Making Money

Andrew Cockburn

  • Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family by Tamara Chalabi
    Harper, 352 pp, £12.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 06 124039 3
  • From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam by Hamid al-Bayati
    Pennsylvania, 347 pp, £23.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 8122 4288 1

Tamara Chalabi’s chronicle of her family might make for an ideal TV series, recounting as it does a comforting upper-class idyll complete with loyal attendants, marred only by revolution, exile and controversy and concluding with a triumphant return home to prosperity. An honest recounting of the story would have to feature among its climactic episodes the chequered career of the clan’s most famous member, Tamara Chalabi’s father Ahmad, the collapse of his banking empire in 1989, a subsequent conviction in absentia for embezzlement and 22-year jail sentence, his ensuing career in the 1990s as a CIA ‘asset’ leading to brilliant success as a manipulator of US politicians and media and culminating in the invasion and occupation of his own country. Needless to say, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace does not present his story quite this way.

During Ottoman rule, the Chalabi family prospered as tax collectors in the Shia enclave of Kazimiya, just north-east of Baghdad. Some of them fought for the Ottomans in the First World War. In 1922, as Tamara Chalabi relates, her great-grandfather, Abdul Hussein Chalabi, defied the Shia religious establishment by accepting the post of education minister in a cabinet that otherwise consisted entirely of Sunnis. He was ostracised by angry ayatollahs, who rejected any co-operation with a regime under foreign control, but the decision to forsake Kazimiya for Baghdad proved a shrewd one. Favoured by the court and British grandees such as Gertrude Bell, Abdul Hussein was regularly chosen for cabinet posts throughout the 1920s. His eldest son, Hadi, an able and energetic businessman, meanwhile bought state lands and built a thriving agricultural business that expanded rapidly once he entered into close partnership with the British shippers and grain dealers Andrew Weir & Co. Another son, Muhammad Ali, prospered as the chief executive of the government-owned Rafidain bank.

The Chalabis were now comfortably established at the top of Baghdadi commerce and society. The city was undergoing a renaissance after centuries as an Ottoman backwater. Cinemas showed the latest Egyptian and Hollywood films. The progressive Abdul Hussein rose in social esteem when he allowed Hadi’s wife Bibi to attend a concert by the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. She still had to wear an abaya, but it was not long before a change in mores allowed her to abandon the formerly mandatory head covering. (Not that the Chalabis had done away with tradition entirely. When a few years later Hadi was unjustly jailed, Bibi sent prayers for his release to the Twelfth Imam, the ‘Master of Time’ venerated by the Shia, by little reed boats launched on the Tigris.)

The historian of Iraq Hanna Batatu delivers a more instructive account of the Chalabis’ adroit political manoeuvrings under the ancien regime in his exhaustive work The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978). Batatu, who even interviewed prisoners awaiting execution after the 1963 Baathist coup, cites Ahmad’s elder brother Jawad as his source in reporting that during the Ottoman era, the Chalabis profited from their status as one of the few Shia families favoured by the sultans’ proxies in Baghdad. Ali, Abdul Hussein’s father, benefiting from the lucrative tax-collecting concession for Kazimiya, was known as ‘a very harsh man, who kept a bodyguard of armed slaves and had a special prison at his disposal. When he died, the people of Kazimiya heaved a sigh of relief.’

Abdul Hussein continued the family role – a British intelligence report from 1925 described him as ‘safe and accommodating’. Again citing Jawad, Batatu reports that Hadi entered the good graces of the unpopular regent Abdul Ilah thanks to a timely supply of loans. ‘The prince, who had a passion for gambling at the races,’ Batatu writes, ‘never repaid Hadi, but in due course made him a minister of public works and eventually the vice-president of the Senate.’ Growing ever richer, Hadi ‘expanded his interests in many directions, making good use of the knowledge and connections that his official appointments brought him.’ Meanwhile his brother Muhammad Ali took control of the Rafidain bank, attaining ‘almost dictatorial power’ over Iraqi finance. Thus, Batatu concludes, ‘the Chalabis … on the eve of the 1958 revolution surpassed other business families, at least, in easily realisable capital.’

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