Bowling in Baghdad

Which memorial will guide?

by Ken Sehested, Memorial Day 2015

The Al-Fanar Hotel restaurant was bustling when I walked in. I sat with a new friend, Charles, a professional photojournalist and fellow Iraq Peace Team member. There were about 40 of us, split between three hotels in downtown Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River. This was February 2003, in the weeks leading up to the “shock and awe” invasion.

We were monitoring the effects of U.N. sanctions and providing an alternative account to that of the mainstream media’s war promotion. The trip was not undertaken lightly, given the impending invasion, along with the threat by our own government of prison sentences and steep fines for breaching the U.S. travel ban.

Midway through our meal Charles asked if I’d like to go bowling.

Bowling? In Baghdad? Sounds like a Jon Stewart Daily Show comedy skit.

I jumped at the chance, though I hadn’t bowled in years. In his wandering the city capturing photogenic occasions, Charles had stumbled across a two-lane bowling alley several blocks away.

In the lane next to use were three Iraqis, one of them really good, bowling strike after strike. I whispered to Charles, “Can you believe this guy?” He whispered back, “Oh, that’s Ahmad. He’s a former Iraqi national bowling champion.”

Yet one more thing I didn’t know. (It’s a long list.)

“Do you think it would be OK if I asked for his autograph,” I asked. “Oh, I’m sure he’d be happy to,” Charles said as he walked over to speak to one of the other bowlers, conveying my request, who then spoke to Ahmad, who looked at me and smiled.

I started looking for something for him to sign. Ahmad had walked over to a desk near the door, opened a drawer, pulled out something I couldn’t see—though it appeared to have a string attached.

He was writing on it as he walked back, then handed me my souvenir, some sort of medallion.

There I was, not just a foreigner (not to mention pitiful bowler), but the face of a nation bitterly antagonistic to his, and about to invade, and he’s handing me one of his bowling medals with his personal autograph. (Pictured left.)

I was—and remain still, with every remembrance—overcome with grace, shocked-and-awed at the outbreak of heaven where hellish hostility reigns. Not even Jon Stewart’s comedic mind could conjure an Iraqi national bowling champion as an instrument of absolution.

The war came anyway, of course, and the outbreaks of enmity—some small and personal, some large and public, some nearby and others far afield—seem relentless. Compared to its sway, the Way of Jesus seems a bit romantic.

The Way of Jesus is committed to a different sort of Memorial Day as a guide for its bearings. Not in reproach to the courageous valor of soldiers—nonviolent struggle against injustice requires at least as much. But for an alternative memory—forged in the Eucharistic remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper—and its vision of how the world is to be re-ordered and reoriented by a different sort of romance, tuned toward the day when justice and peace shall kiss (Psalm 85:10), when the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), and every tear will be dried (Revelation 21:4).

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