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Vacation in Mesopotamia

When a holiday narrative becomes a lecture

By Simon WillisPublished 3 months ago 10 min read
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there's a lot to be said for conformity.

We don’t get glittering prizes down our way. We get grisly ones awarded by nightmarish quiz shows. However, instead of open heart surgery without anaesthetic on the meat counter of our local supermarket, I get an evening with my brother, his wife and their bratty kid. The former, if successful, need be done only once. The latter, unfortunately, comes every December 28.

It’s not as if I’m missing any decent television during the Christmas period anyway. It is amazing how a drunken stupor renders televised highlights of a Caledonian festival marking New Year tolerable. Nowadays, thanks to YouTube, I can now watch footage of nuclear explosions.

Here they come. The latest model of whatever it is mounts the pavement and parks itself on the grass verge. Out they get. He’s got the display equipment. She’s bringing her knitting. The Brat is doing cartwheels. His hand flattens a dog turd. Thank you. He had better not bring it into the house. Too late. Now there’s a stinky brown handprint on our front door.

Brother goes straight into the lounge and plunks his stuff on our sofa. He growls at the Brat to give him a “hand with my gear”. The Brat opens the laptop and lets his fingers dance on the keys. The ‘qwerty’ part is now covered in a sticky brown substance. Brother makes as if to clout the Brat round the ear, whereupon the boy trots into the kitchen. Brother tries to make light of the situation.

‘It’s what your left hand’s for.’

I have no idea to what he is referring.

‘Y’know, they don’t have toilet paper in the Middle East so they have to—’

I hold my hand up for him to stop. He carries on regardless.

Meanwhile, the women are in the hallway talking nine to the dozen over each other and conveying nothing. Shakespeare’s words ‘tale’, ‘told’ and ‘idiot’ come to mind. They come into the lounge and take up their positions in the armchairs. Their wittering supplies a background for setting up the light show.

The laptop is switched on. Brother is telling me about his wonderful machine — special offer — loads of apps. I feel that the apps are slowing down the machine. I would like to ask if his laptop runs on valves, like our mum’s gramophone. But I had better not. He is sensitive about his electronic devices. The smell of anti-septic makes its tart presence felt in the hall and now the lounge. As the Brat tries to creep into the room unnoticed, Brother tells him to put the screen up. A few seconds later, as the screen is pulled out of its cylindrical holder, it catches on a stray piece of metal. The Brat proudly hooks the top of the screen on the vertical holder and stands back with a gesture like a magician’s assistant. The screen wobbles slightly. The split sounds like a wearisome moan. Brother called the Brat stupid and asked why he could not have been more careful. My wife intervenes with the suggestion that pictures could be removed from one wall, which would be the screen. She was finding it hard to keep a straight face. I had to excuse myself for a few minutes and adjourn to the hallway.

Back in the lounge, Sister-in-law is fiddling with the connections to the projector. Two years ago, the eight-core cable was on the blink, resulting in images that looked as if they had been put through a blue filter. My quip about holidaying on Neptune fell on deaf ears. Oh dear! The projector is up and running. Just when you think the show is getting underway, something funny happens. The Brat sidles past the equipment and his foot catches in the cables between the laptop and the projector. The latter ends up on the floor. The cooler motor is still running. The bulb flickers back on. The projector is replaced on the table and the Brat is warned that if “that bulb blows later” it will come out of his pocket money. He asks the rhetorical question: Do you know how much those bulbs cost? Clearly, it is a huge amount and the boy will spend the rest of his life paying for a split second of clumsiness. However, to my disappointment, the bulb does not blow.

Sister-in-law says my brother is “ever so clever”. He has made a PowerPoint presentation of their holiday 20—. I roll my eyes. We have more than enough of this of this ppt shite at the office. We call the bod in training Mr Bloody PowerPoint for his predilection for Arial Unicode, vermilion backgrounds and those moronic animation effects.

Brother tells the Brat to turn off the lights, which he does. Then he turns them back on again and giggles. Off the lights go, then on, then off. Brat says he’s sending signals to the aliens. I wish he could join them. Neither parent says anything. I say nothing. My wife does. The boy complies. Brother fiddles with the projector focus. Satisfied that the images are high-definition, Brother proceeds to read the text of the first slide, which gives a rambling introduction to their trip to the Middle East. Why is it that people who make PowerPoint presentations insist on reading aloud every text? Perhaps they are afraid that the audience will doze off, as I am about to do, unless my wife gently pats my upper arm to bring me back to ghastly consciousness.

Here we go. We are shown the arrivals hall at Uruk Airport. I thought photography at foreign airports was not allowed. I hope next time Brother goes abroad and inadvertently takes snaps of military aircraft, he will be arrested on spying charges. We will be spared this bloody nonsense for a year or twenty. I upbraided myself for being so callous and selfish. Then I giggled.

