Iraq Antiquities Revisited (with Endnotes)

Jeffrey Schuster

On Saturday, April 12, 2003, three days after the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad had been pulled down to cheering Iraqis, the story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum began to appear both in print and on broadcast news outlets around the world. Over Saturday and Sunday and continuing into the next week it would be the dominant news story coming out of Iraq.

That Saturday, in his lead paragraph for the Associated Press, Hamza Hendawi wrote that the Iraq National Museum had been emptied and all that remained was broken pottery and shattered display cases. The BBC News online world edition reported that looters had removed thousands of pieces from the museum. And John F. Burns, writing for the New York Times, claimed that the museum had been looted over a period of 48 hours and that they had taken away “at least 50,000” artifacts. Later that evening Burns would rewrite his lead. Instead of 50,000 artifacts being carried away by looters, he inserted, “with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.” (1)

By the end of the day on Saturday, April 12, then, the major outlines of the story had been set by the journalists in Baghdad. According to the officials who had been located and interviewed on the museum grounds, most if not all of the collection had been removed by looting Iraqis. Again, according to a handful of Iraqis on the grounds, the American forces, who could have prevented this catastrophe, did nothing. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul McGeough, who linked the museum story to his wider anti-war stance, did not hesitate to cast the first stone. “After witnessing three weeks of attacks on Baghdad and almost a week of looting - especially of the Iraq National Museum,” he writes, “questions about where the criminality lies become blurred.” (2)

The story that emerged on Saturday and Sunday was that the Americans had carelessly looked on as Iraqis looted and ransacked and destroyed and pillaged their and our cultural heritage. In the heat of the press mania, no analogy was too extreme: Mongols. Vandals. Barbarians. (3) These terms were not applied, however, to the Iraqis who actually entered the museum and looted it. In a peculiar transformation possible only by an international press that was already disposed to distrust the American government, these epithets were directed at the American military in particular and at Americans in general.

But what really happened at the museum? Over the next two months, surfacing in bits and pieces, the truth slowly emerged. First of all, the original figure for the total number of pieces in the collection given by most journalists was 170,000. This number, we later learned, was for inventory purposes. An individual inventory number could represent a single piece or several pieces together, as in a necklace or broken pottery shard. The total number of “pieces” was, in fact, around 500,000. Next, we now know that, of those 500,000 pieces, only around 10,000 were stolen. The majority of the collection had been removed before the war to secure vaults in the main bank in Baghdad or had been hidden and secured inside the museum itself. A sizeable portion of the collection, in fact, had been removed prior to the war by a group of five concerned employees of the museum who had made a pact not to reveal the secret locations of the items. Later, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the US Marine officer in charge of the team of investigators that arrived on April 20 and begin work on April 22, would earn the trust of this group and was then allowed to check on the safety of the items. (4)

The story of the alleged looting of the entire collection of the Iraqi National Museum is far different from the original versions presented by the foreign correspondents. The story begins on Tuesday morning, April 8, when three Iraqi museum officials, who had been preparing to live in the museum for the duration, suddenly noticed that Fedayeen Saddam were jumping into the large bunkers that had been cut into the yard in front of the museum and firing upon Americans troops entering the neighborhood. Donny George would later say that he then knew right then that it would be too dangerous for them to stay in the museum.

“Our heritage is finished”

Back on the morning of Tuesday, April 8, 2003, one day before the statue of Saddam Hussein came down, Donny George, research director of the State Board of Antiquities, Jaber Khalil, chair of the same organization, and Nawala al-Mutawalli, the museum director, decided that, for reasons of personal safety, it was no longer possible to stay inside the Iraq National Museum. Before the war began, three large bunkers had been cut into the lawn in front of the museum and reinforced with sandbags and sheets of corrugated metal. Earlier that morning the sounds of explosions had grown closer and Iraqi military and Fedayeen jumped into the bunkers on the grounds of the museum and began firing upon the American troops entering the neighborhood. At this point, after consulting with his colleagues, Donny George locked the front doors and the back doors to the main museum building and then the three of them climbed into a waiting car and drove away, leaving behind one man who actually lived on the premises.

The next day, Wednesday, April 9, Mohammed Al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information and familiarly known as Baghdad Bob, failed to show up for work, a clear signal that the Ba’athist regime was starting to crumble. Later in the afternoon, people all around the world watched in stunned disbelief as Iraqis cheered and clapped as the American soldiers used a tank to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein.

On Thursday, April 10, Iraqis entered the museum, first going through the administrative offices and grabbing anything they could and destroying what they didn’t want to carry off. Donny George would later note that his office chair had been broken and dragged across the room. Files had been emptied. Anything of value in the administrative offices, like computers and air conditioners, was removed by the looters.

The next day Raid Abdul Ridha Mohammed, an archaeologist connected to the museum, returned but was unable to stop the looters. He then went in search of American forces, found five US soldiers who had entered the neighborhood, and brought them over to the museum. The soldiers fired over the heads of the looters and dispersed them. But then the soldiers told Mohammed that they had no orders to guard the museum. They were still fighting Iraqi military and Fedayeen in several pockets around the city.

On Friday the first stories started to appear about looting going on at the museum and by Saturday, April 12, the grounds of the Iraq National Museum were a magnet for the journalists who had stayed in Baghdad through the war and for the embedded journalists who had accompanied the American forces during the three-week campaign. Several Iraqis on the grounds who claimed to be employees or connected to the museum were quickly located and interviewed by the press group and many of the reports written that day featured Nabhal Amin, a woman who identified herself as a deputy director of the museum, Muhsen Kadhim, a security guard, and Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad.

The reporters on the scene identified these three variously, sometimes giving individual attribution, but other times referring to them simply as “museum officials.” John F. Burns, for example, in one of the starkest sentences in his initial article, writes, “Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.”

On Saturday, April 12, to Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh, Nabhal Amin said, "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years...They were worth billions of dollars." The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran also used Ms. Amin as a source:
"Our heritage is finished," lamented Nabhal Amin, the museum's deputy director, as she surveyed a Sumerian tablet that had been cracked in two. "Why did they do this? Why? Why?"
On Sunday, April 13, the Telegraph reported:
Surveying the smashed display cases at the museum last night, Nabhal Amin, the deputy director, struggled to hold back the tears. "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years," she said. "They were worth billions of dollars."
Reacting to these initial reports, archeologists and academics assumed the worst about the American military and voiced their outrage, spearheaded by the self-titled “weeping archeologist,” John Russell, a source for numerous news articles about the alleged looting of the museum. (5)

Various academics spoke up at once without waiting for a critical investigation. Already on Monday, April 14, over at the History News Network website, Said Arjomand, a professor of sociology and the State University of New York, wrote that “the sack of the Iraq Museum under American occupation is unprecedented in recent history” and declared that the American forces were worse than the Nazis and the Mongols. “No one thought such an act of violence against humanity would occur after the occupation of Baghdad and under the eyes of our troops.” (6)

Writing that same day on the same website, Piotr Michalowski, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, joined Mr. Arjomand. “The pillaging of the Baghdad Museum is a tragedy that has no parallel in world history,” he wrote. (7)

Meanwhile at an April 15 news conference, Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about the alleged looting of the museum, presciently replied, “I would suspect that over time we’ll find that a number of things were in fact hidden prior to the conflict." (8)

New Facts Begin to Emerge

While most members of the international media and academia were castigating the American forces and Bush administration, Ian Fisher of the New York Times reported on Wednesday, April 16, that Donny George now felt that “Iraq’s cultural heritage might not have vanished completely.” In that interview, George also explained that some of the collection had been placed in secure vaults before the war began. And the next day, April 17, Yaroslav Trofimov from the Wall Street Journal published an article in which Donny George admitted that “most of the things were removed.” On Thursday and Friday, then, the story that had been trumpeted around the world over the previous weekend was found to have more than a few qualifications. (9)

Inexplicably, however, these revelations were not immediately followed up by the other media outlets. Part of the problem lay with the double-talking Donny George, who continued to blame the American administration for the looting and refused to correct the erroneous stories. Also, it was later learned that five officials connected to the museum led by Muayyad Damerji, an advisor to the Minister of Culture, had removed many valuable pieces of the collection themselves and had made a secret pact not to disclose the location of these items until a stable government was back in place. Donny George, it seems, was not aware of their actions.

In May evidence that the original story was flawed began to emerge. On May 1 the New York Times ran a headline that announced: "Loss Estimates Are Cut on Iraqi Artifacts, but Questions Remain." In an interview for The Art Newspaper, Donny George admitted to Martin Bailey that probably only a small percentage of the 170,000 was missing. On May 6 Barry Meier at the New York Times reported that the curator of the British Museum, John E. Curtis, had been informed that most of the items in the museum’s display cases had been removed beforehand and that only those pieces too large or too fragile to move remained at the outset of the war. (10)

Then, at a May 16 press briefing, Col. Bogdanos announced that the figure of 170,000 was not accurate and that the number was more in the range of a few thousands. Lourdes Navarro, reporting on that briefing for the Associated Press, signaled the change in her lead:
U.S. authorities said Friday they are scaling back the estimates of how much treasure was looted from Iraq's National Museum after discovering that museum officials have been stashing items in secret vaults for at least 13 years.
Ms. Navarro also noted that Donny George now declared that “it’s time to work together to restore what was stolen.” Many other news outlets picked up on the updated details that had come out of the press briefing by Col. Bogdanos. (11)

On May 22, Alex Spillius at the Telegraph reported that the Iraqi museum officials, now under pressure because their previous inflated claims were turning out to be inaccurate, had now shifted the blame to the international media. "There was a mistake,” Donny George told Spillius. “Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the show cases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move." Donny George also explained that the vast majority of the collection had already been relocated before the war. Mr. George did not, however, explain why he hadn’t forcefully corrected any of those early figures during the many press conferences he had given over the previous month. (12)

“It’s Bollocks.”

