An old woman and her weapons of war

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The Independent Culture
NOBODY had told me that we were approaching the third anniversary of the UN's economic embargo against Iraq, and I'm sure that nobody had told the sour-faced old woman sitting opposite me; she divided her time between scowling at me and hoisting the Daily Telegraph in front of her face, reading

'Saboteurs descend on grouse moors'. She looked uncomfortable in her black plastic shoes, her blouse that might have been made of nylon doilies. The sun was belting through the windows.

The train ground on. I read about the public-relations exercise involving Irma Hadzimuratovic, the injured Bosnian girl; the old woman shuffled in her nylon armour, sweat pricking through her pancake make-up. Then a young woman in a cotton floral dress came and sat next to her.

'Hello.'

I looked up. It was Miriam Ryle, who was in my year at primary school and who I bump into every few weeks; she was holding a typewritten manuscript. 'I just wondered if you could look at a couple of things for me.'

'Yes - sure. What is it?' It was, she told me, the script for a television broadcast for Channel 4. I looked across at the woman, who was giving me an entirely new kind of hate-ray - half-closed eyes, pursed mouth. She was taking it rather badly, it seemed to me, this new knowledge that we were not, in fact, members of the ignorant unemployed; that our knowledge of the world might rival hers.

I scanned a few lines of the script. One bit went: '. . . who see the West's policy as hypocritical, self-serving, murderous . . .' Another bit went: 'Iraq's once hi-tech health service is in ruins.' It made me smile, and when I smiled, the old woman looked away. I said: 'So - you're trying to convey the fact that our government actually supports all this starvation.'

'Right. And I'm wondering about a couple of words. What do you think about this word 'incessant'? 'Incessant' bombing?'

'What about 'constant'? Or what about focusing on the effects of the bombing, rather than the bombing itself? Because it's the trade embargo you want to explain . . .'

'Uh-huh . . .'

'So maybe go for the rubble, the ruin . . . get to the starvation bit as quickly as possible.'

The old woman's demeanour was changing quite fast. Her patronage and contempt, which she had had to ditch, was being replaced by something more dangerous, uglier. She looked like she was going to blow.

Miriam said: 'Well, I do need to stress the fact that the infrastructure was destroyed - so that people understand how the embargo prevents everything from being rebuilt.'

'I love the bit about how only 7 per cent were 'smart' missiles.'

'Right.'

'Because that's not quite the impression we were given.'

At this, the old woman lowered her paper, and snapped at me: 'Look. You have taken the lid off your coffee. If you don't put it back, it will spill on me.'

'What?'

'Your coffee. It will spill on me if you're not careful. So put the lid back on]'

'Right. Thanks - it might have spilled on me, too.'

She gave me the filthiest look yet. 'Well, I'm not interested in you]'

I snapped the ridged plastic disc on to the Styrofoam cup, and said: 'Well, thanks anyway.' I resumed my conversation. 'Have you seen all this stuff about the Bosnian girl?'

'Yeah.'

'Rather interesting, from the hypocrisy point of view. I mean, with all these children dying in Iraq. Have you thought, maybe a line or two about that?'

'I don't think I've quite got the space.'

'Mmm. Well, I think you cover hypocrisy pretty well, anyway. This bit is brilliant, and I had no idea about it - here.'

'The children's ward?'

'Exactly. So ironic that leukaemia sufferers can't get medicine because it is radioactive, and therefore banned as if it could be made into a weapon. Brilliant]'

As we talked, I wondered about the old woman. What must she think? Brought up in a world of certainties about her country, cherishing childhood memories of people coming home from the trenches, losing some of her relatives, probably, in the last war, thinking it was all worth something - and now this. Did she even hear the specifics?

The specifics are that the United Nations Security Council - which includes Britain - has persisted with its trade embargo of Iraq for three years, and that hundreds of people are dying of disease and starvation every day.

'So, you say here that the embargo 'breaches the Geneva protocols'.'

'Yes.'

'Well, that's a lovely touch. We are breaching the Geneva protocols. I mean, it's usually the Germans or something. It's usually, kind of, the enemy.'

The old woman turned her head to the side, and said: 'You're sitting on me]'

I said: 'I think it's just that these seats are very narrow.'

'No it's not] It's that she is sitting on me.'

'She can't help it - it's the design of the seats.'

'No it's not] It's the fact that she is rude enough to sit right on top of me. Look at her]'

We watched as the old woman, hot and angry, folded up her Daily Telegraph. She opened it out with sharp, precise movements, put the pages in order and straightened them. Then she folded it in half, and then in half again, before putting it in her bag. We were five minutes from our destination. She stood up and began to walk up the train. The last I saw of her, she was wrestling semi-successfully with the door. Her head was tilted upwards, towards the roof. When she got out of the station, it would be tilted towards the sky. -

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