Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Most of the time, however, I am well behind the curve

Earlier in the week, I stopped by my local, lovely independent bookstore, which gives away out-of-date copies of the New York Times Book Review, and discovered the Oct. 30 issue, most of which I had avoided online, because it reviewed several books discussing the war in Iraq.

I missed a jewel. Book-length discussion of any topic tends to discourage the worst of the ideological polemic that has marked most public discussion of the current war in Iraq (Ed note: this is a rule of thumb. The author freely acknowledges a lack of universal application), and the reviews were each thoughtful, insightful, and excellent. As is all too rare, I came away feeling not reaffirmed in my previous views, but more informed, and more able to engage in further argument.

Normally I would offer some summary of the discussion, but in this case, it would be a waste, especially when this is a war whose discussion on all sides has been irresponsibly abridged.

If I can offer only one incentive, one taste to entice you to sample the full meal, it would be Dexter Filkins' review of Michael Goldfarb's book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace, which discusses the time Goldfarb spent in Iraq with his translator, Ahmad Shawkat, who was murdered in 2003. (My apologies for the extensive quote, and slight restructuring of Filkins' review. The full, original version is available here.)

One of the oddities of being a foreign correspondent is that the person you often end up learning the most from is someone who never makes it into your articles - your interpreter. This is a shame. In broken, war-ravaged places, the men and women who offer their translation services are frequently extraordinary people, who in more stable societies wouldn't bother with such work: they're deposed university professors, persecuted newspaper editors, surgeons whose clinics have been destroyed. Whatever cultural nuance creeps into reporting is often thanks to them.

Shawkat had been a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Mosul's medical school, and was clearly an exceptional man. . . . By the time Goldfarb engaged him, in March 2003, Shawkat had already endured several stints in Hussein's dungeons, suffering through beatings, electrical shocks and interrogations for crimes no greater than discussing an alternative future for his country or writing satirical, heavily allegorical stories about Hussein. . . . When Hussein was swept away, Shawkat came back to Mosul and turned his prodigious energies into helping build a democratic Iraq.

[A] great many of [Iraq's] people saw precisely the opportunity that presented itself on April 9, 2003, when the American Army chased Saddam Hussein and his confederates from their palaces on the Tigris. These Iraqis realized that they had to seize the moment, that it might not come again. And they knew, better than anyone, how difficult it would be to carry their broken and brutalized country with them. So they started newspapers, they organized political parties, they called meetings to start a national conversation. Some of them, surveying the psychological ruins that Hussein and his torturers had left behind, formed institutes to teach their countrymen to think for themselves.

And now, today, many of these Iraqis, if not most of them, are dead. They have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown into ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq's political class explains the difficulties of the country's rebirth. The good guys are dead.

The Americans who planned the invasion could hardly have hoped for a better ally on the ground than Ahmad Shawkat: he was educated, secular, articulate and absolutely fearless.

With American money, he started a weekly newspaper, ruefully named Bilattijah, "Without Direction," which he used to defend the democratic project and assail its enemies. Goldfarb does a fine job of recounting the heady days of Mosul's liberation, and the collapse of the American-backed efforts to create a liberal society before the onslaught of the insurgents. That failure has been documented elsewhere, but it is particularly stinging to witness through the eyes of someone like Shawkat, who tried so hard to construct a more humane Iraq.

Shawkat was one of the good guys, and now he's dead, shot in the back on a rubbish-filled rooftop. It is one of the more pressing questions of our day whether the democratic experiment in Iraq can survive without more people like him.

I'm a bit of a sap, but when I read that, I nearly cried.

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