Blogs > Cliopatria > Have Iraqis changed all that much since 1958?

Nov 12, 2006 3:43 am

Have Iraqis changed all that much since 1958?

Among the daily horror of escalating civil war in Iraq, I take refuge in history. I believe that what a people once was cannot completely be erased by the interventions of the present, no matter how crippling the burdens of oppression, external interference and war. This realization has gradually dawned upon me as I continue to interview older Iraqis in Amman, Jordan, for a project on the monarchy period in Iraq (1921-1958). While an informed perspective on Iraq’s history as well as a dose of common sense would require us to note that that younger Iraqis, who have weathered persecution, instability, continuous military conflict and radical economic deprivation may realistically have nothing in common with an older, more worldly class of compatriots, who have lived abroad and are, for the most part, at ease in exile, I continue to find interesting connections and relationships between older and younger Iraqis that defy barriers of class, confession, ethnicity and power. Even now, as ethnic cleansing and religion-based ideologies take hold in certain parts of Iraq, Iraqis in exile in Amman very often refuse to enter in the heavily politicized arena of sectarian-baiting and racist abuse that passes for a certain kind of power discourse at home.

In conversation with older and younger Iraqis in Amman, I have been led to believe that there are two reasons for this. The first is that only certain groups of Iraqis are participating in the hellish assassinations and counter-assassinations, kidnappings and forcible deportations taking place throughout Iraq. While it is true that the political equation is muddied by the frequent interventions of insurgent movements, powerful militias, American “security” operations and an inchoate, often rudderless and vengeance-prone underclass, it is also true that bonds of solidarity and national cohesiveness are not completely frayed. As one Iraqi recently told me, “The vast majority of Iraqis are spectators to this onslaught, and are watching, waiting and hoping for sanity to return”.

The second reason is that, once Iraqis are safely, if only temporarily, settled in Amman, bonds of civility re-emerge and people that would have been at odds with one another in Baghdad or Basra or Mosul, face a new reality. Regardless of the cauldron in their home country that pushed them out of their homes into exile, they are regarded by Jordan as Iraqis, first and foremost. Despite the sectarian and ethnic resentments that may brew deep in their collective psyches, which are frequently directed at fellow Iraqis, Iraqi exiles are monolithically seen by organs of the Jordanian government and security
agencies as an undifferentiated, potentially threatening refugee “problem” justifying increased Jordanian vigilance. And, as often happens in other migrant communities all over the world, this leads to reinforced bonds and support between Iraqis at all levels.

I have sometimes been accused of romanticizing the ties that bind Iraqis together. I was even told in Amman, at the conference on Iraq in January 2005, that because I was an Iraqi expatriate and had not lived through the turmoil of the Saddam Hussein years, I was sweeping under the rug hundreds of years of animosities that, taken together, defined the real Iraqi condition. I don’t think that’s true. I know how visible sub-national loyalties have become, and how categories of sect, ethnicity, social background, political affiliation and religious identity have assumed the primacy once reserved for national solidarities. But I don’t despair at the thought. Iraqis take their national identity for granted in a way that often baffles foreigners. With the major omission of the Kurds, who have taken a decisive step towards eventual separation and Kurdish nationhood that has very little echo in the rest of the country, most Iraqis are not subsuming Iraqi nationalism under communal or primordial labels to negate it altogether, but retrenching into social and communal solidarities out of fear, confusion at the breakdown of the state, or even material rewards held out by emergent forces in the new economy.

In fact, the collective Iraqi experience is shaped by thousands of years of such haggling between communal and “national” forces. The negotiation between both is riven by endemic divisions that are characteristic of the nation. To exaggerate these divisions or consider them in any way disruptive of the “peace” that supposedly typified earlier periods, such as the era of royalist Iraq, is not to know the country or its people at all, and the continuous process of re-imagination and re-conceptualization that uncertainly holds both together.

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