Anthony Shadid is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Over his fifteeen year career he has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage across the Middle East. Shadid’s fluency in Arabic and his deep understanding of the region have made him an essential voice during times of great upheaval. He talks to Online Editor Ted Hodgkinson about his essay ‘The American Age, Iraq’ and retaining a sense of optimism in a troubled world.
Ted Hodgkison: In your essay, which is featured in Granta 116: Ten Years Later, you take us back to a time when Baghdad College was still a place of cultural exchange for students from across the Middle East within an American-run institution. What part do you think 9/11 and the events that followed have had to play in causing the American and Arab worlds, to borrow a phrase from your essay, to view each other as the ‘clichéd enemy in a straight-to-DVD action movie’?
Perhaps it isn’t so much specifically 9/11 but rather something that has been underway for a good while longer. I think there has been a gradual loss of American credibility for some time now, or rather a growing awareness of America’s role in the region. There are so many factors that went into this but, strikingly, when you look at those yearbooks from Baghdad College before World War II, there’s almost an innocence that informed the relationship between the United States and Iraq. Of course it changed as the years went on, but even into the 1950s and 60s, at a time when the United States was taking on a much more aggressive, assertive, even imperial role in the region, it still didn’t have that kind of toxicity that I saw at least when I was first there as a reporter in 1998.
In the essay, the conflict between the American and Arab (or Iraqi) worlds now appears to be played out primarily through language. From the Arabized American slang to the graffiti that shrouds the walls of the college: would you say that language is a battlefield itself?
I wonder if it is a battlefield or more the detritus of an imperial experience. When I say ‘imperial experience’ I don’t mean that as a cliché but as the reality of what the United States represented a decade or so ago or what Britain did before that. Iraqi Arabic, I think, is kind of remarkable in that it was already endowed with lot of English, even before the Americans arrived as the occupying power in Iraq. We’d have things like ‘wrong side’ for instance, when you talk about going the wrong way down a street, ‘Jerry can’ was another word you would hear in Iraqi Arabic. A lot of it came from the British presence in Iraq, influencing even the vocabulary of everyday life. What struck me again is that so much of it stuck, this detritus, these artifacts or remnants. In Arabic the word is athar. It was no different with the American experience. I wrote in one story of it as the whispers of the American occupation and the country is still riddled with them. One distinction that strikes you, between the American and British athar, is the martial inflection to the words that the Americans left behind. Of course they’re in part about pop culture, and the reach of American commercialism, but there’s a distinctly militaristic American vocabulary that remains embedded in the Iraqi vocabulary.
You write about competing for the right to use the word ‘noble’. Do you think the possibility of nobility still exists in today’s world?
There are everyday instances of nobility that I saw time and again in Iraq but they were often on a very personal level. But is there the possibility of calling something noble that happens in the area of states and great powers? It’s hard for me to imagine that, to be honest. Even in the middle of the Arab revolution, we’re dealing with a trauma that has transpired across the region over the years and decades; it’s going to take a generation to work through it. In many respects, the Arab revolutions that we’re seeing right now are the antithesis of what happened in Iraq, which was liberated by force of arms. The Arab revolts are something much more organic and indigenous, rising from below, authentic as they search for a new vocabulary and new paradigms. But both Iraq and the rest of the Arab world are still dealing with the traumas of what happened before. Iraq, in particular. If we look at Iraq’s case beginning with Saddam’s rule, the war with Iran, the sanctions most pointedly I think, the occupation and what we have today, those traumas aren’t going to be easy to overcome. In that milieu, it is difficult to imagine anything that could be called noble happening in the area of state affairs.
Are media-taught conceptions of politicized Islam (jihadis and so on) a significant barrier against seeing the emergence of a political class in a country like Iraq?
It’s going to be a real facet of politics as we go forward in these societies, not only Iraq but Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. These are countries that are going to be wrestling with the onset of very indigenous political classes that draw their inspiration from Islam. At the same time, you’re seeing a West that is overly fearful of what it would describe as a politicized Islam, even though that politicized Islam is very much a part of politics, and the revolutions, in each of these countries. There is a risk that going forward none of these countries are going to have healthy political lives until they reconcile with that notion of political Islam, and the West is going to play a role in that. Is the West willing to let those trends develop in a healthy way in these societies? I’m not sure. There are very interesting dynamics afoot and I think Western fear, Western intervention and Western generalizations are going to influence their evolution.
