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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

December 20, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 36




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy A crazy hope that turns this world upside down

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

-- "Journey of the Magi" by TS Elliot

Thirty-five-year old Ra'ad Abdul Aziz is an Iraqi civil engineer and amateur astronomer who studied the stars while bombs fell all around him. There's a story about him in this month's issue of the magazine, Astronomy based on his own article, "Astronomy in War."

Astronomers require darkness for clear sightings of heavenly bodies and Ra'ad, now living through his third war, has had much of that. His fascination with the universe began when he was a small child, growing up in Baghdad. The city in the late '70s was peaceful and too brightly lit to observe the night sky. That changed in 1980, when Iran and Iraq began an 8-year war that ultimately killed nearly half a million people.

The bloody conflict was "the worst time" he says, for all Iraqis; but it brought the budding astronomer two years of nightly black-outs, ordered by Saddam Hussein to protect Baghdad against attacks from Iranian aircraft.

The city's war-darkened skies provided ideal conditions for decoding celestial mysteries.

Ra'ad's tools were simple: 3.5 magnification binoculars, star charts, a flashlight, table, chair and 70 mm telescope. Every night, he would carry these to the rooftop of his house, his "observatory," and for 3 to 5 hours study the sky. He observed the Milky Way and charted the surface of the moon. He learned all the constellations, and located most of Messiers objects, those "deep-sky" nebulae and star clusters that explode and swirl far beyond our solar system. On nights when the bombing was too fierce, he pored over sky maps inside.

"I think my knowledge about the heavens is due to these two years," Ra'ad writes.

A second opportunity for wartime astronomy came after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. The invasion triggered the first Gulf War, a catastrophe Ra'ad regarded with optimistic fatalism:

"Nobody could do anything for that disaster. Therefore, I decided to use the maximum benefits of the war, the darkness of the Baghdad sky. The best way to run away from those terrible moments was by looking towards the heaven."

The bombardment of Baghdad in January 1991 by coalition forces was relentless and so frequent that at times the city's night became like day. Falling bomb fragments and bullets made Ra'ad's rooftop hobby especially risky so he devised a new technique that he called "observe and run away." He only studied the heavens for five days before an attack on the Al Daura oil refinery blackened even the daytime skies of Baghdad.

The "greatest observing event" of his life came on April 3, 2003, the date U.S. and British troops invaded Baghdad. BBC Radio was reporting the arrival of American soldiers at Saddam Airport when Ra'ad climbed the roof to see his "old friends the stars and nebulae."

The night was moonless and exceptionally clear, he remembers. Jupiter hovered close to Praesepe, a star cluster in the constellation of Cancer. To the naked eye, Praesepe looks like a fuzzy cloud and ancients thought it was a thin spot in the floor of Heaven. They called the spot the Gate of Men, believing that through it, souls descended to Earth to be born.

Also by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
Oct. 8, 04 A soldier's remorse
Oct. 4, 04 Records of outrage so quickly forgotten
Aug. 4, 04 A garden's wealth
June 7, 04 A primer on war
April 12, 04 A Resurrection Story Told in a Time of War
Feb. 13, 04 Janet vs. Halliburton
Feb. 11, 04 Learning lessons from people's movements in India
Feb. 9, 04 A spy for the people
Dec. 12, 03 What about those weapons of mass destruction?
Dec. 10, 03 On war and human rights
On Sept. 7 this year, Ra'ad, who worked for the Italian humanitarian organization Bridges to Baghdad, was kidnapped along with three of his colleagues: two Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Toretta; and an Iraqi woman, Mahnaz Bassam.

The four were released three weeks later, after intensive negotiations by the Italian government. Italy greeted the news with declarations of joy; but for Ra'ad, the freedom celebrations were more subdued. The kidnapping thwarted his second attempt to go to the United States and attend a conference of the American Society of Engineers and friends report that it is unlikely he will ever get his much desired visa to America.

The abduction was "an odd experience," Ra'ad wrote in an e-mail to his American friends. "I learned a lot about life, death and myself. Moreover, I found the hands of God to help me."

When preparing for this column, I considered commenting on the latest injustice. There is so much to denounce. Yet the story of Ra'ad's hazardous devotion to the heavens, animates me in a way the news of the day does not. Perhaps because, like the texts of the season, which include wise men traipsing after a star and angels heralding a baby born in poverty, it tells of a crazy hope, the kind that turns the predictably cruel order of this world upside down.

"Really, I don't know why I forgot the wars and the battles and just thought about astonomy," writes Ra'ad. "The only thing I am sure about is that I love watching the heavens. These glorious objects stayed above us for centuries" and they "deserve" our gaze.

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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