Born and raised in Baghdad, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad trained as an architect but stumbled into a career in journalism when, shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he took a job as translator for a Guardian reporter. He went on to become a respected foreign correspondent covering Middle Eastern affairs; his reporting on the Syrian civil war earned him an Orwell prize for journalism in 2014. In Stranger in Your Own City, he chronicles the past two decades of turmoil with an engaging blend of memoir, reportage and interviews. It is a story of catastrophic societal breakdown, culminating in violence and terror on an unprecedented scale: under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, he writes, “at least we knew the parameters of fear, and we knew how to survive. In the midst of this chaos, no one knew anything any more.”
Abdul-Ahad starts with the prehistory: the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the 40-day conflict over Kuwait in 1990-91 and the ensuing 13 years of UN sanctions. Then, in 2003, came the invasion and resultant insurgency: the slide into anarchy so tragically symbolised by the pillaging of the national museum; the appointment of a governing council that “would enable a coalition of corrupt, imbecilic warlords to … create one of the most corrupt nations on Earth”; the degeneration of state and society into banditry and sectarianism amid a dizzying proliferation of religious and political factions, and later on, the rise of Islamic State.
Interviews shed light on the personal motivations of ordinary Iraqis who participated in sectarian terrorism. Abdul-Ahad talks to an assortment of Sunni and Shia militiamen, young jihadis who “spoke about death with a glimmer in their eyes. Not with fear but anticipation, maybe yearning”. The picture that emerges is of a conflict driven as much by cynical commercial opportunism as religious conviction. A Sunni arms dealer tells him he bulk-buys AK-47 bullets from a corrupt US officer, with financial help from benefactors in Gulf countries: “It has become a business; they give you money to kill Shia, we take their houses and sell their cars … The Shia are doing the same.” A Shia militiaman in Sadr City corroborates this: “We ask the families … for ransom money, and after they pay the ransom, we kill them anyway.”
The book is a bracing read, punctuated by accounts of violence, torture and extortion. In one heart-rending passage, a mother in Baghdad relates that four of her five sons were murdered by religious extremists, and the fifth was detained by corrupt police officers: “They would call us from the prison … they said your son is being tortured, he will die if you don’t pay, and we paid and paid. What can I do? He is the last I have.” In the background, the devastation of the urban environment is vividly recorded: war-torn Ramadi smelled like “a mixture of charred concrete, putrefied garbage and gunpowder”; the streets of Mosul’s Old City “resembled concrete dough kneaded by giant fingers.”
Next month marks the 20th anniversary of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s criminally reckless invasion. As Abdul-Ahad notes, it was misconceived from the outset: “No amount of planning could have turned an illegal occupation into a liberation.” Though Saddam’s regime had “fossilised social, artistic and economic development” in Iraq, the bloodbath that followed its toppling has “permanently crippled democracy in the Middle East”. Moreover, Abdul-Ahad believes the very idea of Iraqi nationhood – embodied in the Arabic word watan – has been eroded. “When the state failed to protect or provide for its citizens,” he observes, “the ‘tribe’, ‘family’ and ‘sect’ emerged as alternative power structures.” This is poignantly borne out in a remark by one interviewee, a teacher called Ustad Ali: “The worst thing … is that the student defines himself only by his sectarian identity, he is a Shia from Sadr City or from Bayaa. There is no watan, no nation, any more.”
Source : Theguardian