Can anything good come from a national trauma on the scale of the invasion of Iraq?
A moment has been lost, and that’s what I was trying to write about: an intersection that we did once see between America and Iraq and an idealized vision both had of the other. Eight years after the occupation and invasion, it’s very difficult to say what kind of Iraq is going to emerge from this trauma. I think we have to wait a generation. And I know that can seem like an easy answer for a journalist to give, but all that’s transpired the past decade does feel like a preamble to me of the Iraq that we are going to see down the road. Perhaps, though, we learned a lesson from the trauma of Iraq, a lesson and example for these Levantine societies, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, of the potential for sectarian and ethnic conflict and the destruction it brings. That’s very relevant to Syrians today. They only have to look east to Iraq or west to Lebanon to know how diversity can be manipulated, how diversity can be combustible and how diversity can lead to the dissolution, in some way of their society.
If not on 9/11 then when exactly do you think this loss of innocence came about? Or is it a loss that can’t be ascribed to a single point in time?
What’s always struck me about Iraq is that there was a kind of stereotypical idea of what Iraq represented and it was an idea that was very entrenched not only in American thinking but also the thinking of the exiled opposition before the country’s invasion: namely, that this was a country simply made up of Sunni, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq is, of course, considerably more than that. It had witnessed political movements that at least aspired to universality, to a broader notion of identity. What was such a tragedy of the occupation was that this very stereotypical notion of what Iraq represented became reality as the years went by. By the time of the election we saw in 2010 that this idea of politics revolving around a sectarian and ethnic axis had come to fruition. The Arab revolts themselves are wrestling with this very prospect. Are we going to adhere to smaller identities? Small identities that are often manipulated by powers abroad or by politicians at home? Or are we going to appeal to something inclusive? I think we’re seeing that play out today in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. I think this notion of broader identities and smaller identities is in some ways going to decide how these revolts end up. Iraq is the sobering example of the failure of broader identities. We’re seeing some grim moments right now, but there are also counterpoints. To take the example of Syria, while Syrians very much live in the shadow of what happened in Iraq, especially in 2006 and 2007, you’re also seeing broader identities emerge there: solidarities between cities, solidarities between cities and the countryside; solidarities between sectarian groups. I was always so taken back by Laith Kubba, who told me that he had learned to be a better Muslim by going to a Jesuit school. What was so eloquent about the experience of Baghdad College is that it did aspire to a more universal notion of self, a broader notion of self in a cosmopolitan sense, where the students of Baghdad College felt very comfortable crossing borders. Ahmed Chalabi once remarked in the article that even before he arrived in America he knew he’d be comfortable there. I don’t want to say that there was a sense of global citizenship but at least a sense of comfort and familiarity in the modern world and a sense of savviness in dealing with it.
It’s a shame that idea is gone, but perhaps it is not extinguished?
Yes, I still remain optimistic. I think there are retrograde forces at work, but societies like Syria and Egypt have an incredible ability to surprise us, an incredible resilience, that we haven’t really seen play out yet because, in the case of Syria, there’s so much violence going on right now. Still, there is the possibility for something far greater, something that could lead to a reconciliation that has really eluded these countries since independence.
You’re writing a book now about your family’s ancestral village in southern Lebanon. Can you tell me more about it?
Yes, in fact it’s growing out of these ideas that we’re talking about. I rebuilt the family’s house in a southern Lebanon in a town call Marjayoun. Marjayoun was an important trading town during the Ottoman Empire but after World War I borders were drawn and the town faded, almost to extinction, which is when my family left. The region lost its restorative capacities. I tell the story about my family leaving Marjayoun, the fate of the town itself and what rebuilding that house represented. In the end, it comes back to the very questions we’re discussing – what space is left for broader identities, the ability to cross borders, the ability to embrace diversity, these multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realities that existed under the Ottoman Empire but have been lost over the past century as the old imperial trajectories were blocked and borders were drawn. The past century is, in a lot of ways, the story of dividing rather than bridging. Marjayoun is one example, but by no means the only example of the fate of these societies that are trying to wrestle with that very visceral question of identity.
Photograph by Terissa Schor