Most people back from holiday will show you a photograph of somewhere. We stayed there. We passed through there. They might tell an anecdote related to that place. The couple look conspiratorially at each other and smile. Wasn’t it funny when that charming taxi driver — well, he was charming when he picked us up at the airport — drew out a pistol and pointed it to my head? They make light of the incident with a general observation, such as: Those Albanians have a sense of humour, don’t they? Not my Brother or sister-in-law. We are treated to a dozen views of Uruk, which was a thriving commercial centre that had six miles of defensive walls. The population was 70,000 and in 2800 BC it was the largest city in the world. Some people go on holiday. Brother compiles an encyclopaedia. Sister-in-law looks admiringly, chipping in with remarks to no one in particular, such as observations on his cleverness and the thoroughness of his research.

Then, just when I hope he is going to move on to another topic of his confounded holiday, Brother tells us about Mesopotamian cities in general with walls and ziggurats and homes built in marsh reeds or clay bricks and irrigation canals to take in the silt from the Tigris and the Euphrates for agricultural purposes. Oh, God, it’s like being back at bloody school.

Here we go: a ‘did you know’ question. Did we know that one of the rulers of this kingdom was a woman? She was Kubaba, which means ‘woman tavern keeper’. She acceded to the throne of Kish in 2500 BC. Of course, we know about Kubaba serving in a pub. As for what she did as ruler, no one knows, not even Brother.

My wife asks if you could drink in the place where they went on holiday. Brother tells her to be patient and that he will be “coming onto that later”, but not before an account about wars between city states.

One of the first conflicts between city states involved King Eannatum of Lagash. He beat the rival city state of Umma. It was just a squabble over a border in 2450 BC. There had to be a slide about Eannatum’s victory. Brother showed us the Stele of the Vultures, depicting such birds gorging themselves on the flesh of his fallen foes. Anyway, Lagash went on to conquer the whole of the territory.

The next slide shows a diagram of a military campaign with red and green rectangles. Brother, spare us! Brother goes on to say that the Mesopotamians invented siege warfare and the phalanx formation. I am about to bust the boredom by pretending to have misheard and ask whether “phallus” formation was effective in penetrating enemy lines. But I don’t. However, Brother answers my question unwittingly, saying that in the latter stages of their history, sieges and phalluses were in vain as these people were attacked and conquered by Elamites, Akkadians and Gutians. The last-mentioned is a cue for the Brat to draw attention to himself. If there were Gutians, there must have been ‘Badians’. Several times he repeats his silly quip and plea for understanding and approbation with raised eyebrows and a silly grin, accompanied by ‘Geddit?’ even though he realises that what he had said was plain stupid, Brother battles on about beer-making in the Land between Two Rivers in the 4th century BC. Brother eventually wins.

We are ignorant of brewing techniques, but it seems that the favourite ale in Mesopotamia was a barley-based concoction that was so thick that they had to drink it through a “filtration straw”. Brat interrupts with an observation that grown-ups would look stupid drinking stuff through a straw. Brother ignores this and continues his commentary about beer drinking and its nutritional benefits. A poet had written about beer being essential for a “joyful heart and a contented liver”. They even had a goddess of beer-making called Ninkasi, who is described in a sort of hymn as the “one who waters the malt set on the ground”.

Brother is in full steam ahead mode as he says that mentions of poets and hymns brings him onto the subject of writing. At this point I excuse myself and go to the outside toilet. I go in, close the door, and lower the seat cover. I fumble around for a magazine in the rack under the toilet roll holder. I flick the light switch. No light. I curse. All the while, I can hear Brother’s voice rattling through my head like a lost stage coach.

I bet you, when I go back into the presentation from hell, Brother will be trundling on about the writing systems of ancient Mesopotamia. I flush the toilet to add credibility to my excuse to excuse myself. I push open the living room door and, sure enough, the alphabet and syllabary were on the wall. How I wish I could demolish that wall! Brother soldiered on, repeating the idea that he could have sent a baked tablet as a postcard in cuneiform script. He has the foresight to give everyone a sheet of A4 with the Sumerian equivalent of ‘Wish you were here. Weather great. Having a lovely time’. I study the handout. It is welcome relief from Brother’s lecture. Brother explains that he had misgivings about sending a clay tablet in the post, saying that it would not survive those roller things at the sorting office, would it?

Suddenly, the projector bulb blows. My wife breathes a sigh of relief. I giggle uncontrollably. Brother tells me it is not funny. He slams the laptop shut and tells Sister-in-law they are going. He rises forgets to disconnect the projector, which crashes to the floor. Sister-in-law picks it up. Brother tells Brat to get a move on. I cannot resist thanking Brother for such an interesting evening. I hope next time he can tell us about taking a London bus across Europe, dancing on the beach and almost marrying a Yugoslav peasant girl. Brother frowns and asks me what on earth I am talking about. I remind him of the film we saw as kids at the local fleapit.

‘Oh that!’ he sneers, ‘Well, Mr Witty Person of 2022, I went on a Sumer holiday, didn’t I?’

Holiday
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