In June the story was finally torpedoed and sunk. On Saturday, June 7, the Customs Service/State Dept. released its preliminary report on the investigation. (13)

With the information from this report in hand, the Washington Post of June 9 began:
The world was appalled. One archaeologist described the looting of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities as "a rape of civilization." Iraqi scholars standing in the sacked galleries of the exhibit halls in April wept on camera as they stood on shards of cuneiform tablets dating back thousands of years.
However, with all the new revelations, “Apparently, it was not that bad.” (14)

“So, there's the picture: 100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves,” writes David Aaronovitch for the Guardian. “And the only problem with it is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks.” (15)

On Nightline for June 10, Ted Koppel observed that "the truth behind this story is somewhat different.” He continues, “It turns out that almost all of the pieces are safe. They were hidden away by the museum staff for safekeeping.... They were hidden in a vault that was then flooded to protect it from looters. But the bottom line here? The museum staff apparently lied, in part to discredit the American troops." (16)

Charles Krauthammer wondered why Donny George did not correct the exaggerated figures when he knew what the real numbers were. “Of course, George saw the story of the stolen 170,000 museum pieces go around the world and said nothing -- indeed, two weeks later, he was in London calling the looting ‘the crime of the century.’ Why? Because George and the other museum officials who wept on camera were Baath Party appointees, and the media, Western and Arab, desperate to highlight the dark side of the liberation of Iraq, bought their deceptions without an ounce of skepticism.” (17)

Later in the month, the academics who were so quick to point their fingers at the American administration were themselves put on defense. On June 26, Piotr Michalowski writes, “Many of us reacted passionately to the news, writing editorials and letters expressing our sorrow and anger. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports.” Instead of offering an apology or reflecting on why people in a profession who pride themselves as being critical and skeptical made such fundamental errors of judgment, Michalowski turned around and said, “This is much less than was initially reported, but it is still a catastrophe.” (18)

Finally, on September 10, Col. Bogdanos came out with the investigation’s final report on the condition of the antiquities from the Iraq National Museum. While the administrative offices had indeed been emptied, the majority of the items from the public galleries had been moved before the war to the Central Bank of Iraq, a bunker in Western Baghdad, and around 40,000 pieces to a secret location. All of these pieces were returned safely to the museum. Also, of the 8 storage rooms, only 5 had been entered, and of the 5, only 3 had items missing. Bogdanos concluded that this theft was conducted by professional thieves, who came away with around 10,000 small pieces, mostly cylinder seals. (19)

As of January, 2005, the last estimate, by archeologist Francis Deblauwe, is that of the 501,000 artifacts that were once in the museum around 13,000 are still missing. (20)

Disposed to Believe the Worst

Months later, when the truth finally surfaced and people began to ask how the reporters had made so many basic mistakes, John F. Burns would confess to Andrew Lawler that he and the other journalists were “disposed to believe the worst” and that “passion got the better of us.” John F. Burns, to his credit, was one of the few people involved in this story to admit that a mistake had been made. (21)

John F. Burns and Paul McGeough were also simply exhausted. They had been reporting non-stop for several months with a maximum of a few hours of sleep a night and trying to function under considerable and sometimes daily threats to their lives. They also were operating in an environment where it was almost impossible to verify much of the information that they gathered. (22)

If there were one mistake that overshadowed all the others it would have to be using Nabhal Amin as a reliable witness when, in fact, she no longer worked for the museum complex. John F. Burns, Paul McGeough, Hamza Hendawi, and Hassan Hafidh had neither the time nor resources -- or perhaps even the inclination -- to verify her claim of identity and position.

At the same time, however, there were a few journalists who were skeptical of the overheated claims being tossed about by the press. We have seen that Yaroslav Trofimov, for example, even as early as April 17, had interviewed Donny George and reported that most of the items were most likely safe. In a May 9 radio interview for WBUR’s “Here & Now,” Trofimov said that the early mistakes in reporting were mainly due to the "inability of reporters to confirm facts" because there was no functioning government at the time. And many other reporters returned to the story and reconstructed a much more accurate picture of what had occurred, among the best being Roger Atwood, Andrew Lawler, and Dan Cruickshank. (23)

Some reporters, like McGeough, used the situation to take a cheap-shot at the US administration. Others, like Burns, were simply "disposed to believe the worst." And still others were unable or unwilling to fact-check some of the basic points of the story, the most crucial being the figure of 170,000 coming from Nabhal Amin, a former official who was not privy to all of the procedures that had been implemented over the preceding months to safeguard Iraq's antiquities. The academics, however, probably come off with the largest stain on their reputations. That members of a professional class who swear by the tenets of critical thinking and the presentation of evidence at every turn would be the first ones to accuse the US military without waiting for a proper investigation tells us a lot about the state of current political discourse in academia. There were few apologies and when they did come they were uttered through clenched teeth.

Notes

1. Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press, April 12, 2003; BBC News World Edition (online), "Looters ransack Baghdad museum," April 12, 2003; John F. Burns, "Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure," New York Times, April 12, 2003.

2. Paul McGeough, "A Cultural Catastrophe," Sydney Morning Herald, April 13, 2003.

3. English headlines used variations on "plundered," "ransacked," "looted," and "pillaged"; German headlines were dominated by "gepluendert" and its cognates like "die pluenderer" and "die pluenderung" while the Suddeutsche Zeitung cried "Nur die Mongolen waren schlimmer" and TAZ exclaimed "Die schlimmste Verwuestung seit dem Mongolensturm" and one headline simply asked, "Wie bloed muessen die USA den sein?" and another baldly stated "Der amerikanische Ignoranz," and others referred to "die Vandalen"; French headlines used "pillages" and "les pillards." A collection of articles is available online at http://www.h-net.org/~museum/iraq_3.html.

4. For one or the more complete lists of articles on archaeology in Iraq and the looting of the museum, see Francis Deblauwe's website "The 2003-Iraq War & Archaeology" at http://cctr.umkc.edu/user/fdeblauwe/iraq.html.

5. Hassan Hafidh, "Looters Ransack Baghdad's Antiquities Museum," Reuters, April 12, 2003; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "'Our Heritage is Finished,': Looters Destroyed What War Did Not," Washington Post, April 13, 2003; Elizabeth Day and Philip Sherwell, "Looters strip Iraqi National Museum of its antiquities," Daily Telegraph, April 13, 2003.

6. Said Arjomand, "Under the Eyes of U.S. Forces This Happened?" History News Network, April 14, 2003.

7. Piotr Michalowski, "The Ransacking of the Baghdad Museum is a Disgrace," History News Network, April 14, 2003; at http://hnn.us/articles/1386.html

8. Alex Belida, "Rumsfeld Dismesses Criticism about Iraqi Museum looting," Voice of America News, April 15, 2003.

9. Ian Fisher, "Museum Pillage Described as Devastating but Not Total," New York Times, April 16, 2003; Yaroslav Trofimov, "Iraqis Say Museum Looting Wasn't as Bad as Feared," Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2003.

10. Alan Riding, "Loss Estimates Are Cut on Iraqi Artifacts, but Questions Remain," New York Times, May 1, 2003; Martin Bailey, "Nimrud Gold treasures 'safe,'" The Art Newspaper (online) May 2, 2003; Barry Meier, "Most Iraqi Are Said to Be Kept Safe," New York Times, May 6, 2003.

11. May 16, 2003, Press briefing given by Col. Matthew Bogdanos; transcript http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2003/tr20030516-0202.html; Lourdes Navarro, Associated Press, May 16, 2003.

12. Alex Spillius, "Media blamed for exaggerating loss of antiquities," Daily Telegraph, April 22, 2003.

13. U.S. Customs Service and State Department, Summary of Preliminary Report, referred to in: Wayne Booth and Guy Gugliotta, "All Along, Most Iraqi Relics Were 'Safe and Sound,'" Washington Post, June 9, 2003.

14. William Booth and Guy Gugliotta, "All Along, Most Iraqi Relics Were 'Safe and Sound,'" Washington Post, June 9, 2003.

15. David Aaronovitch, "Lost from the Baghdad museum: the truth," Guardian, June 10, 2003.

16. Nightline, "Unfinished Business," June 10, 2003. (transcript)

17. Charles Krauthammer, "Hoaxes, Hype and Humiliation," Washington Post, June 13, 2003.

18. Piotr Michalowski, "The Looting of Iraq Goes On," History News Network, June 23, 2003; at http://hnn.us/articles/1520.html.

