Blogs > Cliopatria > The Multiplicity of Iraqi Identities, and What It All Means.

Aug 13, 2004 5:25 am

The Multiplicity of Iraqi Identities, and What It All Means.

Over the past week, I’ve been busy organizing a conference on Iraqi identity, to be held in Amman in early January. When I think of the subject these days, I often recall a cold winter’s day in Baghdad in 1981 where I had been for the past four months, doing research for my PhD dissertation. I was looking at the card catalogue in the Iraqi Academy of Sciences (majma’ al-ilmi al-Iraqi), a superb repository of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Kurdish and Semitic language books and manuscripts. I chanced to meet another visiting scholar at the card catalogue table that day, and we fell into a fascinating conversation on Iraqi history. Because he had provided me with a lot of information, some of which may have been considered controversial by the authorities (this was the second year of the Iraq-Iran war and the Baathist regime was persecuting anybody it thought had dissident ideas), I wanted to thank him for his substantial contribution. I thought the best thing would be to introduce myself, as a way to set the relationship on an even keel. After I had done so, I waited for him to reciprocate, but after a few moments of embarrassed silence, he finally said with a big smile, “ana ‘ubaydi” ( I am an ‘Ubaydi) and walked off.

For Iraqis, or anyone who knows Iraqi society well, this was a clue that put this particular scholar’s identity within a readily identifiable social, religious, economic and political context. However, that context was prone to interpretation.On one level, the statement,"ana 'ubaydi" unravelled the man’s identity as if it were a loosely knit sweater. On the other, it enveloped him with even more ambiguity. Let me start with the ascertainable facts. The ‘Ubayd were, and still are, a famous tribe that had settled in Iraq some time before the Islamic era (in other words, before the seventh century). Eventually, they carved out diras or territorial districts over which they held full sway, challenging any visitor or stranger to pay a khuwa or transit tax to traverse the district, or use the tribe’s wells. The Ubayd were split into several clans or families; some settled in Mosul (northern Iraq) but the more famous clans established themselves in Baghdad. The Al-Shawi family became the most important liason between the Iraqi tribes and the Mamluk government of Baghdad in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, until one of their leaders quarreled with a Mamluk governor and their star eventually waned. The Ubayd were, generally speaking, Sunni but as I have suggested in a previous post, this did not preclude Shi’a clans from associating with the parent tribe. Finally, it is worth noting that the ‘Ubayd tribe in Baghdad settled down to urban pursuits more successfully than other tribes in Iraq; in fact, their leaders became so urbane that the name itself became but a calling card. While it still recalled a glorious tribal past, the tribe’s historic exploits were not matched by its physical presence in twentieth century Baghdad. Partly because of the rapid development of the capital, the ‘Ubayd’s core constituency, the tribe lost its physical cohesion and became primarily a supra-identity that could be used to explain, or obscure a number of facets of a person’s corporate or individual personality.

And so to get back to the ‘Ubaydi scholar I met in the majma’ al-ilmi. The Ubayd’s long-standing affiliation with Baghdad was such that I could assume that he was from Baghdadi family, that he was most probably a Sunni, and that he no longer was strongly tied to the infrastructure of his tribal past (in other words, he was not likely to pay a visit to the tribal mudhif or assembly house, if one still existed, in Baghdad). But what did that mean, in the end? Did it get me any closer to the man's INDIVIDUAL identity, or was I only ascertaining his abstract, CORPORATE affiliation? In this case, the category of"Ubaydi" could be used either as an institutional marker (delineating origin, religious background and social status), or as a cloak in which all of these things were to be preceded with a question mark. By throwing out the term,"ubaydi", the scholar I met in the majma' al-ilmi knew full well that he was protecting himself by hiding behind the known facts, which would not give him away.

The points I want to make are two. On the one level, identity takes many forms, all of them susceptible to change. The supposed remission of tribal identity under the Baathist regime was interpreted by many as the strengthening of an urban,"modernized" affiliation that had forever wiped out the older, corporate, and in some ways, anti-state identity of a previous generation. Quite possibly this may have happened in many instances. People HAD shed their tribal identity to take on a more citified, perhaps more pro-government view. But the phenomenon has only grown in strength in post-war Iraq. In fact, the resurgence of Iraqi tribes in 2003-2004 is quite astonishing. Where did they spring from? It is true that Saddam Hussein had created tribes from scratch in the sanctions decade immediately preceding the war, but the"invention" of tribes notwithstanding, a huge number of the older tribes had come out in the open, and begun to reassert their tribal identity.Obviously, the call of the tribe was still potent enough to reassert itself in the post-Saddam era, which means that under the monarchy and the first Republican regimes, it had not died out all but been in remission. Leaving aside the fabrication of identities for political purposes, which probably had a lot to do with the rapid re-identification of Iraqis as tribesmen, I just want to reiterate that identities are constantly in free flow; they are fluctuating views of constantly changing situations on the ground.

