixties when the concept of youth as a political force was
a new thing, there were older people around who were inspirational.
There were people who would say, "look, it's on you -- it's
your future.” And we would listen to people like that if
they came with the right credentials. I don't know who the people
are that would have the right credentials at this moment, but
they've got to be there, and somehow we need to get them speaking
to the youth.
How do you see your role as a songwriter and as a musician in
mobilizing, truth-telling, or speaking truth to power?
Well speaking the truth is it, exactly. That's my role. My job
is to take what I understand to be true and try to put it into
a communicable form. That's what I do as an artist and on the
periphery of that are other kinds of involvement, like the benefit
we just did to help out people who are fighting a toxic waste
incinerator in New Brunswick. [It's] a little village that you
can barely find on the map, and it's exactly the kind of situation
where business interests go in and say, "We can manipulate
the situation easily.” People need jobs, therefore . . .
etc. And some of the people feel that way and other people don't,
so there's been a strong resistance to this without any help from
the provincial government, which is totally on the side of business.
So it's at least a morale boost to have somebody from outside
show an interest, somebody with a bit of a public profile. And
hopefully it will have meant more than just a morale boost. But
we were able to raise some funds for their efforts and so on.
So those kinds of things happen around the exercise of the art
as well. And that's going to continue in various ways.
But I wonder if there aren't ever certain messages or feelings
that can't be truly expressed. With your trip to Iraq, for example,
was there anything that got lost in translation?
Well [my] job is to try not to have that happen. When I write
a song like Postcards from Cambodia or Mines of Mozambique, those
kinds of landscapey songs, I try and get the atmosphere of a place.
I try to be as precise as I can with it and I guess it works for
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