Poland and Iraq

Père Ubu Goes to War

Pere Ubu
Woodcut frontispiece for Ubu Roi, 1888, by Alfred Jarry. In Ubu Roi, Jarry depicted his teacher as Père Ubu, a lunatic bent on conquering Poland (image courtesy of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas).

I have been trying to write this article for hours and I still cannot decide what tone I should take. The matter is obviously of global significance, so I should be serious. But I am not a political expert, only a citizen of my country. I have lived here for more than 40 years and I believed that I had seen the worst, that the grotesque and the absurd were left in the past and that they would remain trapped forever in the plays of [Polish satirist] Slawomir Mrozek. I underestimated my country. Please, forgive me.

My country occupies Iraq. It is true that the press releases read that “we are taking command of one of the stabilization zones,” but according to the recent trend, even an ordinary mechanized division may be called “peace forces.” Nevertheless, to make things simpler, let us stick to the old names, so familiar to Europeans. So Poland occupies Iraq, because it won the war against it. Everybody knows that Iraq had been Poland’s primary enemy for centuries. Iraq had coveted Poland’s freedom, its enormous wealth, and its fair-haired women, whose beauty is famous throughout the world. Iraq’s biggest dream—as every child knows—was to destroy our 1,000-year-old culture and civilization, to conquer our fertile lands and elegant cars, and to sterilize the every Polish male so they could be eunuchs in Baghdad harems. Iraq stood at our borders and disturbed our sleep. We slept with our heads on our guns, and with the food rations handy. But we remembered our ancient tradition of pacifism and we did not attack first. Our national pride stems from the fact that we do not attack unless attacked first.

But finally things went too far. Treacherous Babylon, seeing that it could not win against us, since we were at red alert, attacked our best and only friend. What’s more, driven by its oriental perversity, Babylon first enticed our friend to attack it on its own territory, and only then deliver a treacherous blow. We could not let that stand. We remembered that the banners used in our old, heroic wars bore the motto: “For our freedom and yours.” So we sent 300 courageous soldiers plus one brave ship, and Babylon fell.

And now we are occupying Babylon. Or rather, “stabilizing” it. This is historical justice. For the first time in centuries, we can sleep peacefully. Please send us cork helmets and glass beads for exchange. We have forgotten to bring them from home.

I do hope that Alfred Jarry’s spirit [Jarry, 1873-1907, was a French satirist and author of the play Ubu Roi, a parody of Macbeth that featured the playwright’s teacher as a lunatic bent on conquering Poland—WPR] is dead bored in the universe and will find a moment to give this situation a glance.

Yes, my dear readers, nothing makes us feel better than a decent war and a proper occupation. Especially one a few thousand kilometers from home, carried out alongside a bigger and stronger ally. Several hundred soldiers and one ship are sent, and it seems that a miraculous change of fate occurs: From the impoverished European outskirts, my country is promoted to become a partner, a partner who does not yet deal the cards, but already shuffles them. At least this is the belief of those who sent the soldiers without asking anyone for their opinion.

Yes, my country is a place of miracles: tragic unemployment; economic collapse; corrupted and arrogant political leaders with an unclear past; a world-weary society focused on the struggle to survive; a political life no more sophisticated than mafia battles; poverty; frustration; ostentatious, arrogant wealth; and beggars, living from day to day and with no idea about the future…oh yes, and the war we won and the country we’re now occupying along with Albion [England] and the world’s biggest global power. We have done our job and now we may wait for others to do for us what we ourselves should do: to do everything we can to make this country function and look better. It is easier to win a war than to wash regularly, not to lie, not to steal, to be honest in business, to mitigate envy and hatred, to choose decency instead of benefit, and to stop cursing so loudly in the streets.

Yes, my country occupies Iraq, since it cannot find its place in Europe. Even before becoming a full member of Europe, Poland is already checking to see if there is any emergency exit in case the obligations become too burdensome, the benefits do not meet expectations, or (God forbid!), our pride is offended. It is easier to occupy, or—pardon me—to stabilize Iraq than to admit, deep in our hearts, that we ourselves need stabilization from Europe, which is here often called occupation. Our political leaders’ clever but primitive minds reflect all Polish complexes and vices: a continuous urge to outsmart reality; a belief that through juggling we will manage somehow; a faith that the vision in our imaginations is the real image of the world; the never-ending suspicion of the weak that he will be cheated unless he secures himself against it; the fear of being ridiculed that makes us blind to our own tomfoolery; and the cunning belief that a good business may be done with zero costs—what is more, by cheating our partners.

One thing bodes well. My country, in fact, does not give a damn about the war or the occupation. It could not care less about Iraq. The government could declare a war against Burkina Faso, could occupy Cape Verde, or could announce yet another reform of public finance. The effect would be the same—that is, less than underwhelming. The nation bides its time with Slavic fatalism, indifferent to all these developments, occupied with its own problems and survival. The nation knows only too well that this government will be replaced, the same as all the previous governments were replaced. And the next one, according to our tradition, will attempt to discredit its predecessors so radically that it will probably ally with Antarctica and declare a war against America.

I wanted to get into a better mood, so I switched on the radio. A government minister said that “our presence in Iraq is very important, since we have an extensive experience in transformation.” I would like to end this article on that optimistic note. Good night.

Andrzej Stasiuk is a Polish essayist, poet, literary critic, and former anti-communist dissident. This piece was originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, then translated and republished in Warsaw's weekly international press digest, Forum.