Thursday, 4 August 2011

A little history


My natural instinct is to not put here anything incomplete, and if I do err to delete it, but on this occasion I will make an exception, I will write about a book I have yet to complete because I may never complete it at the rate I am going, because the timing is more significant than the full commentary, and because the parts I have read are more relevant to my current feelings than those I have not.

This is a book that has proved challenging to read on several levels.

Unlike the other books on Iraq I have read and commented on this is a massive 1300 plus pages, a scholastic study of over one hundred years of social history of a nation and people with sufficient detail for at least two PhD’s, in addition to the one obtained by the author for the first sections of this book, reading it is taxing as it is in many parts dry and factual, and in others repetitive and excessively individual centred.

For personal reasons also it was a challenge, I had sections of this book read out loud to me, and it was thrust upon me on several occasions and over a two-year period as a book I “must read”, advice I would have taken under normal circumstances were it not for the reasons given.

Since the familial exodus from Baghdad that has left only one member of our immediate family behind, several relatives have become obsessed with the documentation of the family tree, and within this book several members of one branch are mentioned, the most prominent even gets a photograph, and so a copy of this book was passed from one budding genealogist to the other and back.

The burden of more nationalistic, unattainably more prominent ancestors is heavy and I had shunned the idea of “finding out more about them” for a time.

Having read parts of this book, I accept how wrong it can be to reject a whole work to avoid one aspect of it.

So enough about me, what about the book?

Well someone whose writings I admire quotes it repeatedly, and many have likened its importance to that of Ali Alwardy’s works.

The book is divided into three “books”, the first and the one that I have read in most detail covers the wealthier classes over time periods preceding the republic, specifically 1921-1958, but by necessity draws on background and events dating from the mid nineteenth century that shaped these classes.
The landed are subdivided into, and separately described as one of five groups, the tribal Sheikhs, the “religious” Sadah, the official aristocrats, the merchants, and the ex-Sharifian officers.

The much more detailed second book which I am only half way through covers the history of the Iraqi communist party, divided into three parts, spanning roughly one decade each, and associated with the groups of Iraqis that shaped the party; beginning with the Armenian and Jewish influences through the 1930s, the persona and role of Fahd in the 1940s, and finally the influence of the Kurds in the 1950s.

The final book completes the story of the communist party and its replacement by the new wave of army Ba’athists and Free officers.

The source material is from the British public records, Iraqi police held records on individuals and parties, as well as personal conversations with a number of Iraqis, some ex-aristocrats living abroad, others communists serving in Iraqi prisons, one of whom asked the author how it could be possible for an American University post-grad to write an impartial book about communism, to which the author’s response in the preface is “In any historic work, there is history, but there is also always something of oneself, one if only unwittingly, bares one’s own narrowness of experience and one’s intellectual and temperamental inadequacies..” add to that the author was born in Jerusalem in 1926 and emigrated to America in 1948….. so readers of the book beware.

On the other hand for me reading this book, there were the recurrent memories of stories and tales from elderly relatives that I could now place in context, and a clearer understanding of how I have acquired my opinions and emotional responses to certain emotive triggers… readers of this post beware.

For the most part I found this book fascinating in the minutia, in the ability to bring to life the people behind the well known names we read about in our history classes, or heard cursed by family members, but in addition there is much detail of the lives of people I had never heard of, and most importantly the lives of the ordinary Iraqis.

The suffering and abuse, the monumental thievery, and decades of neglect during the eras of foreign rule, both direct Ottoman and British and indirect British rule during the years of monarchy, the worst of which were ultimately meted out by “our own”, the conditions of peasants and unskilled workers in the vast southern parts of the country living miserable lives while the Sheiks and Sadahs maintained their lifestyles of relative opulence,
“The sadness that was the life of the peasants was also in their songs
Mother, why have you brought me forth for injustice?
Except for me, the rain comes without clouds” p 141
And how ultimately the communist party came to be born in this deep dark bleak time.

The fact that this book was published originally in 1979 explains the somewhat premature designations of significance to events that shaped the “Iraqi National coherence”
It should be borne in mind that what is becoming the Iraqi community has also grown in crises, in moments of great danger and common suffering, in the tremors of agitated masses and their outbursts of anger; if this community in embryo will in the future hold together and maintain its separate identity, the uprising of 1920, the war of 1941, the Wathbah of 1948, the intifadah of 1952, and the revolution of 1958, though not free of divisive aspects will be seen as stages in the progress of Iraq towards national coherence. p 36

One tedious feature of this book is there is much detail of the repetitive tabular type, with divisions and re-divisions of everything from lands owned to moneys spent by groups and individuals according to class, origins, family name, but recurrently also their religion or sect.

