Iraq is, in the words of Zuhair al-Jezairy in The Devil You Don’t Know, his memoir/reportage of returning  there after 25 years in exile,  “a succession of scattered moments. Each new event erases the previous one and consigns it to oblivion.”   At least that is how he saw it  from 2003 when he crossed the border through early 2009 when he finished writing.  The book itself reflects this — a succession of scattered moments.  As he says near the end, about a documentary film project he and a friend took on for a while:  “the camera hardly knows where to turn.”  There is so much to be seen and captured, held until a time when narratives once again  are able to give shape to the explosion of events.  So it is with his writer’s eye, turning here and there in a whirlwind of impressions, from finding his family home after so many years, to judging the distance of falling mortars while eating with friends.  And, since it is a book about returning it is also a book about memory — what a person, or a building, or their lack, recalls to him from the last time they he saw them.  This is familiar to all of us who have returned to scenes of our youth; it is the stuff of many good memoirs.  Most of us, however, do not return to scenes of unimaginable violence, sectarian warfare and people traumatized by thirty years of terror. Al-Jezairy does.

 

The first half of the book follows the path of his return, geographically, and emotionally.  As a young man Al-Jezairy came of age, along with many of his peers around the world, protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam.  More than that, he was in Jordan and Lebanon during fierce wars in each.   He fled Iraq in 1979 as Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party to power with a wave of assassinations, escaping into Jordan with an assumed name and false passport to spend years as in exile. He’s coming back to Iraq on the heels of another U.S. invasion — but about which he has much more divided emotions.

I am divided against myself: against anyone who supports the war (and ready to argue it out almost to the point of blows — how can any person of culture support a war which is destroying his country and killing his people?) And yet, I am against those who oppose the war  (they want to prolong the dictatorship, whether they admit it or not.)

In fact, he himself, we learn later in the book, had fought against Saddam’s armies in 1983,  with the Kurdish Pesh Merga, possibly against his own brother, who when he meets again in Baghdad he describes as  a natural soldier.

With many others he arrives in Amman Jordan and joins the queues returning, like most, swept by storms of longing and fear.

“The first thing to welcome me at the border, in the early dawn, was Saddam Hussein in his uqqal and keffiya.  He smiled a welcome at me despite the bullets shot through his mouth and eye.”

Everything was beyond my imagination.  I was overwhelmed, giddy and lightheaded.  Saddam was above me, smiling, greeting me with a half raised arm.  An American soldier was checking my papers, and I was entering my country on a foreign passport. Nothing felt real or made sense.

The taxi driver talks about brigands on the road and al-Jezairy wonders if he is being set up, then is distracted by the view out the window.

“On one of the hills I saw the little blackened bouquet left by an aerial bombardment…sandbags and soldiers helmets and boots had been scattered…Grey dusty wolves stopped eating the bodies when we passed … then they carried on chewing.”

He thinks of all the invasions of Baghdad, from time immemorial, of the Mongol Hulaku extending the empire of his grandfather Genghis Khan, and sacking Baghdad in 1258, needing only three days, scimitars and horses hooves to kill 800,000.  Iraqis have endured all this, he thinks.  We will endure again.

He goes first to his old home, as we all would.  Though there will be many emotional moments in the course of the book, these are the sweetest, and most personal.   His parents have both passed on.  His sister, and many of the neighbors are still there.  He is recognized, after twenty five years.

“It’s him!  Zuhair!

My family.  We were speechless as we stood hugging.  Then a long scream.  How much cries of joy and pain resemble each other in Iraq, those high pitched ululations of women.  Who was it shouting?  I looked out through my own veil of tears to see the neighbors, who had come into the street and onto the roofs at the sound of the screaming.  A plump woman out on a terrace wiped the tears from her eyes..

I look at the faces, amazed at what time has done.  The little girls we left behind have become mothers…

..our neighbor Umm Hassan wept:  ‘Your mother waited for this day for twenty-five years.”