19. Sept. 10, 2003, Press Briefing given by Col. Bogdanos; transcript at http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/2003/tr20030910-0660.html

20. Francis Deblauwe, "The 2003 - Iraq War & Archaeology," (website) at http://cctr.umkc.edu/user/fdeblauwe/iraq.html.

21. Quoted in Andrew Lawler, "Mayhem in Mesopotamia," Science, August 1, 2003, vol. 301 at http://cctr.umkc.edu/user/fdeblauwe/lawler8103.pdf

22. Paul McGeough, In Baghdad: a reporter's war, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, pp. 260-2.

23. Here and Now, "Iraqi Art Recovered," WBUR, May 9, 2003, at: http://www.here-now.org/shows/2003/05/20030509_2.asp.

*

Excerpt from Bound East and West -- Cambridge

I slipped off the stone ledge and headed back to King's Cross. At a British Rail information booth I looked up the departure time for trains to Cambridge. The next one left in an hour. I crossed the street and went into a Wimpy's, a fast-food restaurant.

I got in line with a group of high-school students. They were talking about their biology instructor. From speakers hidden in the ceiling came warbling, youthful pop songs. The woman at the register repeated my order into a microphone, sending my request out over our heads. My order, briefly, mingled with the pop tunes.

I carried my tray to the sitting area by the front door, where the windows looked out upon Euston Road. Across the street was a Thomas Cook agency. When I finished my hamburger, I leaned back and laid my head against the imitation brick wall. I nodded off. When I woke, I was sitting slumped in my seat. I was surprised. Rarely do I fall asleep sitting up. Lying down, I can fall asleep anywhere. I envy those who can sleep sitting upright, no matter whether on a bus, train, subway, or airplane. Well, I had triumphed at Wimpy's. I looked around with a sense of achievement. I leaned forward and hung my head over the steaming cup of tea. I rubbed the stubble on my chin, feeling agreeably dishevelled.

This mood of indigence was heightened when I crossed the street to St. Pancras station and joined a rushing horde of suburban commuters. I was the only one not wearing business attire. In comparison, my black jean jacket looked rumpled. The nylon bag I had retrieved from the locker at King's Cross had a rip along the zipper. The further I traveled the larger it grew. With these evident deformities, I ran shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of a corporate brigade, getting my knees jarred by swinging briefcases.

I boarded a car at the end of the platform and was fortunate enough to find a seat. Settled down, I pulled a paperback out of my bag and began reading, elbows pressed against my ribcage. A shadow from a towering London Times covered my page. A whistle blew, the string of cars shook and then started rolling north out of the station. Leaning forward -- to the displeasure of the man standing directly in front of me -- I looked out the nearest window. The sky was pink along the horizon. The sun hung behind a gray cloud. The blackened, two-dimensional cityscape -- as though drawn by a five-year-old -- contained the shapes for a church spire, a factory chimney, and several rectangles representing apartment buildings. At each station, as we moved away from London, a few more commuters squeezed themselves out between the doors. The light left the sky quickly. Soon there was only a handful of people left in the rocking compartment.

A woman across the aisle from me was examining her shoes. She studied each one for a considerable amount of time, turning them this way and that, rubbing off a dirt spot and checking the heels. In spite of myself I, too, became interested in their shape and construction. But then I turned my head and looked out the window. A reflection of the car's interior. I moved by face close to the window pane. A blackened landscape. A few kitchen lights on the plain. Dinners in progress.

A couple rows in front of me sat a scholarly-looking man with an open book. He had a long head and wore a pair of black-rimmed glasses that he kept pressing back into place. Placing index and second finger on one corner and thumb on the other, he slid them back up his slender nose. He was reading a book of poetry.

At the next stop we had to transfer to a different train. When the poet-scholar stood up, I was shocked to discover that he was wearing a bright yellow halter -- the kind that traffic cops wear at school crosswalks. Why was he wearing one? Surely there were no more children left to direct safely from one side of the street to the other. Had he forgotten to take it off? I decided that, in England, absent-minded scholars are required to wear warning jackets at night in case they step out into traffic while deep in reflection.

I followed him out of the car. His gait was abstract, suggesting either meditation or dormant insanity. I later found out that bicyclists in England commonly wear these jackets at night.

A smaller train with rattling windows carried us to the edge of Cambridge.



Inside the station there was a map of the city behind a piece of plexiglass. The street index listed a "Belvoir" and gave its coordinates. I was looking for a Belvoir Terrace. I decided it was the same street. Using the coordinates, I brought my index fingers together on a spot in the northeast section of the city, just over the River Cam. I scrutinized the streets and figured out the quickest way there. Tenison to Mill Road; left at Mill until reaching East Road; then right and straight over the Cam, turning left into the neighborhood where Belvoir was. I had decided not to call my friends and surprise them at the door.

Tenison Road was lined with red-brick two-story cottages. White curtains hung in the dormer windows. The street was narrow and only had a few streetlamps. Mill Road was wider and had shops that were doing business. I passed a pizza parlor and a health-food store and then came to East Road, wider still and bearing heavy traffic.

I followed this street, anticipating the Cam. I went over a small hill. Oddly, I found myself walking along the edge of a highway on the outskirts of town. The dark countryside surrounded me. Silence. Where was the Cam? Had I missed it? I turned around, went back over the hill, checking the street signs. I discovered that I was on Newmarket Road, not East Road.

I made my way back to the corner of Newmarket and Elizabeth. A woman in her fifties, wearing a heavy, knee-length coat and a black hat was passing by. I asked her if Elizabeth would take me over the Cam. She said that it would and pointed me it that direction.

Crossing the bridge over the river, I looked down and saw several freshly-painted, domesticated boats resting serenely on the motionless water. A single lamp hung over a dock with a gas pump.

On the other side of the Cam, I turned onto a cement path that led between two houses and into a residential area. I found at once the street I was looking for: BE VOIR ROAD. The "L" was missing. And it was called "road," not "terrace." I took the slip of paper with the address out of my pocket. The numbers on the sides of the houses did not correspond at all. Obviously I was in the wrong part of town.

I went back over the Cam and flagged down the first taxi I saw. "Belvoir Terrace," I said, pronouncing the "l."

The cab driver looked back at me. "You mean Beaver Terrace?" That's how he said it, "beaver."

"Right," I said, leaning back and blowing my nose on a tissue.

We crossed over to the southeast side of the city. He pulled up to a house that I recognized from a snapshot I had seen back in San Francisco. I went up the flagstone walk to the front door. I lifted the knocker and brought it down three times. On the third knock I heard a window sash open somewhere above me. I stepped away from the door and looked up.

Two young women, their hands resting on the window ledge, gazed down at me. I called up to them, asking if Don and Sarah were home. They replied in broken English that they would be back later. I was about to give them a message when they shouted, "We come down!" The sash was lowered and a minute later the door in front of me opened. One of them held the doorknob, while the other stood in the dark of the hallway.

I slowly explained my situation, adding that I would take a walk through the downtown and return at eleven. The woman at the door listened and then asked me if I'd like to use a bicycle instead of walking. Surprised by this offer -- somehow one of the least expected incidents of my travels so far -- I said that I certainly would.

I followed her down the flagstone walk, through the iron gate, and down a driveway to a brick garage. I stood by the entrance while she continued on into the pitch-black interior. The dark inside was impenetrable. I heard a chain striking a fender. Her figure emerged with a bicycle. She wheeled it out to the street, handed me a key for the lock, and said she hoped I'd have an enjoyable ride.

While all of this was taking place, I was trying to contain my joy. The day's progression of events had led me to a kind of upper register of elation.

I dropped the vinyl bag into the basket on the handlebars and swung my leg over. I pedaled off down Trumpington Street, laughing to myself, for myself, and with myself. Clanking along, I thought of a song by Syd Barrett, who had grown up here in Cambridge. One of the verses goes:

I've got a bike,
You can ride it if you like.
It's got a basket, a bell that rings,
And things to make it look good.
I'd let you have it if I could,
But I borrowed it.

At the same time, I was thinking of that young girl riding her stingray in Nebraska and how she swerved around the rain puddles.

The ends of my open jacket flapped in the sharp nighttime air. Although my cold was getting worse, I didn't care in the least. It suddenly occurred to me that my life was an unmitigated success. I felt sorry for those who had to continue living their miserable lives while I, somehow, had reprieved myself. What a joy to ride a stranger's bicycle! In another country. At night. How far away my despair in San Francisco seemed.

I passed a museum and a church. Everywhere I looked there were bicycles. Some were chained to the iron fences that surrounded the front lawns. Others rested against low walls. I reached the downtown, where students were walking around in small groups.

I was riding slowly down a quiet sidestreet when I happened to look through a doorway that led to a pub with a courtyard. There were picnic tables filled with students hanging over mugs of beer. I found a place to lock the bike and went through a pair of large wooden doors. I crossed the courtyard and went inside, where I had to push my way to the counter. The place was noisy. All the faces were glowing from alcohol.

My state of exaltation had made me extremely thirsty. Between sniffles, I ordered half a pint of Guinness stout and a chaser of John Barr. Someone left the counter and I secured a seat. I settled down and began drinking with a convalescent's sense of duty. More people pushed into the bar. The clamor increased.

I attended to my cure, sampling the whiskeys and scotch on hand. Instead of inebriation, however, lucidity followed. I eavesdropped on conversations, capable of constructing entire dialogues with just a handful of overheard words, a phrase, an ambiguous reply. My elbows rested on the edge of the bar and the lowest rung of the stool supported the heels of my shoes. Silently, inwardly, I toasted the barmaid who drew the mugs of beer and poured out my shots.

Sometime later, I decided that I had better get back to Belvoir Terrace. Don and Sarah would be waiting. I went back through the courtyard and crossed the street to the bicycle. I was puzzled by the absence of effect the liquor had had on my system. Contrary to reason, I felt clear-headed, as if I hadn't touched a drop. I squatted down and inserted the key into the lock. I turned it but the lock didn't open. What was wrong? Suddenly I realized that I was crouched down in front of the wrong bicycle. Well, I thought to myself, maybe I am a little drunk. I went down several paces to the right one and unlocked it.

