by the rivers of Babylon

The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented HistoryThis is from The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History by Justin Marozzi:

I entered Babylon with an invading army and now I leave in the last available Coalition convoy. The occupation forces are moving on. Camp Babylon is closing down and Polish and American forces are relocating south-east to the town of Diwaniyah. The desecration of Babylon, for the time being at least, is over.

I hitch a ride in one of the few unarmoured Humvees and immediately feel uncomfortably exposed. It’s too late to do anything about it. I’m lucky to get a seat. Body armour has been hung over the doors, almost as an afterthought, to provide a modicum of protection, but serves only to underline how vulnerable the vehicle is. We set off in an untidy straggle like a snake slithering away from trouble. The end-of-an-era atmosphere hangs heavily in the air. I am a short-term impostor but these men have been here for months in what will be a shameful footnote in Babylon’s history. Everyone knows the Iraqis can’t wait for the invaders to leave this place, the symbol of their country’s unrivalled history. Most of the soldiers couldn’t care less. They have just been doing their job.

[…]

‘Dudes, get this,’ says one of the sergeants in the Humvee, turning to me. I see a dusty self-portrait in his wraparound sunglasses. ‘Justin, you’ll like this, these guys are Brits. Check out our farewell-to-all-this-bullshit song.’

He pushes a button on his portable stereo and a tinny voice vibrates through the sand-smothered speakers. It is an anthem of my childhood. Boney M. 1978.

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down
Ye-ah we wept,
When we remembered Zion …

The wind rushing through the Humvee snatches some of the music away, but I know the words. They have lodged in my memory and cannot be removed. The soldiers hoo-rah and whistle. ‘Rock ‘n’ roll, baby!’ one of them screams, kicking off another round of celebrations. Their time in Babylon has come to an end. They are a step nearer home.

The ‘Rivers of Babylon’ lyrics were directly lifted from Psalm 137, a melancholic meditation on slavery by the Jewish captives in Babylon, sitting on the banks of the Euphrates. They are enslaved in a foreign land, far from their home, where their captors mock their religion and demand they entertain them with ‘one of the songs of Zion’.

‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they reply, utterly bereft. The Babylonians are foreigners, no part of the covenant God made with Abraham. These barbarians have laid waste to Jerusalem, and the Jews, missing their religion, longing for their temples, urge each other not to forget what happened in their homeland, to remember their tormentors’ orders to raze the holy city to the ground -‘Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!’ Now they wish only vengeance upon their captors. This is no New Testament turn-the-other-cheek response to their humiliation and captivity because we are in the fire-and-brimstone Old Testament world of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. But all this bloodlust proved too much for Boney M, otherwise so faithful to Psalm 137. The group wisely left out the final verses.

0 daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!

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