It is curious how it seems everyone other than the middle class Baghdadis seemed to have been interested in such minutia in the 1970s, but then I suppose the details of the Arabian tribal systems where carefully studied many years before 1917, the wheels of empire indeed grind exceedingly slowly, but exceedingly finely.

On the other hand at the very beginning of the book the scene is set with a sobering table chronicling the calamities suffered by Baghdadis over centuries, mostly natural, but also inflicted by our neighbours from hell. p15

Year Event
1621 Famine
1623 Hundreds of thousands of Sunnis massacred and thousands of others sold into slavery by Persians
1633 Flood
1635 Plague
1638 General slaughter by the Turks, about 30,000 victims, mostly Persians
1656 Flood
1689 Famine and plague
1733 Persian siege; more than 100,000 died of starvation, pestilence.
1777-8 Civil war in Baghdad
1786 Flood, failure of harvest; famine, civil strife
1802-03 Plague most of the people of Iraq annihilated
1822 Plague, flood
1831 Plague, flood, siege, famine, the population of Baghdad dwindled from about 80,000 to about 27,000 souls.
1877-8 Plague, famine.
1892 Flood
1895 Flood

Having lived in what Baghdad came to be within a relatively short period of time with a combination of self rule and peace, just before the recent waves of wars and destruction this table actually gave me hope, however the overall feeling from my reading of this book so far is that in so many aspects the description of people, their way of thinking and sequences of events in times not very long gone could so easily be used to describe my country today.

Whether in the somewhat typical Iraqi mistrust of people in power, which we manage to infect even our visitors with
“Every man that is employed makes the most he can of his appointment, and secures his utmost beforehand from the wreck he feels conscious he still floats on even in the full tide of his prosperity” William Heude a voyage up the Persian Gulf 1817 p216

And I am pretty sure many Iraqis will either share, or know someone who shares these views about past or current ministers.
“Under Faisal I the established families, found it difficult to suffer with equanimity the abrupt ascent to influence of men whom they regarded as upstarts. “Who is so and so that he should become a minister or a mutasarrif? His father was only a sergeant or a grocer” p 322

The interdependence and competition between cities and tribes is illustrated
“In a sense the life principles of the cities and tribes in Iraq’s river valleys were mutually contradictory. To be more concrete, the existence of powerful tribes was as a rule a concomitance of weak cities. Inversely the growth of the cities involved the decline of the tribes”. p24

And the precedent of reliance on tribal connections when law and order is lost in the cities.
“To depend on the tribe” wrote in 1910 one of Baghdad’s deputies to the Ottoman parliament, “is a thousand times safer than depending on the government, for whereas the latter defers or neglects repression, the tribe, no matter how feeble it may be, as soon as it learns that an injustice has been committed against one of its members readies itself to exact vengeance on his behalf” p 21

I was intrigued to find such a longstanding difference of opinion on the merits of tribalism in Iraq
The ex-Sharifian officers or at least some of them had military solutions for the backwardness in the tribal country: 1910 ” As long as the government will not interfere in the private life of the inhabitants and concern itself with their lodging, with their food even, as long as they will not be led by force and against their wishes towards progress like soldiers, there will be here neither prosperity nor civilization. They must be led and with a strong hand.321.
Despite the fact that a diplomatic King Faisal apposed this view, it is fair to say that there have been, and remain many who would support it.

The parts of history in this book that I found most interesting where in the details of the British occupation, the long-term pre-occupation infiltration, and the manner of thinking and influencing used by them for decades.
The commercial ascendancy of the English had long been in preparation. The groundwork had been laid by the East India Company, whose agents were seen in the port of Basra as early as 1640, although it was not until about a century later that the company succeeded in establishing a firm foothold in the country. In Iraq its weight became considerable from about 1775, when even the armed vessels owned by the pasha of Baghdad were protected and captained by Englishmen and curiously enough flew the British flag! p 236

Maintaining armies of occupation however is a costly matter, and it is much easier to manage, control and pit people against each people, particularly if you can pigeonhole them.
The British accustomed as they are to the class system, and eager to repay those who had been supportive of them entrusted much power in the hands of the locally grown versions of “nobility”:
“The longer the tribal system can be preserved” remarked one British political officer in 1918, “the better, and when at last it fails from natural causes, it is to be hoped low-born Baghdadi will be permitted to dance prematurely and indecently on its grave” p 87

The policy of separating tribesmen from townsmen was carried to the extent of planning for special residential school for the sons of tribal Shaikhs on the lines of Gordon College at Khartum or the chiefs’ college in India. Boys of this class read a 1918 British report, should not be sent to urban schools to herd with townsmen and be corrupted by the manifold vices of an Iraq city, nor should they associate with those whom their parents regard as inferiors.