And with the present comes the past, a moving memory of his mother:

During the war with Iran my mother became like some heroine out of a tragic novel — the Iraqi mother in the thick of it.  She had two boys on the front with Iran , and a son and a daughter in the Lebanese civil war.  She followed the news of the two wars with alarm.  Amira Abdel-Latif al-Jezairy launched a bed strike, deciding to sleep on the hard floor as her son slept in the trenches.  The small radio was her constant companion and connection to her sons.  She listened to every news broadcast in turn, the last one being Radio Cairo.  Her animal instincts would sniff out what was behind the news.  She followed the ebb and flow of battles on a map, like a general in an operations room.

Like them, she memorized the features of the terrain and the direction of the fighting.  She knew where Deezful was, where the Iranian planes were strafing, just as she knew where the locus of fighting and the supply lines were in Lebanon, where the Christian militia’s mortars were falling and where the car bomb was.  But there was one big difference.  Unlike the generals in the operations room, she lived the war on her nerves.  The battles did not interest her, nor who won or lost, or which army advanced and which retreated.  She didn’t know the armies and their units, but she knew the dead, their names and faces.  The centre of her map was her son stuck in a mud trench.

He goes out into Baghdad to know what has become of what he once knew, and revisited so often in his memory.

“The shock of seeing Rasheed Street as it is now stayed with me for a long time, even after I had driven down it ten times.  Everything beautiful and authentic on this street had been lost. It had been turned into a kind of graveyard without witnesses to its history.  …All major events [of modern Iraq] had started or  passed through here.  The first Ottoman piece of artillery … the first motor car … where men first wore trousers instead of the dishdasha… the first demonstrations and public disturbances.  I began to frequent it in early adolescence…with our trousers tight and collars turned up like James Dean … later I would stroll down the street clutching books by Sartre and Camus….”

Sub-chapters in the chapter “Looking for Baghdad” are titled, “Looking for Women” and “They are Looting History,” each with clear-eyed, if sad, takes on what he is seeing.

For days I searched for the beauty of Iraqi women I had known in the 1970s… The way a man looks at a woman has changed since my day [when we] followed beautiful women around, striving to be elegant, gracious and witty. Flirtation was premised on mutual standing, as colleagues at work or in class.

Now instead of seeking the friendship of women with wit, men look on women with a mixture of repression and anger. They want to frighten a woman rather than win her admiration. It is a regard of authority which seeks to impose rather than talk. You rarely hear the word ‘my love,’ or even ‘dear’ from a husband to a wife.

Forms of discourse between a man and a woman are now based on curt imperatives, sometimes only single words, ‘tea,’ ‘lunch,’ and ‘prayer carpet.’ Often a man does not look at a woman when he addresses her.

and

“I saw some looters on the barracks next to this market destroying with hammer and ax the place that we had hoped to turn one day into a cultural center… they worked in rotation with three big axes to dig up the ground around the palace which had been built in Sulaiman Basha’s time as governor of Baghdad in 1802… Precious books and manuscripts in the national library: everything was plundered and with it the history of a nation.”

 

I was particularly struck with the mention of a a relative of al-Jezairy’s who hid in the darkened basement of his own house for 11 years, to escape Saddam’s murderers — a story that had made my blood run cold when I read it years ago,  about  a Spaniard hiding from Franco, and again of Jews and communist resisters to Hitler.  As unknown as Iraq still is to us,  when the stories begin to  emerge we can be sure we will all  have shared the same pathetic human history.

Tens of thousands of  Iraqis disappeared during Saddam’s regime.  Lacking a body to prove certain death many families held on to hope.  He tells us  “Once there was a rumor about a secret prison right in the underpasses beneath Liberation Square, and fathers and mothers of the missing rushed there. In the tunnel, two young men were stubbornly trying to rip off an iron door.’

‘We’re coming, we’re coming,’ one of them kept shouting. The echo of his own voice would come back at him and he would imagine that there was someone answering his call.

A few pages later:

“We also saw the torture chambers. The hooks in the roof, the nails on the walls, the cables for giving electric shocks. How much suffering had happened inside these mute, tight-lipped walls? We saw a back chamber where they took their breaks from torture sessions, surrounded by refrigerators where they stored the bodies.”

