“Après Moi le Deluge” or “The Flood”
We were busy studying the mandatory five-paragraph 'cause and effect' essay in class at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait when one of my students, Yousef Ibrahim, had written on the board about the effects of an earthquake.
One of the reasons he gave was—“the flood.”
As Yousef Ibrahim waltzed back to his seat, I muttered something at him that there was only one—“the Flood”.
He looked quizzically at me as if I were half-mad.
To be fair, many friends and family had wondered the same thing and why I was working at a new university in Kuwait, but that was another matter.This writing of “the flood’ had also caught the attention of another student who blurted out—“shinu flood” (what flood?).
I said, “You know, the Great Flood…the flood before Islam, the mother of all floods?”
This was met by a wall of silence or maybe indifference, one can't be too sure over here in the Gulf.
I moseyed up to another sharp student, Ibrahim Khalwati, and nonchalantly asked him.
“You know, Noah”—or as the Arabs would say ‘No-ahh’ (sort of a soft, throat clearing sound), and just to prove my point, “Al-Nebi No-ahh” (the Prophet Noah).
This caught a light and a few of them nodded incomprehensibly as if they knew the historical figure from the Biblical story.
As is my wont, I went off on an historical tangent, waving my arms wildly and excitedly telling them about Gilgamesh.
Okay, let's try a different tack.
“You know the Epic of Gilgamesh?”
“Shinnu Gilgamesh, teacher?” (“What’s Gilgamesh”)
Muhammad al Bahar (a really bright student) lisped to me—“Who's Gilgamesh?”
Of course, my eyes rolled, and I realized that these guys didn't have a clue about Gilgamesh or any of the Epic of Gilgamesh or even the “Great Flood”.
They could, however, tell you everything about the new Nokia phone, or the new Hummer, but were useless on any real historical information—probably the result of brainwashing at the madrassa.
As the students mumbled amongst themselves, my mind drifted back to my fledgling university years where the Epic of Gilgamesh was pounded into me by Professor Celeste Peters at University of Calgary, then Professors R.W. Sweet and Kirk Grayson at University of Toronto.
My mind was reeling, but I had to come back to the present.
Then I prattled on about Diana.
“Who's she?” asked one student.
“Princess Diana,” some smart-ass guy piped up.
“No, she is the Goddess of the Harvest and Fertility”, I proclaimed with real religious fervour.
Now things were really getting odd as the guys thought I was a real loony.
I proceeded to tell them about Ishtar, the half-breed Enkidu, Gilgamesh the hero, and Lilith of the dark underworld, not Lilith from the dark TV sitcom Frazier.
Then a spark hit, and I thought they must know about Nebuchadnezzar, as that was the term Saddam (the impaler of the Kurds—those inhalers of gas) used as one of his monikers for the glory of modern-day Iraq.
Well that was a complete dud much like the SCUDs that Saddam tried to fire off during the Gulf War.
They were eyeless in Gaza, stateless in Ramallah, legless in Kandahar, and clueless in Kuwait!
The students had absolutely no idea of the history of this area just to the north of here in what was called Ancient Mesopotamia.
It's as if Arabs didn't exist before Muhammad and the coming of Islam.
I proceeded with caution—“What about the Assyrians?”
“Duh, sir you mean the Syrians?”
I could have cried.
“No! The Assyrians—you know Sargon the Great, Sennacherib…” the names just fell off my palate as the students almost fell off their chairs.
“What about Hammurabi—surely you must know the Code of Hammurabi?”
This too was lost on them and it reminded me of the scene from the recent movie, The Emperor’s Club, where Kevin Kline, playing an ancient history teacher at a prestigious boys private school, slags an ancient Elamite and Akkadian king for not being remembered.
The teacher points to some saying carving in wood above the class doorway attributed to some ancient king.
“Shutruk Nahunte”, the student answers.
“Can anyone tell me who he was?” asks the teacher, and added, “Texts are permissible.”
A few students hurriedly scan through their textbooks for the name.
“But you will not find him there,” says the teacher. The teacher goes to the front of the classroom and pulls down the class map of the ancient Persian Empire.
“Shutruk Nahunte, sovereign of the land of Elam! Behold, his name cannot be found anywhere! Why not? Because great conquest without contribution is without significance! Unlike the giants of history you are seeing among you today.”
He says pointing to alabaster busts close by of Caesar, Cicero, and Aristotle to name a few.
I suppose this history teacher did not know that Shutruk Nahunte defeated the ferocious Akkadians and brought back the famous Stele of Naram-Sin to Elam as booty.
Such a slagging of poor old Shutruk Nahunte and in the same breath, besmirching the name of Naram-Sin, grandson of the legendary Akkadian ruler, Sargon the Great—“ruler of the four quarters of the world”.
Sometimes, I get the impression that modern-day Arabs are born-again in the sense that they have totally forgotten their pagan past and its rich legacy of Mesopotamia.
Alas, poor Hammurabi, I knew him well.
Alas, my poor students, they didn’t know him at all.