At Trumpinton Street, I veered south and rode in the direction of Belvoir Terrace. The church slipped past, then the museum. I rolled the bicycle back into the garage. Walking to the front door, I saw that a lamp had been turned on in one of the ground-floor rooms. I brought the knocker down, thinking of the surprise on my friends' faces. I heard steps coming from inside. The door opened and a man in his early sixties stood there, his figure half-illuminated by the lamp above the porch steps. He was wearing gray flannels and a cardigan. He eyed me owlishly from behind a pair of glasses. The set of his mouth suggested peevishness and impatience.

Assuming that the women upstairs had already informed him of my situation, I asked for Don and Sarah. He told me that they were in London. They had been living there, in fact, for almost a month now, he added.

I hadn't expected that, of course. Now what? The last train to London had already departed. Besides, I was tired. I hoped he'd offer me a bed for the night.

Bill, Sarah's stepfather, remained at the door. I stood with one foot on the front step. Our conversation was marked by a basic misunderstanding. I thought he knew who I was and that I had just come from London. He wondered why I kept standing there. We were talking at cross-purposes. I mentioned my arrival from the United States. He didn't budge. The repartee became more and more pointed until finally he demanded, "What exactly do you want?" His hand still gripped the doorknob.

I grinned. "Well, I could either go back into town and look for a hotel or, if you have a spare bed or couch . . ."

He held my eye. "Why don't you step in, then. It looks like we have something to discuss." He stepped back and let me pass inside.

He guided me into the kitchen. I took a seat at a small table in the center of the room. A lamp hung from the ceiling and shone directly on the wooden surface of the table.

"First things first," he said. "What are you drinking?" Before I had a chance to answer, he added, "You don't have a choice, really. We only have wine."

He poured me a glass of wine and then took a seat across from me. It was decided, almost at once, that I'd sleep in the guest room. I told him about my difficulties in locating Belvoir Terrace. He listened attentively. When I finished, he took up the bits that interested him. The missing "L" intrigued him. To amuse myself, I asked him whether this could explain the local pronunciation of "Belvoir." He shook his head and said it was unlikely. He was amused, though, in his own grave and ironic way of looking at things, by my little adventure.

He showed me the guest room on the second floor. I thanked him for his hospitality and carried my travel bag inside. I suddenly felt exhausted. I climbed into the double-bed and turned the lamp off. I had no time to reflect on the events of the day. Filled with liquor and cold medicine, I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.



The next morning I ate breakfast with Bill and Sarah's mother Lavinia, a librarian at Trinity Hall. Over tea and toast with jam, she listed a few sights I ought to take in while visiting Cambridge. Then, while we talked about the United States, she told me about a Medieval History student at Trinity Hall. This young woman had received a scholarship to study Stateside. She spent the first year at Harvard. But she found the people stuffy and conceited. She transferred to Berkeley for the second year. "And she really enjoyed Berkeley," Lavinia told me. "In fact, she was quite taken with the United States. I admit that this puzzled me. At Trinity Hall, she had devoted all of her time to research in Medieval British history. One of the brightest students we've had. And she had a deep feeling for England's historical dimension, too. This historical dimension, I thought, would be the very thing that the United States lacked."

I asked her what the student was doing now.

"She never finished her degree. She had inherited a small cottage in northern England. She moved there and began writing fiction. She's living there right now, working on a novel."

When Lavinia left for the library, Bill assumed the role of guide. His face wore a taciturn morning expression. We were standing in the kitchen. He placed a piece of paper on the table and took a fountain pen from his shirt pocket. He began to draw a map of Cambridge. Two parallel lines represented Trumpington Road. The course of the Cam was then added. Major reference points followed. At the end of two lines labelled "Senate House Passage" he drew a rectangle and bisected it diagonally. Near the feather-end of an arrow pointing to this rectangle he wrote "Trinity Hall." One of my destinations for the day.

He picked it up, scanned it once and then handed it to me. Next came a tour of the garden. We strolled on the dewy lawn as he told me about the history of the house, stopping every few feet to admire the flowers.

He recommended walking into town along the Cam and came part of the way with me. We passed a garage in back. A large American station wagon was parked there. It was, to my surprise, the car that I used to drive on my newspaper deliveries in the Bay Area. I had forgotten that Don and Sarah had driven it across the country and onto a ship headed for England. I told Bill about the familiarity of its steering wheel, the hours spent racing through heavy traffic. He nodded but glared at the car. He viewed it, I believe, as an uncouth interloper. A large metal carcass with blotches of brown primer paint. It stood next to a two-story Georgian house with a well-tended English garden.

A muddy path took us to the river. Puddles here and there. Bill was concerned about the destruction from the recent storm, pointing to toppled trees and detached branches. Because of his preoccupation, he stepped directly into a puddle. The mud came up over his handsome leather shoes.

He glanced over at my combat boots. "It looks as though you have the requisite type of footwear."

We came to a road with autos, the point at which he would turn back for home. "Just keep to the path," he said, "and soon you'll return to civilization."

I'm not sure whether he considered Woolworth's part of civilization, but that's where I ended up. There was a cafeteria on the second floor. I bought a roll and a pot of tea, taking a seat against the wall. From where I sat I was able to watch the shoppers strolling up and down the aisles of goods. In the music department a young couple were flipping through the album bins.

After Woolworth's I walked over to Trinity Hall and visited Lavinia at the library. She took me to a small room upstairs. It was, she said, the original library for the school. There were wooden benches with cumbersome books chained to the side. The floor was polished smooth by centuries of pacing in front of the bookshelves. Lavinia pointed out for me a complete edition of Diderot's Encyclopedia, Johnson's Dictionary, and several early travel narratives.

The book I lingered over the longest was a first edition of Cooke's Travels with illustrations by William Hodges. I had always admired his drawings of minutiae encountered in New Zealand. There are, for example, detailed renderings of different styles of arrowheads. I wish that more contemporary travel books would include photos or drawings of these minor differences -- like matches, for example -- because these aspects of the material culture, though seemingly insignificant, often help create the sense of foreignness we seek.

Back downtown I changed some more money and visited a couple bookstores. In a place called Heffer's I came across an edition of collected stories by Raymond Carver put out by Picador. I read parts from several of those characteristically spare stories about the lower end of America. His people live with reduced expectations. The middle-aged couple in "The Idea" watch the next-door neighbor window-peek on his own wife. "We were hunkered on the floor," narrates Vern's wife, "with just our heads showing over the windowsill and were looking at a man who was standing and looking into his own bedroom window." That night, unable to sleep, Vern's wife cleans the kitchen and finds a line of ants beneath the kitchen sink. She sprays beneath the sink and inside the garbage can. She watches a talk show but can't forget the ants. "Pretty soon I imagined them all over the house. . . . I looked under the sink again. But there was no ants left. I turned on every light until I had the house blazing." She looks out the window at the neighbor's house. "'That trash,'I said. 'The idea!'"

Thinking of Carver's stories and that part of America I was so familiar with, I began walking aimlessly around Cambridge. I was passing along a large gray wall of cement to a parking ramp when I came across what looked like an alternative cafe. Spray-painted graffiti-style was its name: The Ghetto. In Cambridge? Curious, I pushed through the door.

A few of the town's troubled youth were sitting on chairs and a ratty-looking couch. They were wearing leather jackets and plaid bum-flaps. Sitting with them were two bona fide bums, in stained greatcoats, their noses purple from drink.

I went up to a counter where there were large jars of butter, peanut butter, and jam. A young man with a social worker's kindliness explained to me that the first sandwich was free. After that, each additional one would cost thirty pence. Odd policy, I thought. I questioned him about it and he told me that this shelter was partially funded by the city government. I bought two sandwiches and talked to him at the counter.

A distinctly criminal-looking man entered The Ghetto and joined us at the counter. Pat had, indeed, done time. He knew I was an outsider and addressed me almost exclusively. He said that he had certain tendencies that always got him into trouble. Just then one of the bums rose from the couch. Pat engaged him in a little friendly sparring, flexing his knotty muscles, stretching his green T-shirt. The bum disengaged himself and sat back down.

Pat turned to me and said that his problems had really begun a few months ago when he had almost killed his old girlfriend's new boyfriend.

"I 'ad problems wid me ex," he said, grinning and pointing to his temple.

And then, a week ago, while on probation, he was pulled in by the police. "I nicked a brelly and broke my bender, din I!"

So now he's in more trouble, possibly one or two years for breaking his probation. He wanted an unbiased judgment from an outsider. I absolved him by shaking my head back and forth a few times in commiseration.

Before returning to the station, I took a last turn through the town. I was passing by a restaurant when I noticed a sign in the window. It read, "No Denim Allowed." I went up to the window and peered inside. A waiter in a brilliant white shirt and a black vest turned around. I waved to him, grinning idiotically, and then resumed my walk to the depot. Pat, I recalled, had been wearing denim. Wise policy, I thought. I doubted that they wanted any of their customers' umbrellas nicked.

The sky was so clear and the air so light that I sauntered along with a minimum of effort. I passed a large playing field of level grass. On the far side were grayish stone houses. Schoolchildren were crossing the field on their way home. I stopped and watched them until they reached the other side.

