Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Book Burning in Baghdad, March 2007

In the early part of this century, I wrote a more or less weekly column for Newsweek Online under the rubric "Shadowland." Some of those are still available in the Newsweek archives, but others have to be excavated from old hard drives. And some appear to be lost forever. This draft from an aging drive was for Shadowland 149, raising themes I would come back to frequently over the years.

I am republishing it today because this weekend I expect The Daily Beast will publish a powerful story by Pesha Magid about the murder in Karbala of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub, and I think this history is relevant. Freedom of expression in Iraq remains a matter of life and death.

               Book Burning in Baghdad

History today is not so much written by the victors as by the vanquished

I was in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a very long way from Baghdad, when I read the news that a street where I once spent a lot time on my visits to Iraq, one where I learned a great deal about its people and their history, had been the target of a massive suicide car bomb.
       Al-Mutanabi [also spelled Al-Mutanabbi] was the booksellers’ street. I’d gone there a few times when Saddam Hussein was still in power and it seemed a sad, secretive, paranoid place. But I went there as often as I could in 2003 and 2004, after the American-led invasion that toppled the tyrant, because I thought I could find the spirit of freedom and liberty that our troops were supposed to have brought with them.
      What I discovered were a growing number of stalls selling religious tomes and posters, especially iconic portraits of Ali and Hussein, the sainted imams of Shi’a Islam. But, for English speakers, there was also a thriving trade in histories. Under the dictator, quietly and quite illegally, merchants had been photocopying whatever books they could get their hands on that told of Iraq’s past. Now they were anxious to sell them to the ancient capital’s new arrivals.
So I bought a copy of Gertrude Bell’s letters from Baghdad, written when she was a leading architect of British occupation in the 1920s. I acquired a British officer’s account of the grim battles in the swamps of southern Mesopotamia during World War I. (In those days, the Germans --  “The Huns” – supposedly were inciting radical Shiite militias to attack the benevolent English.) I bought a rare copy of the national museum’s catalogue, with wonderful old pictures of dozens of artifacts before they were looted under the unwatchful eyes of American soldiers.
Walking down the booksellers’ street toward the Shah Bander café, where the city’s literati once smoked water pipes, drank coffee, and debated the meaning of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  was a little like a stroll through the stacks of a great library, except that the city, the history, the culture and the passion for it, was right there, all around you.
The Reuters dispatch about the bombing yesterday was spare and evocative:
“As firefighters doused the flames which reached up to the third storey of some buildings, papers and book pages fluttered on the ground, some blackened, others bloody. Charred bodies lay almost unrecognizable, half buried in the rubble of shop fronts.”
In Spartanburg, I thought the story of Al-Mutanabi street might be worth sharing. A good friend, poet and naturalist John Lane, had invited me to little Wofford College in this, one of the reddest corners of a very red state, to speak to students and townspeople about press coverage of the Middle East. And I accepted the invitation, not least, because I often feel that Southerners are the only Americans who can understand in their guts the core problem we face in Iraq. They are the only ones ever to have felt the corrosive humiliation of occupation, in their case by northern forces after the Civil War <>. And the memory of that experience, even 142 years after Appomattox, still informs – some would say inflames – their view of the world.
This is not an original observation of mine. The great historian C. Vann Woodward pointed it out in his collection of essays, “The Burden of Southern History.” Writing in the 1960s, during the Vietnam war, he showed that the brutalizing experience of occupation has never become an acknowledged part of the American experience, so policy tends to be “grounded on the legends of success and invincibility” and “illusions of innocence and virtue.” “We sought no territorial aggrandizement, coveted no ‘colony,’ desired no subject people,” said Woodward. “We came to liberate, not to enslave.”
But what Southerners know, if they stop to think about it, is that motives do not matter. It is the fact of occupation, the fact, as Iraqis often put it, that someone is coming into your house and telling you what to do, that leaves such a long-lasting sense of humiliation, with all its concomitant anger. Were the goals of the Federal government laudable? Absolutely: to preserve the Union and to end slavery. And yet, more than 140 years later, in many corners of the South, the resentment remains.
You can get a fine, nuanced and ultimately very disturbing sense of the durable and deeply ingrained anger among the Iraqis from an extraordinary documentary film by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein due for release later this month: “The Prisoner, or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.” The earlier non-fiction feature by this husband and wife team, “Gunner Palace,” was a vivid depiction of the occupation in Baghdad during the early days of the war, told mainly from the American soldiers’ point of view. This powerful sequel tells the story of one of the men they took captive.
On the basis of very vague intelligence that was never confirmed, much less presented in court, journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas and three of his brothers were pulled from their beds one night in September 2003. The allegation made by an unnamed source that they’d somehow plotted to murder the British prime minister during one of his grip-and-grin visits to Iraq.
After lengthy interrogations about everything from their attitudes toward movie star Harrison Ford to their sexual preferences and favorite songs, Abbas and his brothers were transferred to a tent compound at Abu Ghraib prison reserved for prisoners who have not been charged, much less convicted, and have also been classified as having no  intelligence value whatsoever. They were held there for eight months, exposed not only to the lousy conditions, but to occasional mortar attacks by insurgents. While their guards had flak jackets and holes to hide in, the prisoners were defenseless.
Abbas speaks good English in measured phrases, and the extended interviews with him in “The Prisoner” are sometimes quite funny. But the irony does not disguise the anger that will likely endure as long as Abbas and his brothers live, or their descendants remember them, “I am not a terrorist or monster,” he says. “I am not Dracula. I am not a monkey or a cow. I am a man.”
One of Saudi Arabia’s veteran envoys and spokesmen, Hassan Yassin, recently tried to define for me the difference he saw in the world as it is today, and the world as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was growing up. “Today history is made instantaneously and forgotten instantaneously,” he said. “Before, history was made over time and remembered over time.”
I think that’s probably true in our era of non-stop news, or the semblance or news. (The theme I was asked to address in Spartanburg was “Iraq Around the Clock: 24/7 News and the Evil of Banality.”)  But as I was talking in South Carolina it struck me that there’s an important corollary to Yassin’s adage, because some people most certainly do remember.
In the past, history was recorded, and edited, and bent into shape by the victors. But today, when the factual record is at once so overloaded and evanescent, enduring history is written – or spoken into the camera in a film like “The Prisoner” -- by the vanquished. They’re the ones who have lived it, felt it, suffered it, and will not forget it. While Americans change the channel, Iraqis will be remembering for generations.
I thought maybe my fellow Southerners would understand this if I reminded them of a song, “Oh, I’m a Good Old Rebel,”  that many of us heard from other boys when we were in elementary school, a century or more after the end of the American Civil War. And indeed, a few gray beards in the audience did raise their hands when I asked.
There’s one verse that really stands out when I dredge it up from the dusty corners of childhood recollection:

Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust.
Yeah, we got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot,
But I wish they was three million instead of what we got.

I think my South Carolina audience understood. There was some nodding. There was a fair amount of stillness in the room. But I have no doubt that Iraqis would understand those lines, those emotions, however unjust we Americans may think they are.
After all, U.S. forces did not blow up Al-Mutanabi street. They’re “surging” through Baghdad trying to protect people. They would have prevented the bombing if they could, if anyone had told them that it was a target that needed protecting.
 But, then, how do you defend a country’s history when it’s not your own, when you don’t understand it, when you don’t speak their language, when they don’t want you there? How do you protect a people’s sense of who they are when you are a stranger in their house pulling them from their beds in the small hours of the morning?
That’s a problem that few occupiers have ever learned to address, but it’s one we’re going to have to think about for many years to come.


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