Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Records of an invasion

L'Irak de la crise au chaos: chroniques d'une invasion (Iraq from Crisis to Chaos: Chronicles of an Invasion), ed. Kenneth Brown, Paris: Ibis Press. pp321

Made up of articles of various lengths by journalists, writers, diplomats and commentators of different nationalities and mother tongues, L'Irak de la crise au chaos: chroniques d'une invasion provides useful international perspectives in French and in English on the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. Edited by Kenneth Brown, a specialist on the Middle East and editor of the Paris-based French and English-language review Mediterraneans / Méditerranéennes, the collection unites some republished pieces with mostly specially commissioned items. Taken together, these provide a powerful indictment both of the US-led invasion of Iraq and of its chaotic aftermath.

Appearing biannually, Mediterraneans / Méditerranéennes is a review that mixes reportage, fiction, photography and essayistic pieces in the manner of the better-known British review Granta. Devoted to aspects of Mediterranean life and culture, recent issues have focused on Istanbul, Alexandria and Morocco, and Brown has retained the review's characteristic format for the present collection of pieces on Iraq. Introduced by Brown and Stéphane Hessel, a former French ambassador, the book is divided into "preliminaries", "analyses", "chronicles" and "narratives" of the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, articles by prominent commentators such as Eric Rouleau, William Polk, Robert Mabro and Sami Zubaida in the book's first two sections giving way to first-person pieces by novelists and writers including well-known figures like novelist Juan Goytisolo and novelist and critic John Berger.

Among the articles, former French ambassador and Middle East correspondent of Le Monde Eric Rouleau contributes a valuable reminder of life in Iraq in the 1990s during the UN embargo against the country ( L'Irak sous embargo / Irak under the Embargo ). First published in Le Monde diplomatique in 1994, Rouleau describes in his article a visit to Baghdad, bringing out not only the scale of the damage inflicted on the country during the 1991 Gulf War but also the "slow suffocation" of what was left of the Iraqi economy under UN sanctions. "According to UNICEF some 3.6 million people are suffering from severe malnourishment...and are threatened with severe health problems...The Iraqi dinar was worth 3.2 US dollars in May 1993. This autumn one US dollar is worth 700 Iraqi dinars."

Elsewhere in the same section, US historian William Polk, in a piece dated March 2003 ( Une sombre affaire / A Sombre Affair ), reviews the arguments given by the Bush Administration for the invasion of Iraq. Dismissing these as fantasies, he outlines the "hidden agenda determining American relations with Iraq: the new strategic conception of American world domination; the messianic faith in Christian fundamentalism; and the connection between Christian fundamentalism and Zionism." In an article entitled L'Amérique: une super-puissance face à l'Irak (America: a Super-Power confronts Iraq) Oxford economist Robert Mabro reaches similar conclusions: "the disappearance of the Saddam regime is a good thing. But it is the only item on the plus side... For the rest, the economic and political situation of this unhappy country is still chaotic, and politics in the United States and in Great Britain have been more polluted than usual by lies."

For Sami Zubaida, originally from Iraq and now Emeritus Professor of Politics at London University, Coalition policies in Iraq after the US-led invasion cannot have helped but exacerbate sectarian feeling in the country. As he notes in his contribution, Iraq: the Prospects, written in English, "the Coalition authorities have bestowed power on whomsoever they designated as a communal leader. A crucial question is whether the pluralism which must underlie democracy can be a plurality of 'communities', whether ethnic, tribal or religious, or should the aim be the plurality of parties, associations and institutions of civil society in which people participate as citizens." Most people would say the latter, even as Coalition policies in Iraq have encouraged the former with the present tragic results.

Finally, a dialogue between Lacanian psychoanalysts Charles Melman and Moustapha Safouan yields interesting reflections, among them Safouan's outspoken comments on civil-society development and intellectual life in the Arab world. Kenneth Brown's own piece in the same section of the book, Etats d'esprit (States of Mind) records the author's experiences in Iraq in May 2003 shortly after the fall of the Saddam regime. This is the scene greeting visitors to the outdoor market on Al-Rashid street in Baghdad: "everything that had been stolen from the public buildings could be found here: doors, windows, Louis XIV-style armchairs, cupboards, lamps, desks, portraits, busts and statues of Saddam, traditional-style suits and all the things once possessed by men and women associated with the Baathist regime, all for sale at rock-bottom prices."

Brown interviews several Iraqi university professors in Baghdad on the prospects now facing their country. "I was shocked and demoralised," he writes, "by the difficulties faced by this country. The intolerable conditions of the Iraqi people, the consequences of a generation of Baathist tyranny, embargo and war, were sowing confusion and stirring up blind hatreds. And the American invasion and occupation had opened up this Pandora's box."

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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