- The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq
A book written to explain an earlier era sometimes takes on a new and startling relevance in a later one. This is the case with Orit Bashkin's ambitious and meticulous anatomy of Iraq's political culture under the Hashemite monarchs. Bashkin focuses on how intellectuals and political activists in Iraq understood the nation-building project thrust upon them in the aftermath of World War I and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Bashkin's book not only anticipates many of the troubles encountered in Iraq today, but it also supplies a vocabulary with which to talk about them and about the breach between political theory and political [End Page 506] practice.
Bashkin addresses the vexed questions still raised in discussions of contemporary Iraq of whether the country's political discourse embraces both the nation as geographically configured and the norms and values associated with democratic freedoms. Admittedly, to locate these political and cultural norms, Bashkin elevates certain works and kinds of writing at the expense of others, but what she has assembled and examined —major and minor studies of history and society published during the years of Hashemite rule, newspaper articles, and poetry that served as a call to arms against a British-sponsored monarch whose origins in another Arab land seemed to contradict the supposed post-Ottoman correspondence between nation and state —is absolutely critical to understanding Iraq then and now.
Who were the people who created and deployed this humanistic discourse? They were teachers, journalists, writers, and poets. Some came to work in Iraq from other Arab countries; some, born in Iraq, lived in exile, physically cut off from their homeland but still connected to it through their writing. They were the educated and privileged who understood that the residents of the worst slums or the most impoverished villages must surely have felt a sense of despair as the gulf between rich and poor widened during Hashemite rule. Intellectuals offered valuable insight into the diverse and complex social structures within Iraq's borders and the many forms of injustice and suffering experienced by those marginalized by class, gender, and social status.
Bashkin is not the first scholar to raise questions about Iraq's failure to establish a democracy or its seemingly aborted attempts to instill in its citizens an absolute commitment to the state's institutions. Nor is she the first to excavate and interpret the writings of the country's writers and thinkers. But she is the first to suggest that while the intelligentsia enshrined freedom as an ideal and spoke of Iraq as homeland, it could not find ways to overcome the breach between the theories it embraced and the policymaking realities it too often conceded as necessary.
Most Iraqi intellectuals believed they had multiple missions: to help educate the illiterate, to fight against oppression and colonialism; to reshape Iraqi culture; and for some, to liberate women. Many embraced the study of history as not only worthy of sustained scholarship but also as a sacred task. History was understood to be a basic component of Arab identity. Without knowing their own history, these intellectuals argued, Arabs could not know who they were or what they would be able to do. But the books about Iraq's history were, of course, written in the shadow of adjusting to the country's newly defined status and territorial configuration. Thus, although the intellectuals Bashkin studies called Iraq their homeland and spoke about an Iraq that could instill a national identity and loyalty in its citizens, they did not all map their homeland in accordance with its borders. They sometimes charted it through language, tribe, urban culture, or even as a consequence of minority status.
Writing truthfully about Iraq and its political failures entailed serious risk and physical danger, but it nonetheless marked a narrative present in many newspapers and championed by several prominent political movements. Indeed, the ideas disseminated through...