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« deMOCKracy, by Mike Maggio | Main | Hip-Hop, Rock n' Roll & the Fury of Islam »


Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid

By an everyday book reader
June 1, 2007

Most of the accounts of the Iraq War so far have been, to use the term the war made famous, embedded in one way or another: many officially so with American troops, most others limited - by mobility, interest, or understanding - to the American experience of the conflict.

In Night Draws Near, Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid writes about a side of the war that Americans have heard little about.

His beat, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, is the territory outside the barricaded, air-conditioned Green Zone: the Iraqi streets and, more often, the apartments and houses, darkened by blackouts and shaken by explosions, where most Iraqis wait out Saddam, the invasion, and three nearly unbroken decades of war.

Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War
by Anthony ShadidBook Picture

Softcover: 528 pages
ISBN: 9780312426033, 0312426038
Picador
July 2006

Shadid is Lebanese American, born in Oklahoma, and he has a fluency in Arabic and an understanding of Arab culture that give him a rare access to and a great empathy for the people whose stories he tells. He said this in an interview:

My sense is that the biggest misunderstanding was perhaps a lack of appreciation for what preceded the invasion. I think some in the United States saw Iraq as a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which a new country would be built, a democracy that would serve as an example to a region mired in stagnation and authoritarianism. But a lot of what we saw after Saddam's fall was the consequence of what Iraq had already gone though. Not only Saddam, either. There was the war with Iran, one of the longest of the 20th century. There was a decade of sanctions, whose impact I think has always been underappreciated. There was a militarization of the society that made the culture of the gun and the logic of violence dominant in many regions of Iraq. The country that the United States inherited was brutalized, and the aftermath of that decades-long experience will probably define it far more than Saddam's fall, the insurgency, and the hardship that has followed.

I guess I'm struck over the past years at how much Iraqis simply yearn for an ordinary life. Little has been ordinary in that country for the past 30 years. I always had the sense in conversations, especially in Baghdad, that people felt they were spectators to a play. They watched as actors read their lines, as the drama unfolded. There's still a sense of being in the audience today.

Beginning in the days leading up to the American invasion and closing with an epilogue on the January 2005 elections, he talks with Iraqis from a wide range of stations, from educated Baghdad professionals who look back on the country's golden days in the 1970s to a sullen, terrified group of Iraqi policemen in the Sunni Triangle, shunned as collaborators for taking jobs with the Americans to feed their families. (Perhaps his most telling and characteristic moment is when he trails behind an American patrol, recording the often hostile Iraqi comments that the soldiers themselves can't understand.)

He takes the ground view and gives his witnesses the particularity they deserve, but the various voices share an exhaustion with a country that has seen nothing but war for 30 years and a frustration with a liberator that has not fulfilled its promises of prosperity and order.

It's a despairing but eye-opening account, told with an understanding of the Iraqi people - hospitable, proud, and often desperate - that, were it more common, might have led to a different outcome than the one he describes.

"Born in Oklahoma and fluent in Arabic, journalist Shadid (Legacy of the Prophet) has the gift of a caricature artist, capturing personality in a few deft lines. In this set of reportage-based profiles from Baghdad pre- and post-March 2003, we meet Amal, a 14-year-old girl who moves from faith to fear to gallows humor in her diary; a long-married couple who bicker affectionately (the husband says George Bush is his hero; the wife wants to talk only about the lack of electricity); a Muslim cleric in Sadr City who has 'the kind of swagger that a pistol on each hip brings.' The portraits are intimate, often set in people's homes, and are rendered with such kindness they fall just short of sentimentality. Yet Shadid does not shy from the ugliness of violence, rendering the swollen corpse of a child left in the sun and the disarray of a bombed house, its front gate 'peeled back like a can.' The book, which moves among scenes and characters like a picaresque novel, is not only a pleasure to read but a welcome source of information. Shadid offers just enough history and context to orient the reader, and he includes the kinds of details - adages, prayers, lyrics from pop songs - that make a place come alive. In the end, Baghdad is the character he mourns most." - Publishers Weekly

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