Rome. She said no - è impossibile, shook her head, then, ignored me. The Galleria Borghese was sold out until after I left, so I bought the book. His name across the top with the Boy with a Basket of Fruit covering the cover. It was my first time in Rome and that didn’t matter to her, it shouldn’t have, of course, all it meant was I couldn’t see in the flesh, mine and Caravaggio’s - David with the head of Goliath. Why that rather than a young boy carrying fruit, I’m not sure, it just took me more. Was it the violent in me? The soldier? The male? I read he’d painted himself in the head. That in his torture at not being allowed to return to Rome, after he’d killed a man in an argument, was that he showed it in paint. I’m not an expert on him and no expert on what the boys calling themselves the Caliphate are doing in Iraq, I left Basra in early 2007 so my knowledge is old, but it was the beheadings that got me about them too. That it was some kind of purification, that anybody not a Muslim, and a very specific Sunni Muslim too, needed to have their head removed, some of them being filmed. I heard about James Foley when I got back home where I live, about a mile from where Lee Rigby was killed.
I’ve heard Muslim commentators - I’m not religious so refuse to speak as one - say we’d never heard of ISIS pre 2003 but that’s a lie. The Jihadi narrative runs from before the Iraq War and if you want to play that game 9/11 predates the War but, but, but that’s another story. Even further back than that I grew up in Burnley where boys left to join the Mujahideen in Afghanistan when doing so was honourable, but maybe that was because it was against Russia. We can go back further but the Muslim doesn’t have the answer, nobody does. There are no answers but absolutes are reassuring, it lets you stop thinking. That’s why since I let go of religion and started reading I’ve felt lost. Every book ending starts another. There is nothing but what I make. Mistakes and all. I look at these boys in Iraq and think to what end? Islam won’t take over the world, China will. There is an end, you will die and so will I. There is no magic after this. Death is all, isn’t it? Maybe not. They’ll crucify me for being an absolutist in that sentence so I’ll say maybe not. But if your end is God then you’re closed, if you already have the answer then you’ll only believe what fits to it, if you don’t have the answer you’ll see more, you’re open, you could go anywhere but if you have only one answer and it’s fixed you could reason anything into it, even taking off a person’s head. But that’s nothing new.
There was Caravaggio in exile wanting nothing but Rome (I know how he felt, I’m going back) painting his head having been cleaved off by a sword. Next to the plate on the book is a quote from Samuel, 17, 46, which reads “I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” If it wasn’t really happening it would be rather beautiful, if you’d have shown it to me blind I would have said Knut Hamsun or Colm Tóibín had written that. It’s not a new idea, it’s old. You can’t these days erase ideas. We have the internet and we have memories. Once a thing is thought and then written, it’s written forever, especially if it’s made it into the digital age. That’s why the ‘War on Islam’ does not exist. I wish religion would disappear but it can’t now. To get rid of Islam, say, you’d have to kill every Muslim, destroy every mosque, burn every Quran, then remove all digital evidence and then kill anybody who knew what Islam was. That’s everybody.
And the Caliphate cannot erase the Shia by blowing up his shrine, cannot erase the Christian by driving her up a mountain, can’t erase his own history - where did he come from? The Muslim came from the Jew. That is at least true. Along with the Christians, they’re Ahl al-Kitāb, the People of the Book but they started with Judaism. It must be boring to realise that there is nothing new about us, nothing special. That we’re all the same. We live, we die. Caravaggio died of malaria after being left stricken on a shore while a ship sailed away with all his belongings after he’d been mistakenly arrested. We’re moving away too, away from the truth, trying to leave it behind but we can’t. There are men who will still take off people’s heads and it’s a disgusting truth but it’s been seen, been written, it’ll never disappear from their history. We move away from it and our ship sails on. We don’t want to be a part of it. But we are. There is nowhere else to go. Nowhere to escape to, no place to claim and call it something new, there’s just this - we’re just here and then one day we aren’t.
There was nowhere else to call home, for Caravaggio it was always Rome. This piece was an apology for the murder and a plea for pardon. He was pardoned but never made it back. A new state, a Caliphate, where are the executioners in Iraq trying to get to? There is nowhere else to go. I want to go back and see it on the wall, my birthday’s soon, I’ll go to Rome and get into the gallery. The book is good but I want to see those small flashes of white in the flesh. It’s his head that’s interesting for me in the painting. It’s said of the period that those of lesser importance were painted darker and those of more, lighter, well David has half of his chest bare, a sword in his right hand and Goliath’s head in the other. But it’s in Caravaggio’s face that the white flashes are. At the top of his left eye, on his teeth and what looks like a bottom lip, wet. For me, he’s the most important part of the painting, hanging from a hand in the bottom right corner. With his eyes and mouth open. There is nowhere to go. There’s just us and this here.