...

On the train back to London, a commuter sat across from me, reading an issue of Boat Owner. The closer to London we got the heavier his eyelids became. Out the window I saw a man in a heavy coat and a red cap driving a tractor, turning the autumn ground.

The commuter was sleeping, the magazine held in limp hands, when we pulled into St. Pancras station. I returned to the Wimpy's across the street, where I studied my map over a hamburger and a cup of tea. I located West Hampstead station and then the street, Lyncroft Gardens.

By the time I exited the subway car at West Hampstead, the sun had sunk below the horizon. At the top of the steps I turned north, following the sidewalk as it wound itself into the town. The shop lights were on and people were buying groceries for dinner or ordering take-out food. On an opposite corner stood two middle-aged men in gray slacks, black cutaway suitcoats, and bowler hats. They rested their hands on shiny black canes. A third man in the same outfit came out of a darkened doorway and joined them. At the corner he raised his hand and signalled for a taxicab.

I walked on, reaching and then turning up Lyncroft Gardens. Sarah's surprised voice came over the intercom when I announced myself. Upstairs, we sat in the living room with a roommate and his six-year-old daughter. This thin, lively, blond-haired child wondered who the stranger was. While her Dad fiddled with the television set, she came over and sat down on the floor in front of me. She moved right up to me, lying on her back and placing the backs of her calves on the tops of my thighs. As we sat in this peculiar, symmetrical position, she asked me questions. The way she moved on the floor reminded me of children's intimacy with lower surfaces. We crawl around as babies and children and get to know the region quite well. Martha was in the transitional stage, somewhere between the upper and lower strata.

Later, her sister Rebecca stopped by. She was twelve and with one glance I could tell that she was completely initiated into the upper realm. When Don arrived, the three of us went up the hill to a pub, where we spent the rest of the evening. I was given the girls' bedroom that night and slept cramped in a narrow bed.

*

March, 2005

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NEW! "A Morning with Polly"
NEW! "Flip Side"
NEW! "Lost"
NEW! "Babar"
UPDATED: Reporters' Sources: April 12, 2003
UPDATED: Reporters' Sources: April 13, 2003
UPDATED: Reporters' Sources: April 14, 2003

This month's issue focuses on the reporting of the looting of the Iraq National Museum that occurred on April 10 and 11, 2003. The majority of news articles that appeared in the days after the discovery of the break-in of the museum were often flawed and it would be months before a more accurate accounting took place. Here we take a closer look at the story itself and the questions it raises about the media's reliability and credibilty in today's information marketplace.

Our feature article for this quarter is Iraq Antiquities Revisited, a magazine-style piece that offers the reader all the necessary background information to be able to follow the other essays, articles, and files. If you prefer the article with references, then try Iraq Antiquities Revisited (with Endnotes).

If you want a quick review of the major events, use the Chronology file.

Basic Research and Composition is a very brief account of the behind-the-scenes work behind this issue's featured article, "Iraq Antiquities Revisited."

In Reporters' Sources I analyze a handful of articles for the sources that were used.

One can find interesting debates about the media today in the blogosphere. Rose and Schuster is just one example.

New articles and essays will be added over the next three months.

*

Iraq Antiquities Revisited

Jeffrey Schuster

On Saturday, April 12, 2003, three days after the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad had been pulled down to cheering Iraqis, the story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum began to appear both in print and on broadcast news outlets around the world. Over Saturday and Sunday and continuing into the next week it would be the dominant news story coming out of Iraq.

That Saturday, in his lead paragraph for the Associated Press, Hamza Hendawi wrote that the Iraq National Museum had been emptied and all that remained was broken pottery and shattered display cases. The BBC News online world edition reported that looters had removed thousands of pieces from the museum. And John F. Burns, writing for the New York Times, claimed that the museum had been looted over a period of 48 hours and that they had taken away “at least 50,000” artifacts. Later that evening Burns would rewrite his lead. Instead of 50,000 artifacts being carried away by looters, he inserted, “with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.”

By the end of the day on Saturday, April 12, then, the major outlines of the story had been set by the journalists in Baghdad. According to the officials who had been located and interviewed on the museum grounds, most if not all of the collection had been removed by looting Iraqis. Again, according to a handful of Iraqis on the grounds, the American forces, who could have prevented this catastrophe, did nothing. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul McGeough, who linked the museum story to his wider anti-war stance, did not hesitate to cast the first stone. “After witnessing three weeks of attacks on Baghdad and almost a week of looting - especially of the Iraq National Museum,” he writes, “questions about where the criminality lies become blurred.”

The story that emerged on Saturday and Sunday was that the Americans had carelessly looked on as Iraqis looted and ransacked and destroyed and pillaged their and our cultural heritage. In the heat of the press mania, no analogy was too extreme: Mongols. Vandals. Barbarians. These terms were not applied, however, to the Iraqis who actually entered the museum and looted it. In a peculiar transformation possible only by an international press that was already disposed to distrust the American government, these epithets were directed at the American military in particular and at Americans in general.

But what really happened at the museum? Over the next two months, surfacing in bits and pieces, the truth slowly emerged. First of all, the original figure for the total number of pieces in the collection given by most journalists was 170,000. This number, we later learned, was for inventory purposes. An individual inventory number could represent a single piece or several pieces together, as in a necklace or broken pottery shard. The total number of “pieces” was, in fact, around 500,000. Next, we now know that, of those 500,000 pieces, only around 10,000 were stolen. The majority of the collection had been removed before the war to secure vaults in the main bank in Baghdad or had been hidden and secured inside the museum itself. A sizeable portion of the collection, in fact, had been removed prior to the war by a group of five concerned employees of the museum who had made a pact not to reveal the secret locations of the items. Later, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the US Marine officer in charge of the team of investigators that arrived on April 20 and begin work on April 22, would earn the trust of this group and was then allowed to check on the safety of the items.

The story of the alleged looting of the entire collection of the Iraqi National Museum is far different from the original versions presented by the foreign correspondents. The story begins on Tuesday morning, April 8, when three Iraqi museum officials, who had been preparing to live in the museum for the duration, suddenly noticed that Fedayeen Saddam were jumping into the large bunkers that had been cut into the yard in front of the museum and firing upon Americans troops entering the neighborhood. Donny George would later say that he then knew right then that it would be too dangerous for them to stay in the museum.

“Our heritage is finished”

Back on the morning of Tuesday, April 8, 2003, one day before the statue of Saddam Hussein came down, Donny George, research director of the State Board of Antiquities, Jaber Khalil, chair of the same organization, and Nawala al-Mutawalli, the museum director, decided that, for reasons of personal safety, it was no longer possible to stay inside the Iraq National Museum. Before the war began, three large bunkers had been cut into the lawn in front of the museum and reinforced with sandbags and sheets of corrugated metal. Earlier that morning the sounds of explosions had grown closer and Iraqi military and Fedayeen jumped into the bunkers on the grounds of the museum and began firing upon the American troops entering the neighborhood. At this point, after consulting with his colleagues, Donny George locked the front doors and the back doors to the main museum building and then the three of them climbed into a waiting car and drove away, leaving behind one man who actually lived on the premises.

The next day, Wednesday, April 9, Mohammed Al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information and familiarly known as Baghdad Bob, failed to show up for work, a clear signal that the Ba’athist regime was starting to crumble. Later in the afternoon, people all around the world watched in stunned disbelief as Iraqis cheered and clapped as the American soldiers used a tank to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein.

On Thursday, April 10, Iraqis entered the museum, first going through the administrative offices and grabbing anything they could and destroying what they didn’t want to carry off. Donny George would later note that his office chair had been broken and dragged across the room. Files had been emptied. Anything of value in the administrative offices, like computers and air conditioners, was removed by the looters.

The next day Raid Abdul Ridha Mohammed, an archaeologist connected to the museum, returned but was unable to stop the looters. He then went in search of American forces, found five US soldiers who had entered the neighborhood, and brought them over to the museum. The soldiers fired over the heads of the looters and dispersed them. But then the soldiers told Mohammed that they had no orders to guard the museum. They were still fighting Iraqi military and Fedayeen in several pockets around the city.

On Friday the first stories started to appear about looting going on at the museum and by Saturday, April 12, the grounds of the Iraq National Museum were a magnet for the journalists who had stayed in Baghdad through the war and for the embedded journalists who had accompanied the American forces during the three-week campaign. Several Iraqis on the grounds who claimed to be employees or connected to the museum were quickly located and interviewed by the press group and many of the reports written that day featured Nabhal Amin, a woman who identified herself as a deputy director of the museum, Muhsen Kadhim, a security guard, and Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad.

The reporters on the scene identified these three variously, sometimes giving individual attribution, but other times referring to them simply as “museum officials.” John F. Burns, for example, in one of the starkest sentences in his initial article, writes, “Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.”

On Saturday, April 12, to Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh, Nabhal Amin said, "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years...They were worth billions of dollars." The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran also used Ms. Amin as a source:
"Our heritage is finished," lamented Nabhal Amin, the museum's deputy director, as she surveyed a Sumerian tablet that had been cracked in two. "Why did they do this? Why? Why?"
On Sunday, April 13, the Telegraph reported:
Surveying the smashed display cases at the museum last night, Nabhal Amin, the deputy director, struggled to hold back the tears. "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years," she said. "They were worth billions of dollars."
Reacting to these initial reports, archeologists and academics assumed the worst about the American military and voiced their outrage, spearheaded by the self-titled “weeping archeologist,” John Russell, a source for numerous news articles about the alleged looting of the museum.

