- Interpreters of Occupation: Gender and the Politics of Belonging in an Iraqi Refugee Network by Madeline Otis Campbell
Interpreters of Occupation is a timely ethnography that centers on Iraqi voices during the US occupation of Iraq and its aftermath. It is a narrative about a war generation born during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) and who came of age during the Gulf War (1991) and the attendant sanctions. It also tackles the ways in which many of these Iraqis were compelled to pursue jobs with the US military following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, and how they ended up as refugees in the US because of their collaboration with the US Army. The book provides a nuanced and complex account of the experiences of young Iraqi men and women, the worlds they had to bridge, the challenges facing them in rendering "Iraqi culture" legible to an occupying force, and life in the US as diasporic subjects. The ethnographic richness of the book is combined with important theoretical interventions in literatures on cultural translation, empire, subject formation, and gender. At the core of Campbell's book is an exploration of—and argument about—how practices of cultural translation shape, and are shaped by, discourses of war, power, and resistance during the US occupation of Iraq.
The book revolves around the life stories of specific Iraqi interpreters as they inhabit and navigate imperial, gender, labor, and diasporic inequalities. Chapter 1 traces the tropes employed by young Iraqi interpreters in order to justify their work with the US military. Campbell shows that tropes of filial duty, female victimization, and male protection reproduced state rhetoric that was dominant in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's regime. Chapter 2 focuses on how acts of translation shaped notions of [End Page 409] subjectivity as interpreters "translated themselves into military grids of understanding and into institutional channels of simultaneous recognition and alienation" (80), and Chapter 3 discusses the questions of gender and labor inequality on US military bases by examining how the discourse of honor employed by Iraqi male interpreters and the discourse of liberation advanced by US soldiers confined Iraqi female interpreters to the binary of the good girl/bad girl. While Chapter 4 explores how the Iraqi male interpreters' discourses on "help" and "reconstruction" reproduced patriarchal norms, Chapter 5 navigates the ambivalent relationship Iraqi interpreters-rendered-refugees occupy vis-à-vis the US and the gendered discourse of victimhood they had to reproduce in order to resettle in the States. Chapter 6 focuses on the question of transnational connections between Iraq and the US, as well as the Iraqi community's relationship to the wider Middle Eastern groups in New England.
Campbell introduces the concept of subject formation in translation to shed light on the structures of powers involved in the encounter between the US military and Iraqi interpreters. The US military employed Iraqi interpreters not only to translate at the language level, but more importantly, to interpret Iraqi culture so it may be "deciphered, decoded, and deployed in the interests of power" (78). The concept of culture emerges as a crucial instrument for the US military to control and govern a population deemed threatening. This "weaponization of culture" presented Iraqi interpreters with a dilemma. On the one hand, the US military expected them to render Iraqi culture intelligible for its own military goals; but on the other, the interpreters felt obliged to act as mediators in order to improve the military's understanding of Iraqi society. In this embattled balance between power and subversion, they are simultaneously agents of US power and resistance. Through cultural interpretation, those agents were engaged in the (re)production of an essentialist version of Iraqi culture, while at the same time attempting to help and protect Iraqis. In this process of recognition and alienation, they were interpellated as subjects who had to devise strategies to negotiate "a subjective disjunction between their experiences of membership in dynamic societies and their positionalities as skilled readers—above and apart from it...