Blogs > Cliopatria > Robert F. Worth: The Reporter's Arab Library

Nov 1, 2005 8:10 pm

Robert F. Worth: The Reporter's Arab Library

I FIRST saw the book more than two years ago while wandering down Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, where the booksellers gather on Friday mornings. It was a frayed paperback set among stacks of aging 1980's magazines and periodicals, the refuse of Iraq's long intellectual isolation. On the cover was a dim gold sun over sand dunes, and the title: "Arabian Sands" (1959), by Wilfred Thesiger.

"You should buy that book," said my translator, a gaunt, bookish young man named Ghaith, who had risked his life under Saddam Hussein by reading American novels in public. "If you read one book about Iraq it should be Thesiger."

He was right. I sat up late that night, devouring Thesiger's account of his travels with a group of Bedouin tribesmen through Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter, where he hunted oryx and lived on dates and on water that tasted of camel urine. It was a far, far cry from the air-conditioned compound where I cowered behind my laptop eating PowerBars. It was also my first glimpse of the Arab history that lay beneath the rubble of Baghdad.

Like many other reporters, I had dutifully tossed a handful of paperbacks into my duffel before coming to Iraq in 2003. "Out of the Ashes," by Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, was among the most readable of the lot, along with Dilip Hiro's "Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm." Michael Kelly's excellent book of dispatches about the first gulf war, "Martyrs' Day," was a model for aspiring war correspondents, as was Rick Atkinson's "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War."

All these books were useful primers for covering the fall of Saddam Hussein. ...

One of the strangest and most wonderful things about Iraq, to Western eyes, is that the ancient past is so interwoven with the present. It's not just the Babylonian ruins poking up among the housing projects. I have spoken to weeping pilgrims who seemed to make no distinction between the killing of the Shiite martyr Hussein in A.D. 680 and of friends and relatives who died last week. Politicians routinely impugn their rivals as Iranian stooges by calling them Safawees, as if the Safavid empire of Persia (1502-1736) still existed. Insurgents toting AK-47's openly say they want to bring the country back to the early seventh century. ...

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