Books — More views of Iraq


by Lisa Parsons


As seen by a journalist, a scholar and a child

A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, by Åsne Seierstad, Basic Books, 2005, 321 pages.

On Wednesday, March 19, 2003, while everyone else was piling out of Baghdad, Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad was fighting her way in. President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave the country or face military action was winding down.

“Reason tells me to leave the country,” wrote Seierstad. “No one can foresee what will happen, or if we will ever get out. But reason doesn’t get its message across; I push it to the side, I don’t want to think about it, I’m not able to think about it.”

She had arrived in January accompanied by Norwegian aid workers, noting that Baghdad is “like any other large Middle Eastern city – noisy, pounding and fume-filled.” The first portion of her book tells of the pre-war period, during which she was continually frustrated in her attempts to connect with ordinary Iraqis. Like all other visitors, Seierstad was assigned an official “minder” (babysitter/watchdog) who accompanied her on every excursion outside her quarters, and even then she needed advance permission to travel. Foreigners were not allowed to wander freely. Yet she makes this portion of the book highly interesting, by describing in detail the sights and sounds and her conversations with the minder, with officials, with everyone.

With A Hundred and One Days, Seierstad does exactly what journalists are supposed to do: act as our eyes and ears in a place we can’t be. Excerpted in the book are a few magazine articles Seierstad wrote for European press while she was in Iraq, but the book brings us much more. There is also one important thing it does not bring us: Seierstad’s personal political views.

Different Iraqi voices are heard, but the general impression is of a people oppressed. Cell phones must be hidden; no one dares say a word against Saddam; the party line is parroted endlessly by everyone even in the most trivial of circumstances. During the military action, “BBC, CNN and Sky News … are closely monitored. When the journalists are reporting, a minder stands nearby listening to what is being said. It is prohibited to use words such as ‘dictator,’ ‘tyrant’ or ‘brutal’ to characterize Saddam Hussein, or to pinpoint targets that have been hit. They can be no more specific than ‘a large building, close by.’” In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, you’re either with him or against him.

Before the war we sense oppression and fear along with resignation and defiance. During the war, Seierstad experiences tumult, destruction, constant adrenaline; some Iraqis express relief and even jubilation; some express rage; many express desperate anger as innocent civilians are killed mid-stride by shrapnel. Some continue to spout the party line. Some even believe it.

Afterward, Seierstad expertly sums up by quoting two Iraqis, men with whom we’ve grown familiar through the 101 days. Both are weeping. One says, “This is my country…Iraq is my country! It shall not be ruled by Americans.” The other says, “I am so happy. At last! At last we are free! At last we can start living! I love America.”

Seierstad has given us a vivid, captivating account that well satisfies both our emotional curiosity and our need – as in duty – to know.

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, by Noah Feldman, Princeton University Press, 2004, 154 pages.

Now that we’re in this mess, what should we do?

Noah Feldman, law professor at NYU and former advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, lays out his case for nation building like he’s in court or maybe law school. (Including one use of the word “usufruct.” Me either.)

Forget what you thought we should have done in March 2003, Feldman says; all that matters now is what we do now. And what we must do now, for ethical and practical reasons, is put Iraqis’ interests first, regardless of whose interests we acted in when we invaded.

Feldman’s preferred view of nation building is that the occupier is holding the authority to govern in trust for the people. “To nation build successfully and ethically, we need to abandon the paternalistic idea that we know how to produce a functioning, successful democracy better than do others,” he says. We simply owe the Iraqis stability and security and a push-start down their own path to forming their own democracy.

So while, yes, we owe it to them to butt out as much as possible (as per Polk, above), we also owe it to them to stick around long enough for a workable Iraq to gel. This we failed to do in Afghanistan, he says: “You can bet that Afghanistan will remain outside American national consciousness until that country reemerges as a staging ground for terrorism.” 

Feldman nicely articulates the many dilemmas inherent in nation building. He sounds hopeful even as he acknowledges how very many mines are in this field of endeavor. Stick it out through the highly abstract Chapter 1 (lots of “scenarios” and game theory) and you’ll be rewarded with a more real-world, debate-like discussion in Chapters 2 and 3. (That’s the whole thing. It’s a short book.) Feldman advised the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003, and has a couple of stories to tell. And for a guy who uses words like “usufruct,” he’s remarkably clear-headed. Then again, maybe you have to be.

Overall: a clear, thinky discussion of how we ought to behave in Iraq, presented in the style of a colloquial lecture.

My Father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan, by Hiner Saleem; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 102 pages.

I can imagine this book being assigned to high school students, because it’s a slim 100 pages and it’s a first-person account of a youth spent in a place that’s in today’s headlines.

Hiner Saleem, born in 1964, is growing up in a nice home in a town called Aqra when one day there is shooting and screaming and seven members of his extended family are killed because a Kurdish-rebel cousin has tangled with the government militia. Saleem’s immediate family flees to Bille, a riverside village run by separatist Kurdish leader General Barzani. They later return to Aqra hoping the new Iraq, under Saddam Hussein and his co-leader, will be better. It’s not. They spend time in a UN refugee camp in Iran but again return to Aqra because it’s home. By now Saddam is everywhere; free speech is stifled, friends and loved ones are killed or taken away by secret police.

Saleem finally makes a break for it, alone, keeping his family safely unaware of his plans. At age 17 he crosses the border to Syria and freedom. He is now a filmmaker in France. On the book’s last page he tells what became of various players in his story: one family member fled to Germany; more than one friend died under torture.

Despite the story’s misery, this account is an enlightening, even hopeful read, though also certainly sobering. It is written in a rational, un-dramatic voice. Fascinating is how this young boy, caught up in a war zone, surrounded by brutality, bombs and constant suspicion, lives an ordinary life in the spaces in between – playing, loafing around, longing to try Orangina.

Despite the title, his dad’s old Czechoslovakian rifle doesn’t play a central role; perhaps Saleem imagined that in the movie it would be a dramatic icon. The core of the tale is Saleem himself. “Our crazy dream of Kurdish independence lived on,” he writes. The story is not yet finished.

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH