Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Steve Vincent goes "In the red zone" 

Many people around the world (including myself) write about Iraq, far fewer people get to write from Iraq, and only a very few are able to give us their picture of Iraq that emerges from extensive personal travel throughout the country. Steven Vincent is one of those very few, and his war-zone travelogue "In the Red Zone: A journey into the soul of Iraq" provides a fascinating glimpse into the realities of the post-liberation Iraq.

Vincent, a New York art critic, makes for an unusual reporter to cover the world's most talked about hot spots. Just as it did for so many others, it was the September 11 attack, which Vincent watched unfolding from the roof of his apartment, that destroyed his comfortable old certainties, alerted him to a new danger facing the West and awakened inside him the need to learn more about it. "When the Administration launched the Operation Iraqi freedom, I felt strangely excited," Vincent writes. "I wanted to join the conflict" But how? Too old to enlist (his only military experience, driving a cab in NYC, he says), too freelance to hope to accompany the troops, Vincent made the decision to see Iraq away from the frontlines: "I sought to embed myself in the Iraqi society."

What follows is a breezy and insightful four-month journey throughout the country, on a quest to discover what makes the new Iraq tick - or just as likely, not tick. Vincent's is a sober and challenging, but unsympathetic assessment of Iraq's collective psyche and numerous challenges and obstacles on the way to making Iraq a normal, functioning country. He writes:
"I saw much hope, beauty, and grace in Iraq, along with much - too much - that was irrational, brutal, and obscene. I learned some painful lessons: our great nation and its leaders are indeed fallible; good intention are often not enough; words like 'democracy' and 'freedom' roll easily off the tongue, but land on the ground of the Middle East with unpredictable results. I still support the war, but I'm more sober in my views than I was that first morning when I stood on the Iraqi border..."
Along the road, Vincent meets Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, poets and housewives, imams and feminists, "insurgents" and "collaborators", as well as "the People of the Slogans" - Western anti-war activists on their "pity tours", outraged at every American violation of human rights but oblivious to Saddam's bloody legacy (like a Dutch "peace" activist who tells an Iraqi friend of Vincent's: "Perhaps you need to see beyond your suffering under Saddam to view America more objectively."). Sometimes, the Western media is difficult to distinguish from the activists:
"Haider, for example, told me of acting as a translator for a German TV crew working outside Baghdad in the summer of 2003. The crew, he recounted, filmed a village trash heap, then reported , over his protests, that the smoldering compost was once 'fertile farmland destroyed by Coalition bombs'. In September, He accompanied a French photographer as she wandered through Baghdad looking for a scene that would dramatize Iraqi suffering resulting from war. Unable to find a suitable tableau, she paid an Iraqi woman to kneel in the debris of a partially demolished building and raise her arms to heaven as if imploring Allah to strike down the American infidels. 'The photographer had me ask the woman to remove her wristwatch so she wouldn't look too wealthy,' Haider related. Mohammad recalled watching an Al-Jazeera film crew pay men loitering on Saddoun Street to throw rocks and light a car on fire. 'Within a few minutes, Al-Jazeera made their own "anti-American" demonstration,' he said."
But in the end, Vincent concludes, as irritating as some foreigners can be, it's the Iraqis themselves who will make or break the new Iraq - it's they who will have to prove they can overcome their past to build a better future.

The obstacles are many. There is the culture of shame ("Even as they were being liberated from Saddam, Iraqis felt shamed by the fact that they couldn't do the job themselves.") which turns the "resistance" into a large scale form of "honor killing". There is "the Shia's heritage of martyrdom, insurrection and millennial fantasies", which doesn't inspire Vincent with much confidence for the democratic instincts of Iraq's majority group. There is the lack of civil society and a widespread absence of initiative ("Alienation festers deep in Iraq soul - alienation from the nation, its history, their own people and ultimately themselves."). There is the ingrained tribalism, and not the least, the country's dysfunctional sexual politics which cripple women and men in different but equal ways ("In Iraq, the relationships between men and women are sadomasochistic," says Vincent's female guide in Basra).

Yet for all the challenges of trying to straighten the crooked timber of humanity in Iraq, we simply have no choice but to persevere. Liberation was a good start, the reconstruction - both physical and moral - will be long and messy, but the alternatives are far worse than the current reality. And, if anything, Vincent's choice of paths throughout Iraq might have made his conclusions more pessimistic than they should be - after all, he did not concern himself too much with the reconstruction effort which, however haltingly, is going on around Iraq. The whole commercial aspect of Iraqi life is also largely absent from his book, if one is not to count numerous taxi drivers. In both cases, Vincent misses out on interaction with some of the most energetic, forward-looking, optimistic and entrepreneurial sections of Iraqi population - in other words, the drivers of the future change.

One other minor quibble; Vincent's "soul of Iraq" is to a very large extent a legatee of Iraq's tribal past and its Muslim character. But perhaps more could have been said about the corrosive, overlaying impact on human and national psyche of life under a totalitarian system of government, something I called before a Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder.

Overall, however, this is some of the best journalism to come out of Iraq since the liberation; not uncritical yet sympathetic, sober but hopeful. Vincent is like a good friend - it is because he so obviously feels for the people of Iraq and wishes them a decent future that he is not afraid to go beyond pleasantries and cliches and offer a balanced, unsparing and truthful diagnosis and advice.

You can get Vincent's book in all good bookshops, or better still, order it straight from the publisher and save 50% on the cover price.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?