Various academics spoke up at once without waiting for a critical investigation. Already on Monday, April 14, over at the History News Network website, Said Arjomand, a professor of sociology and the State University of New York, wrote that “the sack of the Iraq Museum under American occupation is unprecedented in recent history” and declared that the American forces were worse than the Nazis and the Mongols. “No one thought such an act of violence against humanity would occur after the occupation of Baghdad and under the eyes of our troops.”

Writing that same day on the same website, Piotr Michalowski, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, joined Mr. Arjomand. “The pillaging of the Baghdad Museum is a tragedy that has no parallel in world history,” he wrote.

Meanwhile at an April 15 news conference, Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about the alleged looting of the museum, presciently replied, “I would suspect that over time we’ll find that a number of things were in fact hidden prior to the conflict.”

New Facts Begin to Emerge

While most members of the international media and academia were castigating the American forces and Bush administration, Ian Fisher of the New York Times reported on Wednesday, April 16, that Donny George now felt that “Iraq’s cultural heritage might not have vanished completely.” In that interview, George also explained that some of the collection had been placed in secure vaults before the war began. And the next day, April 17, Yaroslav Trofimov from the Wall Street Journal published an article in which Donny George admitted that “most of the things were removed.” On Thursday and Friday, then, the story that had been trumpeted around the world over the previous weekend was found to have more than a few qualifications.

Inexplicably, however, these revelations were not immediately followed up by the other media outlets. Part of the problem lay with the double-talking Donny George, who continued to blame the American administration for the looting and refused to correct the erroneous stories. Also, it was later learned that five officials connected to the museum led by Muayyad Damerji, an advisor to the Minister of Culture, had removed many valuable pieces of the collection themselves and had made a secret pact not to disclose the location of these items until a stable government was back in place. Donny George, it seems, was not aware of their actions.

In May evidence that the original story was flawed began to emerge. On May 1 the New York Times ran a headline that announced: "Loss Estimates Are Cut on Iraqi Artifacts, but Questions Remain." In an interview for The Art Newspaper, Donny George admitted to Martin Bailey that probably only a small percentage of the 170,000 was missing. On May 6 Barry Meier at the New York Times reported that the curator of the British Museum, John E. Curtis, had been informed that most of the items in the museum’s display cases had been removed beforehand and that only those pieces too large or too fragile to move remained at the outset of the war.

Then, at a May 16 press briefing, Col. Bogdanos announced that the figure of 170,000 was not accurate and that the number was more in the range of a few thousands. Lourdes Navarro, reporting on that briefing for the Associated Press, signaled the change in her lead:
U.S. authorities said Friday they are scaling back the estimates of how much treasure was looted from Iraq's National Museum after discovering that museum officials have been stashing items in secret vaults for at least 13 years.
Ms. Navarro also noted that Donny George now declared that “it’s time to work together to restore what was stolen.” Many other news outlets picked up on the updated details that had come out of the press briefing by Col. Bogdanos.

On May 22, Alex Spillius at the Telegraph reported that the Iraqi museum officials, now under pressure because their previous inflated claims were turning out to be inaccurate, had now shifted the blame to the international media. "There was a mistake,” Donny George told Spillius. “Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the show cases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move." Donny George also explained that the vast majority of the collection had already been relocated before the war. Mr. George did not, however, explain why he hadn’t forcefully corrected any of those early figures during the many press conferences he had given over the previous month.

“It’s Bollocks.”

In June the story was finally torpedoed and sunk. On Saturday, June 7, the Customs Service/State Dept. released its preliminary report on the investigation.

With the information from this report in hand, the Washington Post of June 9 began:
The world was appalled. One archaeologist described the looting of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities as "a rape of civilization." Iraqi scholars standing in the sacked galleries of the exhibit halls in April wept on camera as they stood on shards of cuneiform tablets dating back thousands of years.
However, with all the new revelations, “Apparently, it was not that bad.”

“So, there's the picture: 100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves,” writes David Aaronovitch for the Guardian. “And the only problem with it is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks.”

On Nightline for June 10, Ted Koppel observed that "the truth behind this story is somewhat different.” He continues, “It turns out that almost all of the pieces are safe. They were hidden away by the museum staff for safekeeping.... They were hidden in a vault that was then flooded to protect it from looters. But the bottom line here? The museum staff apparently lied, in part to discredit the American troops."

Charles Krauthammer wondered why Donny George did not correct the exaggerated figures when he knew what the real numbers were. “Of course, George saw the story of the stolen 170,000 museum pieces go around the world and said nothing -- indeed, two weeks later, he was in London calling the looting ‘the crime of the century.’ Why? Because George and the other museum officials who wept on camera were Baath Party appointees, and the media, Western and Arab, desperate to highlight the dark side of the liberation of Iraq, bought their deceptions without an ounce of skepticism.”

Later in the month, the academics who were so quick to point their fingers at the American administration were themselves put on defense. On June 26, Piotr Michalowski writes, “Many of us reacted passionately to the news, writing editorials and letters expressing our sorrow and anger. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I can only say that perhaps we should have realized we were dealing with preliminary reports.” Instead of offering an apology or reflecting on why people in a profession who pride themselves as being critical and skeptical made such fundamental errors of judgment, Michalowski turned around and said, “This is much less than was initially reported, but it is still a catastrophe.”

Finally, on September 10, Col. Bogdanos came out with the investigation’s final report on the condition of the antiquities from the Iraq National Museum. While the administrative offices had indeed been emptied, the majority of the items from the public galleries had been moved before the war to the Central Bank of Iraq, a bunker in Western Baghdad, and around 40,000 pieces to a secret location. All of these pieces were returned safely to the museum. Also, of the 8 storage rooms, only 5 had been entered, and of the 5, only 3 had items missing. Bogdanos concluded that this theft was conducted by professional thieves, who came away with around 10,000 small pieces, mostly cylinder seals.

As of January, 2005, the last estimate, by archeologist Francis Deblauwe, is that of the 501,000 artifacts that were once in the museum around 13,000 are still missing.

Disposed to Believe the Worst

Months later, when the truth finally surfaced and people began to ask how the reporters had made so many basic mistakes, John F. Burns would confess to Andrew Lawler that he and the other journalists were “disposed to believe the worst” and that “passion got the better of us.” John F. Burns, to his credit, was one of the few people involved in this story to admit that a mistake had been made.

John F. Burns and Paul McGeough were also simply exhausted. They had been reporting non-stop for several months with a maximum of a few hours of sleep a night and trying to function under considerable and sometimes daily threats to their lives. They also were operating in an environment where it was almost impossible to verify much of the information that they gathered.

If there were one mistake that overshadowed all the others it would have to be using Nabhal Amin as a reliable witness when, in fact, she no longer worked for the museum complex. John F. Burns, Paul McGeough, Hamza Hendawi, and Hassan Hafidh had neither the time nor resources -- or perhaps even the inclination -- to verify her claim of identity and position.

At the same time, however, there were a few journalists who were skeptical of the overheated claims being tossed about by the press. We have seen that Yaroslav Trofimov, for example, even as early as April 17, had interviewed Donny George and reported that most of the items were most likely safe. In a May 9 radio interview for WBUR’s “Here & Now,” Trofimov said that the early mistakes in reporting were mainly due to the "inability of reporters to confirm facts" because there was no functioning government at the time. And many other reporters returned to the story and reconstructed a much more accurate picture of what had occurred, among the best being Roger Atwood, Andrew Lawler, and Dan Cruickshank.

Some reporters, like McGeough, used the situation to take a cheap-shot at the US administration. Others, like Burns, were simply "disposed to believe the worst." And still others were unable or unwilling to fact-check some of the basic points of the story, the most crucial being the figure of 170,000 coming from Nabhal Amin, a former official who was not privy to all of the procedures that had been implemented over the preceding months to safeguard Iraq's antiquities. The academics, however, probably come off with the largest stain on their reputations. That members of a professional class who swear by the tenets of critical thinking and the presentation of evidence at every turn would be the first ones to accuse the US military without waiting for a proper investigation tells us a lot about the state of current political discourse in academia. There were few apologies and when they did come they were uttered through clenched teeth.

For this same article with complete endnotes, go to "Iraq Antiquities Revisited (with References)."

*

The Gang's All Here!

The story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum brings together seven major groups of participants in this drama.

A. Iraqi museum officials and employees
B. Iraqi citizens / witnesses
C. Iraqi thieves and looters
D. Iraqi military and Fedayeen Saddam
E. US military / administration
F. Foreign correspondents / journalists
G. Archaeological and other academics


Ages and positions are not current; they are valid for the time of the looting of the museum. Since then, they have all (alas) grown older and many are in new positions.