“Sometime later I saw a DVD of a mass torture party held in one of the chambers of this prison, hosted by Watban al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother, and his son. An iron door opens and a great mass of people are pushed through it, more than fifty people. Their clothes are rags. There hands are tied behind their backs, all of them on the same rope. They had hardly got into the chamber when they were surrounded by a cluster of guards and beaten madly.”

I wonder that al-Jezairy  could continue on some days.  How does the guilt for being away, and surviving, for not preventing (however impossible) the death of a loved one, not bury the hope one has to now make a small contribution  to the healing or, if not healing, simply moving forward bit by bit?

Beyond the descriptions of what he has seen, or pulled up from his memory, al-Jezairy develops the theme of how war and terror has fractured life, and the narratives that transmit the past to the present generations.

In normal circumstances what happens to you, what you witness, imprint themselves in your memory. The present is linked to the past, informed by experience. But these days there is no cumulative experience to call on. What is happening is so strange there is no connection to, or precedent in, the past. Also, no event gets to run its course in time, to be a present which then becomes part of the past that informs the present with its new events. Every event is only in the present and there is no continuity to turn this present into a past.  Instead it gets ruptured in the middle by another event which starts before the first one finishes, which effaces it before it is complete.

Related to this fracturing are the the effects of secrecy, punishment and informers on the families and neighborhoods.

The hidden world which engulfed people and choked them was not only on the outside.  It was on the inside too, since they could not relate what they knew even inside their own homes.  Storytelling creates a human bond and is also the result of human bonds, but the presence of an informer, even if only imagined, poisons the social fabric.

A wonderful short chapter –which could be developed into a poignant, powerful novel or film– is about the lunatic and insane, released from the asylums, who — ‘now that mad power had disappeared’ — have donned the trappings of power themselves.  One, in rags, with a whistle and a cap, directs traffic;  another having robbed a bank, instead of running stands on the steps and throws the money over himself in a wild shower. Yet another stops to take a shoe off and speak into it, making deals with those on the far end and, deal consummated, replaces the shoe on his foot.

In the chapter “The South” al-Jezairy visits the famous marshes of Iraq, which had been drained by Saddam as punishment for those who stood up against him following the first gulf war

The town of Jabayash alone saw 2,500 men executed …

…after the National Council approved the motion in April 1992 to relocated the citizens of the marshes, the campaign became known as “land rehabilitation.” Then, when no land was actually put to use, they called it “operation dryout.”

 

With old and new friends al-Jezairy begins a newspaper in Baghdad, the first non-Ba’ath controlled news in decades.  He experiences the first elections, and then comes 2006.

I woke on the morning of 26 February 2006 to the sound of thick gunfire … I was about to get up and go to work when a colleague called me.

‘Stay at home. They’ve blown up the Shrine at Samarra, ‘ she said

The satanic genius of al-Qaeda had found how to strike the Shia at their very heart of hope. They had chosen the shrine which was the final resting place of the tenth and eleventh imams and, even more importantly, the spot of the last sighting of the final imam before he disappeared, the imam the Shia have been waiting for 1100 years to return and remove the yoke of oppression from them.

He starts to go out to a cafe. A neighbor stops him “Where are you going? The world is on fire.”

Young men dressed in black hung off the backs [of pickups] like angels of death.  Revenge! Revenge!

He tells of the devastation in the Sunni neighborhoods,  the rise of  the gangster Abu Dara’, recently escaped from prison, leading vengeance gangs.  He tells the story of a friend who went to the police to report an abduction by uniformed men; two days later a grenade was thrown at his house; the entire family had to leave.  Zuhair’s own his sister and husband are separated by the fighting, not daring to risk the competing, killing Sunni/Shia checkpoints.  Cement barriers rise and separate neighborhoods into atomized bits of turf.  The militias themselves begin to atomize, outside of sect or ideology.  Women are not safe anywhere. The  public gardens become open graves for corpses.  He honestly recounts his own sliding from his life-long secular leftism into sectarian identity – the other meant me harm.

