28 September 2007

Lawrence Smells the Coffee, Again

Occupational Hazards
My Time Governing In Iraq
By Rory Stewart
Pan Macmillan 2006
Pages 422
Rs 925

Rory Stewart has a strong urge to engage the alien. His last book The Places In Between raised the bar for all travel writing with an unusually empathetic account of his travels in the post-Taliban, US-occupied Afghanistan. The same spirit compels him into his next, rather grimmer, venture -- governing Iraq. In a hard-edged, anticlimactic ‘sequel,’ Occupational Hazards, Stewart’s la-di-da notions about stretching hands across the oceans and playing God in the Third World seem thoroughly juddered.

In 2003, as the coalition of US-led forces invades Bhagdad, Stewart desperately seeks and finds a position of the deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan, and later of Nasiriyah, – on the strength of his recently-acquired language skills and insights into rural Islamic culture – in the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), created to rule and rebuild Iraq on behalf of the coalition, read the US.

Maysan, the remote district along the Iranian border famous for the Marsh Arabs, whose rebelliousness Saddam punished by draining the marshes and thereby wiping away a way of life, was known in the CPA-circles as a ‘den of dirty, superstitious, illiterates’ or, as a friend of Stewart put it, a ‘tedious non-event.’

With a notional authority over 85,0000 Iraqis of all hues, Stewart jumps into the fray quickly. In the very first week in Maysan, he is mediating in a tribal war, dealing with a flood, regulating religious flagellants, supervising the building of a souk, patching a split within a political party, setting up a television station, making arrangements for an election, and trying to equip the police with guns.

We recognise his ardour for reaching out and roughing it from his last book as he sets about his development work and helping form a local governing body from a rabble of players perpetually threatening civil war, risking his life and limb only to be constantly thwarted by ancient rivalries and rabid cussedness. The picture he paints of Iraq under occupation is breathtakingly frightening, making Michael Moore’s over-the-top diatribes against Bush’s Middle-East policies look even more ridiculous.

Stewart sees himself as a neo-colonialist of the kind the Empire-apologist Niall Ferguson would approve. Comparisons with T E Lawrence (of Arabia), the famous Brit who participated thanklessly in the Arab Revolt of 1916, would be too rich. Yet Stewart seems a generic natural heir to Lawrence: like Lawrence he negotiates the micro-complexities of the larger picture that he is too insignificant a cog of and too complicit in to see let alone critique.

So, when in his part self-exculpatory, part self-applauding narrative – and, yes, a jaunty, rough history of the coalition’s disastrous attempts to save from the anarchy it had pushed Iraq into – Stewart would have us believe that under the circumstances he juggled wonderfully everything thrown at him without dropping his idealism, one is sceptical, but for his charm. Just like the way people read Lawrence’s epic Seven Pillars of Wisdom – with a pinch of salt and little love for the Empire he was helping build.

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