In addition to their trust in the “nobility” the British, at least indirectly were happy with most of those whose power depended on their religious positions:
The revolt of 1920 failed to rid the country of alien power, however the English continued to rule in the next decade on account of the inadequacy of their financial resources by indirect means, and even though the Sadah of Shamyia suffered for their rebellion, the Sadah stratum as a whole now gained politically. Thus in the period of the mandate from 1921 when upon the initiative of the English the monarchy was instituted and Faisal of Arabia raised to the throne, till 1932, when the effective internal control of the country passed to his hands, 9 of 13 appointments to the premiership and 35 of the other 113 cabinet seats went to the Sadah. p175

Maybe the difference in emphasis in carving up the people on basis of religion between the British and the Americans is a result of different times and circumstances, or maybe it is a genuine choice of policy, but the British were clearly not averse to the idea of maximising religious differences for their own advantage:
“I have” wrote the British Civil Commissioner of Iraq in 1918, “always regarded active support of the Jewish commercial community as a potential asset of great political value and have done my best to demonstrate to them that the fruit of our intentions in this country will be palatable and beneficial to them, more so perhaps than to any other class” p 247

In 1927 when the leader of a Shia inclined party opened a fierce attack on king Faisal and the government in their paper, the articles were calculated to provoke communal animosity and embitter the feelings between the Shia and Sunnis, they dwelt upon and exaggerated past conflicts and old grievances, it was made clear in a British intelligence report that His Excellency the High Commissioner is supporting the Shia agitation” whilst at the same time the Sunni Ulama began discussing the possibility of a republic, British intelligence report would lead us to believe that this was under the influence of articles appearing in the British press, and lo and behold a group of Basra mallak’s revived an old demand for a separate Basra under British protection the promoters of this movement insinuated that their cause was supported by the premier who was especially favoured by the British government.

The Ikhwan of Najd, launched repeated attacks on Iraq, precisely on those occasions when the Iraqis or their government would not bend to British wishes, that is in 1922, when the king stood against the “Mandate”, in 1924, when a powerful anti-treaty apposition developed within the Constituent Assembly, and lastly in 1929 when the British government requested that the cost of stationing the British air force in Iraq be borne by Iraq, and that ultimate
In 1929 the secretary of state for the colonies directed the high commissioner “to exercise his judgement in using the present situation on the Iraq-Nejd frontier to emphasize the necessity for the continuance of British support and dependence of Iraq upon such support” p 329

Where the English-speaking occupiers do agree however is in the “coincidental” connections between which-bit-of-Iraq-stays-in-Iraq-/-treaties-/-long term military agreements and that insignificant stuff oil
The continued union of the Mosul Wilayah with Iraq, which had earlier that year been tied to the granting of oil rights to the nucleus of what came to be known as the Iraq Petroleum Company, was now made also contingent upon the extension of the period of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty and of its subsidiary Financial and Military agreement from four to twenty-five years, the oil rights were conceded on 14 March 1925, but to the new condition Faisal it would seem demurred though eventually he gave way. p 189

Although as a rule those who were seen to be unduly friendly with the British were treated with the contempt they deserved, it was on occasions profitable to back the policies of the foreign occupier
“The Jaryans chiefs of the Abu Sultans a section of the Zubaid tribe, to cite one example, had begun with next to nothing. In 1920 they did not have “even a piece of furniture to their name and slept in sacks”, but by 1958 they had accumulated 183,722 dunums of land in the province of Hillah and Kut. p112

I have in the past recommended books about Iraq to non-Iraqis wanting to have a better understanding of us, on this occasion I am doing the reverse, for any Iraqi who still thinks kindly (or even denies) our new occupation, read this book, at this very moment many many Americans and others somewhere are writing hosts of secret reports about individuals, groups, and officials, and in how ever many years it takes when they have eventually all left, and thirty years after that when the reports become public there will be a PhD project for someone to write up, and another to compare the outcomes.

In a book of this scope it will be very easy for twenty different people to find twenty different angles, and quote only the sections they choose, for one particular person who has always argued that Iraq is doomed for one reason above all others, and that it is our eternal fate to pay back for events that preceded the death of Mohamed’s grandson by many years I will leave you with this little gem:
We do not desire read a project circulated privately in 1910 among selected Young Turks, and authorised by the Berlin branch of the Allgemein Judische Kolonisations Organisation that the immigration and settlement should be confined specially to one part of the Ottoman dominions but that the Jewish immigrants should be distributed to different parts……..
The parts of Turkey, which seem most favourable for our present enterprise are Shatt-ul-Arab, Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine…although Iraq is large enough to contain ten times as many Jews as there are in the world, t…. We can promise and assure the attachment and friendship of the Jews towards the new Jewish emigration centre and towards the Government, which protects them, for we have the means of bringing about these feelings…287

I will soldier on reading this book, and if I can muster the energy will update this post at some point.

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