Wabash Voices: A Haunting and Engaging Music

  September 29, 2004

Mike Markland ‘94 worked in Iraq at the time of the brutal murders of Nicholas Berg and Richard Johnson, on contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development to advise the Ministry of Communications and the Iraq Telecommunications and Postal Company.

Markland stands in front of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Baghdad.

“Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies,” Fabrizio Quattrocchi, a former baker from Genoa, Italy, said as he struggled to take off his hood. He was shot twice in the back of the neck, the execution captured on tape by Al Jazerra. The Iraq conflict suddenly became very personal to me; Fabrizio was one of the men who guarded my floor at the Babylon Hotel. His room was across from mine. We had known each other for about a month, as long as I had been in Iraq.

If my years as an English major at Wabash had taught me anything, it was that conflict reveals character, and from the interaction between protagonists and antagonists emerges the inner soul. Fabrizio and I had shared some laughs and some tense times—I knew where he stood. He would lay his life on the line to keep me safe. I had lost a friend.

As the violence continued throughout the rest of April and into May, I came close to other stories. I remember watching the Mount Lebanon Hotel burning from my roof. I recalled seeing Nick Berg several times in the Babylon Hotel lobby before we were moved to more secure housing. And just last week, upon my return to Baghdad from a conference—where I was sitting next to the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs when the news broke about the assassination of Izzedine Salim—I passed the spot where the car bomb that killed him exploded.

This is clearly a far cry from Wabash and Crawfordsville, where I was raised. Yet I’ve spent about six of the past ten years since graduation in the Middle East, so it’s not a total surprise that I am here. I currently  call Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, home, with my fiancĂ©e, where I own a small consulting and private equity advisory firm. I came to Iraq on a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development to advise the Ministry of Communications and the Iraq Telecommunications and Postal Company, the national telecommunications monopoly. My job is to lead development of the strategic planning for these organizations, with a particular focus on investor and international financial institution relations.

The challenge that my team faces with our Iraqi counterparts is daunting. With years of war, sanctions, and continuous sabotage from dissidents, guerrillas, and insurgents, Iraq’s communications systems are among the poorest in the world. Currently, there is about three-percent teledensity—three phones per 100 people, which is among the lowest in the world, for a market that should be one of the largest in the region. The per capita income here is currently $500-700 per year, the legacy of years of conflict and corruption—25 years ago the per capita income here was $8,000 a year.

In my work here, we have an opportunity to build something that will allow the Iraqi people to communicate with each other, with loved ones, with friends; to provide security and to conduct commerce. It is unfortunate that we came here so late. This should have happened long ago; a colleague and I have been working to get here for nine months. There were too many other priorities.

Despite the circumstances that have led to my being in Iraq, I hope to help a people, who have long suffered and struggled, in whatever small way I can. Although I am glad that Saddam is gone, I was not supportive of the means by which the U.S. has reached this end. I have always felt it a duty to try to bridge the differences between the Arab world and U.S., especially since the event of 9/11. Both places are my home.

These days, however, it is very difficult to get out and about in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. Our counterparts in Iraq do not come to the Green Zone since there have been at least three car bombs near the gates in the past week alone. Those who know me well understand how frustrating this is to me; I don’t deal well with walls and constraints on my movement. But to be here, trying to make something work in the face of these challenges is the task at hand. With each passing day, that task is  further complicated.

This really hit me a few weeks ago when I woke up around 5 a.m. in the Babylon Hotel. There was a low fog over the Tigris; only the tops of the palms, the spires of palaces and ministries, and the minarets of the mosques pierced the sea of soft grey clouds in pre-dawn light. From one of the minarets, a muezzin started the first call to prayer. His voice was alone gliding over the fog in the silence of the morning. The call to prayer, the words always the same, is sung, with no set melody or rhythm, to beckon the faithful; it is open to the interpretation of the muezzin, who sings as the spirit of God (Allah) possesses him at the time. To the unaccustomed ear, it is dissonant and atonal; on this morning it was distinctly haunting and engaging. While his words called the faithful to morning prayers, his voice alone carried the weight of more than 5,000 years of history and the strains of yet another transition, another conflict. Then other voices from other mosques joined in, each as heavily weighted with its own spiritual interpretations and messages as the first, each at a different pitch and rhythm, each struggling to be heard. Each place has its music, and this is Iraq’s music. It was quite a moment; it was the closest yet I’ve come to understanding this place and its complexity.


Contact Markland at:  Michael@copernicaninternational.com