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Reviewed by:
  • The Colonial Present
  • Amal Ghazal (bio)
Derek Gregory . The Colonial Present Blackwell. xix, 368. US $27.95

With a plethora of books on post-9/11 and the 'war on terror,' Derek Gregory's work stands out as a truly illuminating, honest, and passionate one. For a subject that is intricate with historical trajectories, The Colonial Present is written with such an analytical depth and clarity that it enables the author to unfold the past and the present of colonial realities in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq and to establish their interconnectedness. By making September 11 the fulcrum of his discussions and the pivot around which past and present coalesced, Gregory underscores the 'overlapping territories' and 'the intertwined histories' of both the colonizer and the colonized.

Cautioning against postcolonialism as an analytical tool capable of unravelling this interconnectedness, Gregory finds it guilty of producing either 'historical amnesia' or 'colonial nostalgia.' Such amnesiac histories are those of British and American involvement in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. The author succinctly reproduces them in order to shed light on the heavy shadow of those histories on the present. The colonial nostalgia [End Page 461] is most evident in the continuous dependence of modern colonialism on an old yet revivified ideological discourse from which 'imaginative geographies ' evolve and on which they breed.

Gregory skilfully dissects those 'imaginative geographies' shooting through the heart of the colonial project. The post-9/11 representations of Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in the colonial mind, whether American or Israeli, are depicted as 'fabrications' built on the classical dichotomies of 'us' and 'them,' 'civilized' and 'barbaric' with the chilling outcome of turning those 'spaces' into 'a theatrical stage,' and more accurately into 'killing grounds,' justifying a 'war of terror' in the disguise of a 'war on terror.'

Oscillating between Edward Said's 'Orientalism' and Giorgio Agamben's 'space of exception,' Gregory defines the looking-glass through which the colonizer continues to see and characterize the colonized and the policies pursued to subjugate, humiliate, and annihilate them. Placed outside the 'modern' and the 'civilized,' Afghans, Palestinians, and Iraqis become homines sacri, to whom all laws of exception apply. They are turned into mere 'targets,' rendered 'invisible' and devoid of any humanity. Their cities, in the colonial imagination of geography, appear 'as collections of objects not congeries of people' as Time's description of 'the Perils of the Iraqi City' reveals. From that perspective, Israeli colonialism and American colonialism are two faces of the same coin; not only are their 'imagined geographies' similar but they also inform each other. Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank has provided 'a good model for military tactics' in Iraq.

The two chapters on Palestine offer a lucid analysis of the parallelism between Israeli and American deployment of 'imagined geographies.' Moreover, they are uncompromising in their vivid description of the brutal realities of Palestinians as a result of both Israel's 'imagined geographies ' and their intertwining with American ones. Maps and illustrations portray those realities in a dramatic way. Similar parallelism is also apparent in the case of Iraq, where occupation is seen as 'the Palestinization of Iraq.'

However, throughout the book, the author tries to restore the humanity of the homines sacri and to paint reality on their faces. From vivid descriptions to lengthy quotations on the effects of 'the war on terror' on their daily lives, the author allows their voices to bear on the events, reclaims their lost space, and renders them visible. This is made more possible by his reference to eyewitness accounts, and more notably to web blogs known for their accuracy. This is usually a risky exercise for academics but the risk is skilfully overcome by the author.

The book is written with passion, and, at times, a bitterness that testifies to the author's personal belief in the complicity of 'ordinary people' in creating the colonial present. Stripping modern colonialism - masquerading under a 'war on terror' - of all its pretences by unwrapping its complex [End Page 462] realities and multiple tragedies is Gregory's way of disavowing colonialism, its discourse, and its policies. [End Page 463]

Amal Ghazal

Amal Ghazal, University of Toronto


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