Book review: The Iraqi Christ

A few months ago I finally got around to reading a short story collection by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was impressed by the wit, originality and punch of his writing, their well-balanced mix of very dark humor, brutality and pathos. 

Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction.

You can read the whole review here

Iraq: The Outlaw State

An excellent essay by Max Rodenbeck on recent writing about Iraq. 

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.

[…]

Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy.

Max mentions the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which I wrote about earlier here

Why the US stuck with Maliki

Pretty fascinating account by an insider of the arguments and interests that led the US and the Iraqi political elite to stick with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now being largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq. 

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

The misgovernment of Iraq

In April, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali wrote a remarkably prophetic article arguing that Nouri al-Maliki, who had convinced many Iraqi voters in the just-concluded elections that he was a strong man, was actually presiding over a rapidly weakening state. The armed forces were a "paper tiger," he argued, sapped by corruption and politicization and unwilling to fight. Six weeks later the Islamic State struck and proved Al-Ali right, as Maliki's forces in the north melted away.

The full details of just how badly Maliki governed Iraq can be found in Al-Ali's book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, an account of misrule in the country since 2003. One particularly cutting anecdote, in which Maliki kept in use a demonstrably fraudulent bomb detector, apparently to save face, at the cost of hundreds of lives, is excerpted on The Arabist here. Read in light of the fall of Mosul, the accounts dramatize how the same instincts that propel a political leader to extend control over all the institutions of state leave those very institutions fragile, led by opportunists and functionaries. That a ruthless leader does not make for a strong state is a lesson that the Arab world should have had ample opportunity to learn, yet many here still keep falling into the same trap.

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Maliki's most solemn hour

Maliki's most solemn hour

As the Baghdad government reels from the humiliating loss of Mosul to insurgents this week, ISIS resolves to succeed where al Qaeda failed in Iraq.

Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began. Non-Syrian jihadists entered Syria in numbers - though so too did foreign brigades sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah - and many of the Sunnis among these fighters came from nearby Iraq to fight in solidarity. Ironically, some had once been agents of Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way. Though increasingly a multinational conglomeration after absorbing many of the Nusra Front's foreign fighters, it has only one strategic goal today: that of gathering all Sunnis living in "Greater Syria" under its rule. 

"Many [ISIS fighters] have come from Afghanistan and Iraq," says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, describing their rule in his country's northern reaches as an effort to build a state, "cleanse" it (especially of rival anti-Assad actors), and only then begin the fighting against Assad in earnest. "Our Syrian fighters are farmers and masons, they don't have that experience." Indeed, and ISIS has delivered on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not. It has set down foundations for an emirate in the Sunni heartland abutting Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. ISIS is not al Qaeda. And because of this difference in priorities, it has done what al Qaeda failed to do: secure, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi tweeted, "contiguous territory, [a] series of linked strongholds, [and] provision of services." For much more than mere shakedowns of rich merchants and handing out candy to children is planned for northern Iraq in the coming weeks.

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Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Ned Parker, in the New York Review of Books, reminds us of the growing violence, corruption and authoritarianism that is unraveling Iraq. The damage that the US invasion of that country -- based on fraud and arrogance -- has done, to them and to us (strategically, morally, financially, and of course in terms of a damaged and blighted generation of Iraqis) can still stagger sometimes. 

Now, as Iraq prepares for its first national election in four years on April 30, it is hard to imagine democracy activists rallying weekly in Iraqi streets. For months, suicide bombers have been dynamiting themselves in crowded Shiite markets, coffee shops, and funeral tents, while Shiite militias and government security forces have terrorized Sunni communities. The Iraqi state is breaking apart again: from the west in Anbar province, where after weeks of anarchic violence more than 380,000 people have fled their homes; to the east in Diyala province, where tit-for-tat sectarian killings are rampant; to the north in Mosul, where al-Qaeda-linked militants control large swathes of territory; to the south in Basra, home to Iraq’s oil riches, where Shiite militias are once more ascendant; to Iraq’s Kurds, who warn that the country is disintegrating and contemplate full independence from Baghdad.

 

Excerpt: Zaid Al-Ali's "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures. 

 In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.

For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt. 

ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use. 

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives. 

Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.

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Portrait of an Iraqi Person

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Iraqi novelist and translator Sinan Antoon on his work translating the Iraqi poet Sangor Boulous, as part of the American University in Cairo’s ongoing In Translation series. Antoon, a professor at New York University who has translated Mahmoud Darwish, Saad Youssef and Boulous, talked about translation “as mourning.” He himself left Iraq in the early 90s and he shared poems by Boulous that engaged in the “mourning of individual and collective lives and of a lost homeland.” But he pointed out that Bolous resists easy nationalism and nostalgia even as he chronicles the staggering loss that Iraq has suffered. 