Still he, and a few friends persist, trying to put out a newspaper, filming, if not for current news, at least for posterity.  The awfulness of what is happening is revealed in one, matter-of-fact sentence.

We were filming in the district of Nu’airiya after a bomb had killed thirty children… there was hardly a house without a black banner of mourning and the legend: ‘Child Martyr.’ All of the victims were boys between the ages of ten and fourteen.  When the suicide bomber drove out from a side street to where the crowd was the thickest, many of them were playing soccer, others watching.

Our guide, a child named Muhammad Hashem, stopped in the middle of the street, holding his hand over his brow to shield it from the sun.

‘There used to be five teams who played here everyday.  But no one plays now,’ he said.

‘Why? I asked.  ‘Fear?  Mourning?’

‘There aren’t enough players,’ he said.

al-Jezairy goes on:

Muhammad had lost his twin brother in the explosion and was no longer himself. The child within him had died at twelve… He did not utter his brother’s name, who had sat with him on the same bench at school, as if the name was a sign of life, when disappeared when he disappeared.

Finally the threats to journalists become too real, and constant.  Their camera crew is shot at; another reporter is kidnapped and held hostage.  Their cameras are put up, to gather dust.  Yet he does not leave.  He becomes the director of a news agency, Aswat al-Iraqi, which still exists and which he still directs.  Not only does it distribute news its major function is to train a new generation of journalists in objectivity and truth, in digging up details and telling the story in ways that will attract and inform readers.  Young writers have to be convinced they can write of Ayotollah Ali Sistani without putting “May God Protect His Shadow,” after his name.  The violence continues.   He begins to imagine his own death; which means would be preferable.  Their security adviser is shot to death taking his daughters to school.  The agency departs for Cairo, for extended training, out from the constant fear of death.  But even there “Iraq pursues me wherever I go.  There is no calm. … I enter the apartment and jump at my own reflection in the lift mirror.  Every time I sit to stretch out and relax the image comes of a man, his leg gone, stretching out his hand after an explosion and begging for help.

He takes a break in Alexandria. He  desperately tries not to watch the news.  He goes out on his balcony to watch the sea.  “There is a mist on the sea, and in the distance the water is blue-gray.  The waves come in from the distance surging towards me with their foam to break on the rocks and scatter in groaning sprays … I whisper to Mother Nature:  ‘How beautiful you are.’ I say to myself, ‘Put away your fears and take this beauty in.’

I am watching the next wave when I hear an al-Jazeera report from the country which is slaughtering itself — a car bomb in a crowded part of southern Baghdad…

He tries to ignore it, to be taken away by the image of the sea.  He hears a famous female singer, ‘I want to live.  Every second of my life.’

‘Learn from her’ I tell myself.  ‘Forget that country.’

But the scenes from the TV slice through the real world like a knife:  fire, smoke, and a man with a broken leg screaming for help.

‘I know that man!’

And so The Devil You Don’t Know ends, a book packed with memories and events, many of which could be unpacked and be spilled out into a thousand other stories, a book which does not look at, or even mention much, those who triggered the war, the Americans,  but at those who lived in it, those who once triggered were explosives packed by their own leaders over the decades, and who have not yet “reached that point of despair, from which reason grows,”  which al-Jezairy  sees as the last possibility of hope.  For those of us who watched from afar, and despaired at our own country’s role in unleashing the violence, even if we diligently read the best of the reports, al-Jezairy indicates how much was way beyond our knowing, beyond the knowing even of those who were there.

As I re-read some of the passages I think Iraq is still waiting for its narratives to begin again — still waiting for its Red Badge of Courage, or Paths of Glory, or Slaughterhouse-Five, or Matterhorn or The Sorrow of War.  Perhaps al-Zezairy himself will write one.  Though perhaps, the activist in him, still working as the Editor in Chief of Aswat al-Iraqi doesn’t allow him the time, thinking it better spent training those to follow him as a journalist, and participate in, as he titles his last chapter  The Real Jihad, Fighting for the Truth.

[I had posted some thoughts and excerpts earlier, as I read the book. You can find them here and here.]

 

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