A. Iraqi museum officials and employees

Donny George, “research director of the State Board of Antiquities”

Jaber Khalil / Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, “chair of the State Board of Antiquities”

Nawala al-Mutawalli, “museum director”

Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammed, archaeologist

Muayyad Damerji, former State Board of Antiquities chief and now Minister of Culture advisor

Nabhal Amin, former employee of the museum who lived nearby

Mohsen Hassam, “56-year-old deputy curator” (Burns) / Moysen Hassan

Muhsen Kadhim, security guard

Abdul Rakhman, 57, live-in security guard / Abed El Rahman, “security guard who lives on the premises”

Ali Mahmoud, museum employee / security guard /

B. Iraqi citizens / witnesses / “man on the street”

Many newspaper accounts used Iraqi citizens for “response to the looting” quotes. Roger Atwood was one of the few who used methodical interview practices in his reconstruction of events on April 10 and 11. In the early weeks of May, he visited the streets around the museum complex and tracked down citizens who had witnessed those events. He interviewed, for example, Ibrahim Taha, who worked across the street and was present on both days.
Ibrahim Taha and his colleague were guarding the office of the bus company where they worked when they saw people rushing into the museum, a few doors down. Mr. Taha followed them in and came to a small concrete building at the back of the museum, where he saw something that surprised him: weapons. Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were propped against the wall, more guns were hanging from hooks, and there were boxes of ammunition on the floor. The Iraqi fighters who had brought this arsenal had fled, and looters were busily helping themselves to the weapons.

"I didn't take one, because I already had a Kalashnikov," said Mr. Taha, a compact, solidly built man. Speaking through an interpreter, he told me that a few yards from the weapons cache was a smashed window in the back wall of the museum's main building, through which looters had entered. Mr. Taha saw looters rushing out of the building, some holding clay pots and heavy boxes.

"I heard people saying to them, 'Stop, you are destroying our heritage, you are stealing what belongs to the Iraqi people.' But no one listened to them. You would have had to shoot them to stop them," said Mr. Taha.


C. Iraqi looters and thieves

Col. Bogdanos, in his final report, divided the people who entered the museum during that two-day period in random looters, who removed computers and air conditioners from the administrative offices and then a group of thieves who had both keys and inside knowledge of the layout of the entire museum complex, even the secret storage room in the basement.

D. Iraqi military and Fedayeen Saddam

There is little doubt that the Iraq National Museum was used by both the regular Iraqi soldiers and by the Fedayeen Saddam militia as a fortified position from which to fire upon US forces. Both Iraqi citizens and US forces witnessed fire coming from the museum complex. There were three covered bunkers in the front lawn and at least one sniper nest inside the building.

E. US military

Capt. Jason Conroy, US Army, 3rd Infantry Division, also the soldier who blew up the statue of Saddam Hussein at the reviewing grounds with crossed sabres in central Baghdad.

Sgt. 1st Class David Richard

U.S. Army Col. Rick Thomas

Lt. Gen. William Scott Wallace

Lt. Erik Balascik

Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz. David Zucchino reports that Schwartz, when told by Perkins that they would be going into Baghdad on a thunder run, responded, “Are you fucking crazy?”

US Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos

Two profiles on Bogdanos:

Profile 1

Profile 2

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense

F. Foreign Correspondents / Journalists

Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press

John F. Burns, New York Times

Paul McGeough, Sydney Morning Herald

Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal

David Aaronovitch, Guardian

Roger Atwood

Andrew Lawler, Science

Martin Bailey, Art Newspaper (?)


G. Archaeological and Other Academics

John Malcolm Russell, Critical Studies Dept., Mass. College of Art, Boston, MA

McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago

John Curtis, archaeologist for the British Museum

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth Stone, archaeologist at SUNY Stony Brook

Pietr Michalowski

Eleanor Robson, fellow, All Souls, Oxford, British School of Archeology in Iraq

Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Chronology

End of February, 2003. Iraq’s Minister of Culture appoints one of his advisors, Muayyad Damerji, to remove many of the most valuable antiquities to a secret location. Damerji, Jaber Khalil, Al-Mutawalli, and two others spend the next 7 to 10 days moving thousands of items to an air-raid shelter than had been built in 1991. They make a pact not to disclose the location until a new government in is place. They will eventually reveal the location to Col. Bogdanos on July 6, 2003.

Mid-March, 2003. A week or so before the war begins three bunkers are dug into the front grounds of the Iraq National Museum, covered with corrugated metal sheets, and sandbagged.

Tuesday, April 8, 2003. When Iraqi soldiers and Fedayeen begin firing on US forces from positions inside the museum grounds, Donny George, Jaber Khalil, and perhaps Nawala Al-Mutawilli lock the doors and leave, leaving behind only Mohsen Hassan, who lives behind the museum.

Wednesday, April 9, 2003. Fighting continues. Statue of Saddam comes down in Firdos Square.

Thursday, April 10 - Friday, April 11, 2003. Looters are seen entering and exiting the museum grounds.

Saturday, April 12, 2003. The foreign correspondents arrive at the Iraq National Museum. Nabhal Amin announces that the museum has been entirely looted and that 170,000 have been stolen while Americans stood by and did nothing.

April 16, 2003. The US military secures the Iraq National Museum.

April 22, 2003. US Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos begins efforts to locate missing antiquities and discover what happened on April 10 and April 11.

April 29, 2003. Donny George gives a talk at the British Museum

May 16, 2003. Col. Bogdanos gives a press briefing in which he refutes the original claim of 170,000 items missing.

June 7, 2003. The Customs Office / State Department Preliminary report is released.

June 8, 2003. Dan Cruickshank’s “Raiders of the Lost Art” on BBC2 highlights the numerous problems around the original looting story.

June 10, 2003. David Aaronovitch at the Guardian speaks for many when he summarizes, “It’s bollocks.”

September 10, 2003. Col. Bogdanos gives his final press briefing and releases his report, “Iraq Museum Investigation: 22APR – 8SEP03.”

Press Briefing

Final Report

*

Reporters' Sources: April 12, 2003

When I teach newspaper articles to my ESL students, one of the first requests I make of them is to identify anyone to whom the reporter has talked. For reporters, primary sources are more often than not the people they have interviewed.

Saturday, April 12, 2003.

Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press, Saturday, April 12, 2003.
Hassan Hafidh, Reuters, Saturday, April 12, 2003.
John F. Burns, “Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure,” New York Times, Saturday, April 12, 2003
Paul McGeough, “A Cultural Catastrophe,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 12, 2003.
Maura Fogarty, "Baghdad Looting Continues," Voice of America News (audio), April 12, 2003.

*

Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press, Saturday, April 12, 2003.

Article.

This was one of the first articles to come out on Saturday, April 12, 2003, and it is interesting to note that Nabhal Amin declines to identify herself to Hamza Hendawi. Later on in the day she will be quoted and cited by all the others, but in this article she is an anonymous source.

Hendawi, we assume, speaks Arabic and doesn’t have to work with an interpreter, which must make reporting much easier. He is one of the few reporters to interview someone who claims to be a member of the Fedayeen Saddam.

Sources:

1. Ali Mahmoud
2. anonymous security guards and museum workers
3. Nabhal Amin
4. member of Fedayeen Saddam
5. Gordon Newby
6. John Russell
7. Samuel Paley
8. Koichiro Matsuura
9. governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece
10 "some"
11. McGuire Gibson
12. Patty Gerstenblith

Reported by Hendawi in Baghdad:

1. Ali Mahmoud, a museum employee
2. “according to a security guard” / “museum workers said” / “one museum employee” / “said the employee, who declined to be identified”
3. Nabhal Amin
“A museum employee, reduced to tears after coming to the museum Saturday and finding her office and all administrative offices trashed by looters, said: ``It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now.'' She refused to give her name.”

4. member of Fedayeen Saddam
“One of the men said he was a member of the feared Fedayeen Saddam militia.
’You think Saddam is now gone, so you can do what you like,’ he raged.”

Reported by others in the U.S.:

5. Gordon Newby, “a historian and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Emory University in Atlanta”
6. John Russell, “a professor of art history and archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art”
7. Samuel Paley, “a professor of classics at the State University of New York, Buffalo”
8. Koichiro Matsuura, “head of the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO”
9. “The governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece also voiced deep concern about the looting.”
10. “Some blamed the U.S. military”
11. McGuire Gibson, “a University of Chicago professor and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad”
12. Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago

*

Hassan Hafidh, Reuters, Saturday, April 12, 2003.

Article

Hassan Hafidh uses two sources for his article, Nabhal Amin and Muhsen Kadhim. Like the others, he refers to Nabhal Amin as the "deputy director" of the museum. Of course, she was not. She was, in reality, an ex-employee who happened to live in the neighborhood and who shared with Donny George a perfectly reasonable (for a Ba'athist) anti-American sentiment.

Sources:

1. Nabhal Amin
2. Muhsen Kadhim

1. Nabhal Amin, "deputy director."
Looters have sacked Baghdad's antiquities museum, plundering treasures dating back thousands of years to the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, museum staff said on Saturday.

They blamed U.S. troops for not protecting the treasures.

Surveying the littered glass wreckage of display cases and pottery shards at the Iraqi National Museum on Saturday, deputy director Nabhal Amin wept and told Reuters: "They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years...They were worth billions of dollars."

She blamed U.S. troops, who have controlled Baghdad since the collapse of President Saddam Hussein's rule on Wednesday, for failing to heed appeals from museum staff to protect it from looters who moved in to the building on Friday.

"The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened," she said. "I hold the American troops responsible for what happened to this museum."
(My bolding)

2. Muhsen Kadhim, "museum guard for the last 30 years."
"We know people are hungry but what are they going to do with these antiquities," said Muhsen Kadhim, a museum guard for the last 30 years but who said he was overwhelmed by the number of looters.

"As soon as I saw the American troops near the museum, I asked them to protect it but the second day looters came and robbed or destroyed all the antiquities," he said.



*

John F. Burns, “Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure,” New York Times, Saturday, April 12, 2003.