Here is Antoon's translation of "A Portrait of an Iraqi Person at the End of Time," originally published in Jadaliyya

I see him here, or there:

his eye wandering in the river of catastrophes

his nostrils rooted in the soil of massacres

his belly which grinded the wheat of madness

in Babylon’s mills

for ten thousand years

I see his portrait, which has lost its frame

in history’s repeated explosions

retrieving its features like a mirror

to surprise us every time

with its gratuitous ability to lavish

In his clear forehead you can see

as if on the pages of a book

a column of invaders passing through

just as in a black and white film:

give him any prison or graveyard!

give him any exile

any “here” or “there”

Despite that

we can see the catapults

pounding the walls

so that once again,

Uruk rises high

* Uruk: the ancient city of Sumer and then Babylonia, became an important cultural and political center. It is believed that the modern name of “Iraq” might have been derived from it.

* The poem was published in Boulus’ last collection, published posthumously: Azma ukhra li-kalb al-Qabilah (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog) (Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).

Here is Bolous himself reading, In Arabic, “I Came From There,” which Antoon said pays dues to “the dead who do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to.” Here is the text side-by-side in Arabic and English.

New book: The struggle for Iraq's future

Our friend Zaid al-Ali, constitution-watcher extraordinaire (see the podcast we did with him last year) has a new book out the disastrous path Iraq has taken since the 2003 US invasion. From the publishers's blurb:

Many Westerners have offered interpretations of Iraq’s nation-building progress in the wake of the 2003 war and the eventual withdrawal of American troops from the country, but little has been written by Iraqis themselves. This forthright book fills in the gap. Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer with direct ties to the people of his homeland, to government circles, and to the international community, provides a uniquely insightful and up-to-date view of Iraq’s people, their government, and the extent of their nation’s worsening problems.   The true picture is discouraging: murderous bombings, ever-increasing sectarianism, and pervasive government corruption have combined to prevent progress on such crucial issues as security, healthcare, and power availability. Al-Ali contends that the ill-planned U.S. intervention destroyed the Iraqi state, creating a black hole which corrupt and incompetent members of the elite have made their own. And yet, despite all efforts to divide them, Iraqis retain a strong sense of national identity, al-Ali maintains. He reevaluates Iraq’s relationship with itself, discusses the inspiration provided by the events of the Arab Spring, and redefines Iraq’s most important struggle to regain its viability as a nation.

The legacy of minority-based regimes

The question of what to do about former elites haunts countries that have undergone a radical political transformation. Retain them in office, and dissidents will complain their revolution has been "betrayed." Purge them, and the inevitable fall-off in state services, even if it is temporary, will feed instability and spread nostalgia for the fallen regime. This dilemma has recently surfaced in Libya, where militias made up of mostly working-class ex-rebels have backed a law to purge from office anyone -- including their wartime middle class allies -- who held even a minor government position under Qaddhafi. Similar laws have been drafted in Tunisia and contemplated in Egypt, and will almost certainly figure in an aftermath to the Syrian conflict.

The United States faced this dilemma in Iraq. May 16 is the ten-year anniversary of the decision it took: Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, the decree that removed top-ranking members of the Baath party from their positions in Iraqi state institutions, swiftly followed by CPA number 2, which dissolved the military to be rebuilt anew. As Sunnis tended to rise more easily to top posts than Shiites, both decrees affected Sunnis disproportionately. Collectively they are often termed "de-Baathification."

Today, CPA Order 1 is one of the most universally condemned American foreign policy decisions of this generation Even proponents of the war tend to describe it as a terrible mistake. With Iraq's legacy under review, both because of the 10 year anniversary and because of contemplated intervention in Syria, CPA Order 1 has been invoked by both sides in the debate: one side frequently depicting it as an indication of the headstrong mindset by which the Americans helped plunge Iraq into the chaos, the other side seeing it as a mistake that, because it can be avoided in the future, does not necessarily condemn intervention as a doctrine.

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Iraqi media ban and sectarianism

Paul Mutter writes in:

I have a piece at Tech President about the Iraqi government's decision to suspend the broadcasting licenses for 10 channels in the country following what is now two weeks of sectarian violence concentrated in and around Baghdad. One of the networks was Al Jazeera, but except for a single Kuwaiti channel that is meant to appeal to Shia Iraqis, the rest were either based in Iraq or owned by Iraqi expatriates, and are regarded by their critics as anti-government, pro-Sunni and, for some, pro-Baathist:

The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad”. This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Wamith gave me a lot of helpful context about the relationship between particular domestic channels and the government, plus the general state of press freedom in his country. The actions Maliki et al. took this past week against the networks shows just how deeply non-Sunni establishments have come to distrust the politics of the "Sunni media" these days - think of Al Jazeera Arabic's reception in Egypt and Syria nowadays. But, there is a lot of debate that is particular to Iraq's volatile coalition politics and general war-weariness, as I note that when "people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties."

Read the whole article here.