When you study history you have to make choices very early on, because the whole of history is growing to contain quite a lot of years. What period do you want to study? What country or region? What class of people? Studying history at university has the advantage of being able to choose from a wide range of subjects to broaden your understanding of the world and go beyond what you know or thought you were interested in. My university had a good American History programme that I did not want to do. That’s how I ended up in a course about the history of Iraq.
A History of Iraq (note the indefinite article) tells the story of the modern state of Iraq (so no Mesopotamia) starting in the nineteenth century, when the region that is now the nation-state Iraq was a part of the Ottoman empire. It deals with the British occupation and Mandate, the oil finds, the Hashemite Kingdom, military coups and war with Iran, all the way to modern day Iraq.
Through this complex history, the particulars of Iraqi politics come to light. Its many aspects come together in an account of the coup d’état of 1936, when general Bakr Sidqi pushed the weak king Ghazi to replace prime minister Yasin al-Hashimi with his own favourite Hikmat Sulaiman. The power of the army is clear when Sidqi drops a few bombs near the prime minister’s office for dramatic effect. The effect of the system of ‘patronage’, political and social ties that determine affiliation, plays its part when Sidqi has Al-Hashimi’s influential minister of defense murdered, thereby making many enemies. The Sunni/Shi’a divide plays a part in the eternal question of foreign diplomacy: will the new government’s affinities lie with Iran, Turkey, the Arab world? And how to deal with the British, who no longer enforce a mandate in Iraq but still have quite some influence?
Reading a history book is like reading a story. In this case, a very detailed story. Charles Tripp, who is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), is thorough in his recording of the many different factions and politicians who played a role in Iraq over the past two hundred years. His writing style is matter-of-fact, which makes it a little hard to stay focused throughout. On the other hand, it shows the complexity of his subject matter without polluting his phenomenal knowledge with flowery prose. Overall, I prefer this dense, informative style to the (American) trend of popularising with funny asides and explanations of words you could easily look up.
By the way, Tripp and his editor have made it quite easy to remember who is who and what happened when: the book provides an index, a glossary of non-English words, a chronology, a list of abbreviations and no less than four maps. It’s probably easier to keep track of these Iraqi names than of those in The Lord of the Rings. Read history like you would a fantasy story and suddenly you’re wondering what the next twist will be or how this new character will fit into the greater story. And with history, you can be quite sure that the character will be relevant somehow. If you ever find yourself stuck on the pages of a very informative but bone dry history book (not that this is one), use your imagination and sense of humour and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to concentrate.
That is where the comparisons to a novel end, though. A History of Iraq is a political history, so it’s full of facts about politicians and war but not about the lives of ordinary people. I am personally much more interested in social and cultural history, but the thing is: you always need to read these political accounts first, because the influence of politics on society is so big. Before you can understand, for instance, a feminist revolution, you need to understand the context of government, wars, economics, and all that stuff that seems so far away from ordinary people, but isn’t. If my first book about Iraqi history would have been a social history, I might have learned lots of interesting things, but it would create the illusion that I ‘understood Iraq’ while I would in fact only know the anecdotes, not the framework in which they belonged. Now, I know some facts (I also forgot many of them), and have a good base for further study.
There is no shame in forgetting specifics when reading a book so full of them. Your overall understanding of the subject will improve regardless. The more you read, the more you can place new information, like newspaper articles, in a broader context. Terms like the Young Turk Revolution or the Iran-Iraq War will start to carry meaning and implications in your head. And most importantly, if you remember nothing else, you’ll be aware of the fact that things don’t just happen. Countries you have never been to have centuries of history with millions of people, all carrying their own sorrows and happiness. It might sound like common sense, but I think we could be more conscious of this, especially in the West.
What’s interesting about this book is that it was first published, to good reviews, in 2000. Then came 2003, and the United States of America invaded Iraq. In the third edition, which I own, Charles Tripp has added a chapter about what transpired in the next few years (until 2007, when the third edition was published). Surprisingly, this new closing chapter doesn’t feel like an appendix but flows very naturally from the events in the previous chapters. It makes you think that the people in the United States government would have benefited from reading this book and could have foreseen that their plans were doomed to fail. Not that I believe they actually cared about the Iraqi people.
I read somewhere that A History of Iraq is now suggested reading for people who go to work at the US Embassy in Baghdad. Maybe we shouldn’t count upon them to inform themselves, but read this book (or others about the region) ourselves to able to critically watch and judge the foreign policies of our governments.
P!nk Award for throwing shade at a certain president by recounting facts
Charles Tripp, A History if Iraq (Cambridge, 2000; 3rd edition 2007)