The second point is, quite naturally, that identity formation grows within a CONTEXT. If you do not understand the social, economic, cultural and political underpinnings of a society, you cannot understand either its corporate or individual identities, affiliations or loyalties. Anyone who tries to pinpoint an Iraqi in terms of a static rubric (Sunni/Shi'i/Kurd/Assyrian/Sabean/Turcoman)will be forever lost in the wilderness. And he/she will probably deserve to be so.

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More Comments:

Hala Fattah - 8/19/2004

Dear Daniel,
As always, thank you very much. I'm enormously gratified that you read my material so carefully. Maybe we can do an article on crosscultural stuff one day.

Daniel B. Larison - 8/19/2004

Dear Hala,
Thanks once again for a good posting. Your stress on the complexity and contingency of identity is so very much needed in discussions of this kind. It seems as if such debates are forever mired in fruitless shouting matches between 'essentialists' who believe in some immutable identities that will never change and have never existed and those who think that because an identity is culturally constructed it is therefore irrelevant or meaningless. Your blog is a great antidote to the "terrible simplifiers" who do most of the writing about Iraq these days.


Hala Fattah - 8/18/2004

Hi Jonathan,
I think I understand his reluctance not to identify himself further. After all, I was a stranger. Even though I'd identified myself, I was still a stranger, and obviously one who didn't live in Iraq. So I was free to identify myself by name but I was also free to leave the country. He was unfree; during the Iraq-Iran war, the regime disallowed people from travelling at all. He could be picked up for saying things that were were deemed subversive because he still lived in the country.

The point I was trying to make is that he used his corporate,tribal identity as cover. No matter how much I deciphered the Ubaydi connection, I could go no further than to say he was probably a Sunni, an urban dweller of Baghdad and a man whose lineage, real or fictitious,was tied to the Ubayd tribe. It was sort of a circular strategy,the more you knew, the less you really knew. I couldn't get past the corporate identity to really know who he was as an individual at all.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/17/2004

I'm still a bit confused by the story. His decision to identify himself by tribe is interesting, from an identity studies standpoint. But why did he choose to not identify himself by name as well? Was it a simple desire to not be identified for political safety, or was there some other protocol at work?

Hala Fattah - 8/14/2004

Dear Ralph,
Thank you for your great support.I'm still in the middle of reading the links.

Hala Fattah - 8/14/2004

Dear John,
Thanks for being such a faithful reader. Actually, this identity business cuts both ways. I think, during the monarchy years, there were many groups that were disenfranchised, such as the Communist and Baathist movements, that obviously were at odds with the government of the day. But, by and large, the tribes were on the side of the monarchy because, obviously, the monarchy had followed the British pattern of propping them up and allowing them free rein both in parliament and in the countryside. What I meant by "anti-government" stems from this rather hackneyed distinction between tribe and state (which, I admit,I used rather glibly). I meant to say that for awhile, in the early thirties and forties, the tribe still attracted the primary loyalties of its constituents. Eventually, this changed, as tribesmen were folded into the army, and primary loyalties entered a confused stage (tribe or state?). Of course, part of the resurgence of tribes in the Baathist era is precisely because so many people, of tribal or non-tribal origin, felt they had no other succor but to return to an older,less voracious corporate identity that actually had rules and regulations. So yes, there was a loosening of tribal bonds until 1958 but there was definitely more of an anti-government feeling under Saddam which, in turn, led to a retribalization.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/13/2004

What a wonderful post! Thanks for teaching me.

John Measor - 8/13/2004

Thank you Hala for another wonderful posting. Its good to have you back amongst the never-ending commentary on Iraq, a sane voice is needed.

Identities are the key IMO, and the plastic nature of most Iraqis identities is well documented and will be in ever-increasing flux over the coming months and year(s); the call for a Shiite state in the south being but one example.

What I am intrigued by more however, is your intimation of Iraqis rejecting central political control / the state, outright. Without devolving into a discussion of political philosophy and the oppressive nature of the state as an institution, would it be going too far to asert that Iraqis (as a whole) have never accepted the "state" and its incumbent apparatus put in place by the British under the Mandate?

Clearly many identities in Iraq are oppositional to what was identitifed with the central government through much of the last eighty years.