When oafs kick ass in Eden: What price a flamingo in a no-fly zone? Jim Crumley mourns the lost perfection of Iraq's marshlands, made unrecognisable by war

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ONE MAN'S no-fly zone is another man's Eden. Watching and listening to television cranking up its war reportage machine in the Gulf again, I am haunted by Gavin Maxwell.

When I hear kick-ass Schwarzkopfspeak voice-overs to sand-coloured footage, my anger lurches between the folly that has placed such a grotesque oaf as Saddam Hussein in charge of the culture which taught the ancient Egyptians how to write, and the trigger- happy, back-slapping Western forces ramming their meagre missions down my throat.

I want to freeze-frame them all - the Saddams, the Kitty Hawk pilots, the Rifkinds and the rest of the cast - and confront their cliches with Gavin Maxwell's book A Reed Shaken by the Wind, published by Penguin, but now out of print. It chronicles his 1957 journey among the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, a canoeist in the no-fly zone. It haunts me because two years ago, while I was studying Maxwell's books for a quite irrelevant purpose, my rereading of A Reed Shaken by the Wind coincided with the outbreak of the Gulf war.

This time it was a telling abuse of the word 'beautiful' that invoked Maxwell and made me reach for the book to restore that particularly crude imbalance which characterises so much war reporting since James Cameron gave up. This time US pilots were whooping at video reruns of their night's work at Al Amarah: 'There were 10 targets, now there's 10 holes, 10 big holes. Couldn't get better hits than that. That's beautiful.'

Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, reassured Parliament that the air crews had performed in an exemplary manner. Someone else every bit as much an oaf as Saddam announced that we had given Saddam a spanking. A group captain droned in perfect RAF English about the need to 'police the no-fly zone'.

If they knew their Maxwell, however, they might have known that what was being policed was this: 'The waterway into which we now turned seemed Eden itself. On either bank grew groves of date palms and in the spaces between them a riot of blossom spread against a sky of unbroken turquoise. Feathery golden acacia made a lattice-work against that blue, the vivid flowers flaring in the slant of a sun that was not yet high, and low over the waters that reflected the sky with the sheen of enamel trailed weeping trees, some with a crimson flower and some with a white . . . It was the simple primary colours stippled upon the background of green growth that made the perfection.'

Television may have lamented the destruction of Dubrovnik in that other little local difficulty (after all, we used to go on holiday there) but it does not care for Iraq's primary colours, other than that violent red of all war's landscapes. Iraq, and for that matter the Iraqis, have become 'the enemy'.

Maxwell found blood, too: 'Overhead in the empty patch of sky above the waters a single flamingo flew southward, the sun catching the sheet of blood colour under his wings.' What price a flamingo in a no-fly zone, or for that matter, an empty patch of sky?

I watched an old Iraqi tell a television camera that UN sanctions were choking his family to death, and he put his own hands round his throat. Why, he asked, was Britain involved: 'You used to be our friends.'

So we did, and wherever war or some other form of disaster is inflicted by mankind on someone else's landscape, someone else's definition of beauty is impaired for all time and old friends become 'the enemy'.

Maxwell wrote: 'To all the Iraqis from the highest to the lowest who showed almost unvarying kindness, courtesy and hospitality, go my respectful salutations and warm gratitude.'

Analogies, contrasts and contradictions spill from every other page of Maxwell's book, and if your points of reference are defined by media correspondents, Iraqi censors and military briefings, you will find his Iraq unrecognisable by its colours and its compassion.

There is a fine irony, too, in his observation of changing life in Baghdad, even in 1957: 'The town Iraqis now want one thing and one thing only, the American Way of Life, and the bulk of the people have as yet little realisation that this implies more than a multiplicity of sophisticated automatic toys . . .'

It is too much to hope for that the events of the last two years will have diminished the appetite for the American Way of Life, although the population which now knows there is more to it than sophisticated toys has been depleted by many thousands in the learning process, and the beauty of its land is in rags.

But it is a potent image of peace that Gavin Maxwell recorded as 'my most lasting memory of the marshes': 'The sun went down now in a muslin of clouded yellow and dove-grey etched with strings of homing ibis, and against it glided the silhouette of the young Suwaid poling his hunting canoe with a fishing spear. So narrow was his tiny craft that he stood with one foot in front of the other, as much a part of it as a horse's body was part of a centaur.

'The figure moved with a classic grace, he leaned backward as the haft end of the spear entered the water then bent from the waist as he drove down on it with the swift, smooth urgency of the long thrust, a movement as controlled and fluid as that of a ballet dancer.

'Each time as he straightened again for the next thrust on the other side of the canoe, the five points of the spear were black against the sky; the taut silhouette and the slim, dark sliver of the canoe carving in utter silence through the shining liquid sky and sunset-coloured water . . .

'In a few years' time, that young tribesman whose urgent silhouette I shall carry in my mind's eye as a symbol of the marshlands will be driving a lorry if he is lucky, pimping in the back streets of Basra for white employees of a Western petroleum company if he is not.'

If he is less lucky still, he will now be a middle-aged corpse, a primary coloured stain beneath the no-fly zone, and where he lies it will not be beautiful.

Sandra Barwick is away.

(Photograph omitted)