Hammurabi speaks to Donald Rumsfeld via Ariel Dorfman

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Once, as part of a small book he wrote, the physicist Freeman Dyson tried to produce a historical version of The Powers of Ten, a splendid tour of the universe from the microscopic to the galactic in multiples of ten. Put in human terms however — that is, translated from size into time and directed toward the future — the process instantly became ludicrous. Imagining what the world will be like ten years from now can sound barely plausible; a hundred years is instantly ridiculous; and a thousand years well, fuggetaboutit.

In historical times, we turn out to be such an overheated, highly pressurized species — everything packed into a few thousand years and the surprises unending. Our brains are relentlessly predictive and speculative, but our ability to predict, or even speculate accurately about the moment after next, as the record shows, is painfully unimpressive.

I say this in part because the essayist, novelist, playwright and poet Ariel Dorfman has lately been channeling Hammurabi of Babylonia, the first recorded law-giver. In the poem that follows below, “the exalted prince,” from his perch 3,700 years in the past, curses the Mesopotamian legacy of our present princeling Donald Rumsfeld. (Fortunately, Hammurabi’s famous code, incised in stone and considered an early model of humanitarian legality except for its fierce, quite literal eye-for-an-eye concept of justice, is preserved in the Louvre in Paris, the spoils of a previous imperial era of cultural looting.) In our particularly overheated, and despairing moment, it’s good to be reminded of the view not only from 35,000 feet (see my previous dispatch) but from 3,700 years ago.

We live in the heartland of “the last empire,” just in the wake of what passes for a successful small war on the imperial frontier. We feel the 24/7 pressure of our own media, celebrating the moment, every moment as if it were some vast stretch of time, and of the opinion polls which remind us what a minority we are at this moment. (It’s hardly surprising, by the way, for people in the imperial heartland to identify with imperial success, or perhaps simply imperial power at a time of seeming success.) And, of course, we’re also secretly pressed by something that’ seems new to me in our world — a sense of futurelessness — the feeling that our time, not just individually, not just imperially, not just as a civilization but as a species on the world we’re wrecking, may be more limited than anyone imagined.

And then perhaps we’re pressed as well by the fact that even an imperial project that may be doomed — as I believe ours to be — when the ruling power is as powerful as we are, can last far too long. It’s good then to be brought back to the longer view. It’s good to keep in mind that we, the minority here, are the majority globally speaking. (Take a look, then, at Peter Preston’s The world won’t forgive or forget from the Guardian.) It’s good to keep in mind that, in the longer view of history (in which all empires, every last one but ours, has vanished), it’s not as easy as it might seem in this moment to tell the victors from the vanquished, the winners from the losers.

My own belief is that this is a far stranger, far dicier moment than anyone is ready to admit. Even some of the victors seem oddly embattled and, for the ones who think they aren’t, the future will likely be ambush enough.

Hammurabi’s empire is, of course, long past. His seems to have been an early version of imperial overstretch — he evidently tried to conquer too much. Why not listen to him — and the other mysterious voices from eras past that inhabit this poem — as he addresses the imperial looters of our own moment through Ariel Dorfman. Tom

By Ariel Dorfman

I bite my tongue and try not to curse you
I bite my tongue and try not to wish upon you
what you visited on me and mine

my voice that ordered laws
to be engraved for all to see and hear
orphans and widows
no no do not place that curse upon him they say to me
they say to Hammurabi the protecting King
those who accompany me in the green dark of death
that is not what we do in the green dark of death

my code
even slaves had rights
even women cast out by their husbands
adopted sons prostitutes patients
even the oxen in the fields
builders barbers sailors
they all had rights
even the oxen in the fields

my words that have survived four thousand years
invasions depredations despoilment plunder
Persians Mongols Ottomans Arabs British
the first written words
of history
for all to know and see

Hammurabi shield of the land
that now lies
broken shattered made dust
the many words of Mesopotamia

You could have stopped this
Rumsfeld Lord of the Looters
Lord of the Black Dawn

the statuettes of birds and goddesses
crushed by hammers sliced by knives
the scrolls painted by these hands
that surround me in the mother dark
gone all gone

only my words written in stone
still with me here on this other side
not for cursing they say to me
not what we do here they say

in the life after the dark of life
we teach they say to me
we wait they say to me
clothed in green gentleness
the mothering dark

and yet and yet
Rumsfeld Rumsfeld
who did not defend the words and the widow
if I do not curse you, who will?

the tyrant who has fled or is dying dead?
the tyrant who broke my code?
the people of my earth who cannot speak
for fear of the new occupant of the throne?
the far people at your homeland
muzzled by ignorance and dread
who pray to you their protector?

I am Hammurabi
shepherd of the oppressed and the slaves
I am the good shadow spread over the city

Who else is there left to speak?
If anyone steal the property of a temple he shall be put to death

If anyone steal the minor son of another he shall be put to death

If anyone break a hole into a house he shall be put to death

No no no they say to me
we do not believe in death
not an eye for an eye they say

If a fire break out in a house and he who comes to put it out cast his eye
upon the property of the owner of the house, he shall be thrown into that
self-same fire

He shall be thrown into that self-same fire

No no no they beg of me
not a tooth for a tooth they say

He shall read my inscriptions and stand before me

not a tooth for a tooth they say

may the years of your rule be in groaning
years of scarcity years of famine
darkness without light
the removal of your name and memory from the land

not his children they say to me
do not say it they say to me

may Nin-tu the sublime mistress of the lands
the fruitful mother
deny you a son
give you no successor among men
the pouring out of your life
like water into the mouth of the desert

nothing lower than you
day turned into night

If not Hammurabi then who will speak?
Hammurabi the provider of food and drink
Who clothed the gravestones of Malkat with green

If I do not

may the damnation of Shamash overtake you
deprived of water among the living
and spirit below in the earth
day turned into night
thrown into that self-same fire
that fell upon the children and the books

If I do not curse the transgressor

I bite my tongue and try not to say these words
I bite my tongue and try not to say the words
that have lived for four thousand years
and are now smashed in the rubble
of the land that was once Babylon

If I do not curse you

my code and your code broken in the ruins
your glory and my glory gone gone all gone

If I do not curse you, who will dare?

Ariel Dorfman has just published The Burning City, a novel he wrote with
his youngest son, Joaquín; and Exorcising Terror; The Incredible Unending
Trial of General Augusto Pinochet
. His web-site is