One Enduring Trace of Our Presence

Maya Jasanoff

  • Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq by Rory Stewart
    Picador, 422 pp, £17.99, June 2006, ISBN 0 330 44049 7

Not long ago I attended a lunch at which the guests were invited to discuss the Iraq debacle. It was deep in red-state America, but everybody present was an academic, and expressed due sentiments of horror and outrage. Most were also historians of empire, and started casting about for parallels. Is Iraq like Suez, some wondered? Or Cyprus, perhaps? Or is it most like India, where the British scampered away on a hastily determined timetable, keeping their hands clean of the bloodshed that followed? Nobody mentioned Northern Ireland, the place where many British soldiers serving in Iraq were trained in counter-insurgency. For my part, I was less struck by any single imperial precedent than by the historians’ insistence on the present-day relevance of their subject. That history shapes us and our world ought to appear so self-evident as to set it above tie-ins with newspaper headlines. Yet history never repeats itself exactly; and while ‘lessons can be learned’ from the past, one can always conjure a multitude of pasts to choose from.

Presents, too. A basic classroom lesson of history is that things look different depending on where you stand. Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq explores the history in progress of the Iraqi occupation from an unusual and illuminating vantage point. The book describes nine months Stewart spent in 2003-4 working as a deputy governor and adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in southern Iraq. Books on current hot spots tend to be written by journalists; Stewart’s position as participant-observer means that he not only witnesses the chaos but has to try to do something about it. This tension, between the observing author and the active administrator, informs his account of the search for order in post-Saddam Iraq, and makes for an eye-opening and at times enthralling book.

Stewart’s stint in neo-imperial government begins with all the makings of a spoof by Evelyn Waugh. Stewart spent January 2002 tramping across ravaged Afghanistan – the subject of his travelogue The Places In Between (2004) – after which a few months back on his ancestral Scottish turf was enough to revive a yen for adventure. When the invasion of Iraq began, in March 2003, the 30-year-old Stewart sent his résumé in to the Foreign Office but got no reply; undaunted, he set off for Baghdad to ask for a job directly. He landed the position of deputy governor for the southern province of Maysan, on the Iran-Iraq border, where he would spend six months before shifting to the dangerous neighbouring province of Dhi Qar. His pre-departure training consisted of a short military course, on which a blustering sergeant warned him that, if taken captive by Iraqis, the chances were high that he would be raped. (One presumes nobody told T.E. Lawrence to ‘remember that in 75 per cent of cases when you are male-raped, you will get an erection or ejaculate. Do not worry about that . . . it does not mean that you are gay.’) In September 2003 he touched down in Basra, where he was frantically bundled into the city from the airport by a squad of bodyguards, to receive a PowerPoint briefing on his new province. A week later he reached Maysan’s capital, Amara, where, acting as interim governor until his supervisor arrived, he found himself in ‘near-absolute authority over 850,000 people’.

The Tigris cuts through Maysan, and many have located the Garden of Eden just south of its ancient marshes, home to the Madan, or Marsh Arabs. Like most residents of Maysan, the Marsh Arabs are Shia, and after the 1991 Gulf War they participated in a rebellion against Saddam. Their punishment – Saddam drained the marshes and destroyed their entire way of life – was one of the greatest environmental-cultural abuses of recent years. Wetlands became desert, Marsh Arabs became urban slum-dwellers. Today some marshes are being restored, and, as Stewart discovers, tribal affiliations remain vigorously in place. He responds sympathetically to the regional tribes – reminiscent of Scottish clans – and, as ‘Seyyed Rory’, he is treated by their sheikhs as something of a sheikh himself. The towering figure among them is a dignitary of the Albu Muhammad tribe, known evocatively as the ‘Prince of the Marshes’; the prince opposed Saddam and now provides a conservative bulwark against the Islamist supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.

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