Article with the 50,000 figure

Article with 170,000 figure

Burns has always written well, but for basic reporting, this article is pretty thin. We get a lot of “officials said” attribution. In fact, there is no concrete attribution to a named source until well down the column.

There is only one attributed source and that is Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad. Who the other "officials" are, he doesn't say.

"Officials said" can be used to hold off attribution until further down the news article or it can be used for anonymous attribution (sources who for whatever reason remain anonymous).

John F. Burns is on the record for saying that he changed the figure from 50,000 to 170,000 later in the evening after he talked to the other journalists back at the Palestine Hotel. Therefore, it appears that when Burns and McGeough arrived, Nabhal Amin was already gone and the figure of 170,000 was added by Burns when Hamza Hendawi or one of the other journalists told him about the figure that had been given to them by Nabhal Amin. And this means that John F. Burns, patron saint of reporters, added the 170,000 without ever even talking to the original source of the number. He added that figure just from what other journalists told him. That, my friends, is shoddy journalism.

Sources:

1. "officials" / "officials with crumpled spirits" / "museum officials"
2. Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad


1. “So what officials told journalists today may have to be adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light.” / “Officials with crumpled spirits” / “museum officials said”

2. Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, “an Iraqi archaeologist who has participated in the excavation of some of the country's 10,000 sites”
He spoke with deep bitterness against the Americans.

Mr. Muhammad, the archaeologist, directed much of his anger at President Bush.

*

Paul McGeough, “A Cultural Catastrophe,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 12, 2003.

Article

According to McGeough, he and John F. Burns went to the Iraq National Museum together. Their nerves were frayed by this point. "The hand-drawn map we had given was not particularly good," McGeough recalls, "so after we'd been around the block three times, Burns and I began yelling at each other. ... Our tiredness had turned us into zombies; the tension release created by the end of the war meant that we didn't have the reserves to cope with another wrong turn" (McGeough 260-1).

Neither Burns nor McGeough use use Nabhal Amin as a source. The main source they use is Raid Abdul Ridhar Mohammad. The figure of 170,000 does not come from Mr. Mohammad, but from Nabhal Amin. It appears that Burns was given the 170,000 figure from others journalists, perhaps Hendawi or Rifadh, both of whom used that number in their reports.

There are other peculiarities. McGeough attributes the following quote to Hoysen Hassan:
"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."
Burns attributes the same quote to a different person, Raid Abdul Ridhar Mohammad:
"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."
McGeough's characterization of Mr. Rahman as a "gibbering wreck" is classic McGeough, as I'm starting to learn.

Sources:

1. Mohsen Hassan, 56, “an archaeologist and deputy curator.”
2. Abdul Rahman, “museum’s 57-year-old live-in guard”; “gibbering wreck”
3. Ra’ed Abdul Ridha Mohammed, 35, “another of the museum’s archaeologists”
4. Ahmed Mohammed, 27, (man-on-the-street)
5. Donald Rumsfeld, (McGeough includes a snarky reference to the "freedom is untidy" statement.)
6. Nezar Ahmed, "electrical engineer," (man-on-the-street)

*

Maura Fogarty, "Baghdad Looting Continues," Voice of America News (audio), April 12, 2003.

"Baghdad Looting Continues" You can also listen to the audio version at this link.


Ms. Fogarty was reporting for VOA from Cairo, Egypt. We assume she used the New York Times and the 170,000 figure to write her copy. And thus what Joel Best calls a "mutant statistic" expands, this time over the radio waves (Best 62-95).

Joel Best, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Sources:

1. Nabhal Amin

1. Nabhal Amin, “museum’s deputy director”

The museum's deputy director, Nabhal Amin, says about 170,000 priceless items had been looted or destroyed.

But she says some of the museum's most valuable artifacts had been moved into safe storage before the U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq. Part of the museum collection was damaged during the 1991 Gulf war.

Ms. Amin says she blames U.S. troops for not protecting the museum, despite appeals from its staff.


*

Lost

Jeffrey Schuster

Last week I was riding the F train out to the Central Branch of the Queens Public Library when I suddenly realized that my gloves were missing. I checked my coat pockets. I checked my backpack. I looked on the floor, glanced under the seat. Damn! Gone.

Where could I have dropped them? I knew I had them on when I left the house. I was sure of that. As I retraced my steps in my mind I suddenly remembered hearing the train pull into the Steinway St. station. I also remember having to rush to get my money out for a token. I had scrambled down the steps to the token booth. Then it hit me. Right then I must have pulled my gloves off and stuck them in my armpit as I dug for change. And then, rushing through the turnstile, they must have fallen out. I was in too much of a hurry to notice. I pictured them -- leather gloves that I've had for a couple years now -- lying on the cement just beyond the turnstiles. So there I sat in the rocking subway car, heading out to the end of the F line in Queens, feeling sad about my lost gloves.

As I sat there, elbows on knees, hands locked together, I had a sudden flash of a lost shovel from my childhood. A month ago I was on the phone with my Dad and, at one point, I asked, "Hey, do you remember a shovel I had when I was pretty little?"

He remembered it perfectly. The scoop was half-blue and half-brown, a child's size shovel.

I told him how puzzled I was by its disappearance.

"Oh, you were always losing things," he said.

"I was?"

"Yeah. You were always losing hats and gloves. We had such a terrible time with you."

The mention of gloves jogged my memory. It's true. I was always coming home from school with something missing. What my parents didn't know, however, was how I ended up losing all those things. For example, my friends and I loved the James Bond films and we especially liked an evil Asian henchman named Odd Job. Odd Job had a special bowler hat with a razor-sharp brim. He would spin it at his adversaries, usually slicing their heads off so quickly that their mouths and eyes were still moving and twitching as the head lay on the ground.

Anyway, one cold winter afternoon, I was horsing around with a friend. He was standing on the steps outside one of the school buildings. I was standing at the bottom of the steps. My gloves were stiff from the cold.

"Ha! Odd Job!" I yelled at my friend, flinging one of the gloves off my hand.

The glove spun through the air. My friend ducked. The glove sailed past him and twirled through a two-inch gap in an open window. This was the window for the girls' bathroom.

I walked home that afternoon, one hand gloved, the other deep in my coat pocket.

Another time, during winter recess outside, a bunch of us were taking turns grabbing onto the back fenders of passing cars and then sliding along the icy street. My turn came. The guy behind the wheel looked like a retired farmer. As he passed, I ran up to the back fender and grabbed hold. I slid along for a good thirty-to-forty feet before I let go. My hands, however, came away bare. Astonished, I saw that my two gloves were frozen to the fender. My classmates were hooting and laughing as the old farmer drove into town with my gloves. I felt kind of sick inside, wondering how I was going to explain losing both of my gloves to my parents. Later, walking down Main Street, I saw the farmer heading home. To my surprise, the gloves were still stuck there. I guess he hadn't noticed them. I ran after the car, but it was useless. After twenty steps, he was already a block away.

The most serious loss, though, was the time I lost my glasses. I started to wear glasses when I was in the second or third grade. The first couple years I didn't have to wear them all the time, so I kept them in a case and carried them back and forth to school in my bookbag. One spring afternoon after school, Ken Pins and I were fighting. All the way home, we pummeled each other with our bookbags. That evening, I emptied my bookbag and couldn't find them. Eventually I had to tell my Mom. My Dad went through the roof. He made me retrace my steps home, checking everyone's frontyard, the sidewalks, the streets I crossed. He also made me knock on everyone's door. I had to ask them if they had found a pair of glasses that day. I knew it was kind of hopeless. I had a bad feeling about where they were. I remembered that Ken and I slugged it out for a long time by the edge of the creek. I went back there, checked the grass and under bushes as best as I could. They had probably slipped into the creek, I figured.

My parents had to buy me new glasses and I was under a watchful eye for a long time after that.

But the most haunting loss, to me, was that shovel. I must have been about five years old when my father gave it to me.

One afternoon my Dad came home early and told me to get my shovel, that we were going to a plot of land off county highway X-47. My uncle Wally and his fishing buddies were digging a pond there. I went into the garage where all the garden tools were hanging. It wasn’t there. I searched through the rest of the garage. Not there. I went to the backyard, thinking I might have left it by the sandbox. Nope, not a sign.

I came around to the front of the house and my Dad was waiting by the truck. “Let’s go. Where’s your shovel?”

I had to tell him I couldn’t find it. This completely baffled him. He’s one of those people who never loses anything. At seventy, he has the same tools he used when he was a young man.

I was frantic. I looked in the evergreen bushes in front of the picture window. No where to be found. I couldn’t explain how it disappeared. My father, of course, was furious. He assumed the worst. Maybe I had taken it to the town creek and left it there. Or maybe I took it with me to the area in town where they were building new houses. My friends and I were always playing on those sites. Maybe I had broken the handle and ditched it somewhere, afraid to show it to him. Maybe I lent it to a friend and that friend lost it. In his mind, any of these scenarios was possible.

Because I couldn't find the shovel, I had to stay behind. For the rest of the afternoon I kept looking for it. I never found it.

Last week, then, I was thinking about that shovel as I strolled up and down the aisles of the library, remembering how bad I felt about not being able to go with my father to that pond. I'll never know what happened to it. I pulled a few books down, checked them out, and returned to the subway.

Back at home, my hands were cold as I dug the keys out to the front door. Inside, as I pulled my backpack off, I looked over to the bed and there, one lying on top of the other, were my gloves.

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