Friday, June 30, 2023

Review A Stranger in Your Own City, Travels in the Middle East’s Long War

Abdul-Ahad, Ghaith, A Stranger in Your Own City, Travels in the Middle East’s Long War, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2023


A Stranger in Your Own City, Travels in the Middle East’s Long War by journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is an engaging story about him growing up in Baghdad and then experiencing the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. It’s a tale of a nation beset by problems from the 1990s sanctions that impoverished most to the exiles that created a new ethnosectarian political system that was then used it to justify violence. The new elite ended up killing its youth in the street for protesting against corruption. It’s an important addition to the cannon because it not only includes his own recollections of this period but also many Iraqi civilians, soldiers and officials when most books are by and about Westerners.


Abdul-Ahad made lots of notable observations about his country. He believed the sanctions period turned Iraq into a country of hustlers as most people were forced to sell their possessions to try to make money. He felt the looting immediately after the 2003 invasion was payback for years of dictatorship which took everything from the population. He thought the Shiite religious parties created a new national myth with the Shiites as the oppressed and the Sunnis as oppressors which helped justify their assuming power after Saddam and fueled sectarian violence. That culminated in a civil war in the 2000s and continued into the fight against the Islamic State in 2014. As the head of Badr Haid Amiri told the author:


Before separating the two communities, we need wars and demographic cleansing. We need sectarian stories to agitate the people, stories and mythologies and tragedies of how the Shite were forced to leave their lands, of how the Sunnis were killed. You need to build enough hatred until you and I can’t live together any more – then the divisions become fact


This thinking led Shiite militias to cleanse many areas of Baghdad of Sunnis from 2006-08 and then tried to do the same in the surrounding provinces during the war with IS. The ruling class ended up gunning down its own youth which it was supposed to protect when they protested against the corruption of the state in 2018. Abdul-Ahad said that this was when the post-03 regime lost its legitimacy. This was all part of the author’s portrayal of a country in turmoil for most of his life. The main cause he believed was one failed government after another which cared about itself rather than the public.


A Stranger in Your Own City also has some powerful personal stories from Iraqis. The author spent time with Captain Ahmad of the Golden Division. He talked about his 3 months fighting the Islamic State at the Baiji Refinery in Salahaddin when he went in with 25 volunteers only 9 of which survived. His unit was cut off from supplies and had to bury his men where they fell because they were surrounded. Afterward the families of his dead soldiers blamed him for not bringing back their bodies.  


The author felt the Golden Division committed great acts of bravery during the war but also crimes. For instance as the Battle for Mosul was coming to an end every male the division found it considered a militant and executed. For instance it came across an old man who claimed he was a medic forced to work in an Islamic State field hospital. He said he was old so he couldn’t be a member of IS. The unit commander didn’t believe him so they beat him to try to get him to confess. He refused so they held him out of a window. When he still wouldn’t admit to anything they dropped him to his death and then shot him a few times for good measure. One wonders why the soldiers wanted a confession when they were going to kill him no matter what but the author saw this same process over and over again. Perhaps they needed to hear the person say they were with the Islamists to justify what they were going to do to them.


It's been 20 years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and there still aren’t many books in English by Iraqis about that time period. That’s why A Stranger in Your Own City is a welcomed addition. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was a lifelong Baghdadi and not an exile, not to mention being a journalist gave him access to Iraqis across the country and into the halls of power. His account is not a happy one as he saw Iraq fall apart around him. He provides a sweeping narrative across various topics but his main theme was that from Saddam to the United States to the new political class it empowered the rulers have never really cared about the population and they have suffered the consequences with devastating effects.


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