Swimming Up the Tigris
by Barbara Nimri Aziz
Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007. 314 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
Aziz, a freelance reporter and host of an Arab-interest radio show in New York, first traveled to Iraq in 1989 before Saddam Hussein's "blunder" in Kuwait. She returned several times during the 1990s to document suffering under "illegal" U.N. sanctions and after the 2003 Iraq war. What has evolved, in Aziz's words, is a book as much about Iraq as about the United States. "Washington's 2003 military assault and occupation," Aziz tells us, "is indisputably part of the United States' wider imperial design." Much political polemic and conspiracy permeate Swimming Up the Tigris, as Aziz ruminates on the "weapons [of mass destruction] hoax and other fabrications."
Aziz organizes her book thematically: Vignettes supporting her arguments follow short political essays about life in Iraq, the medical system, and children. Aziz depicts Iraq as an enlightened society before sanctions and war and as a helpless victim afterwards. Iraq's once impressive medical system collapsed in the 1980s not because of Saddam's decision to launch a suicidal war but because Washington sought a policy of dual containment that left Iraqis isolated. She blames sanctions for Saddam's 12-year moratorium on hospital construction but omits not only that sanctions did not apply to medical goods but also that Saddam spent billions during the same period building gilded palaces. Sometimes, she simply lies: The coalition did not in 1991 bomb Iraqi food stores. News media and even most antiwar activists abandoned prewar claims that 500,000 children died because of sanctions when, upon liberation, it became clear that this too was false. Throughout her narrative, Saddam is but a bit player. Aziz refuses to acknowledge the impact of his decisions on Iraq's downfall, for to do so might undercut her world-view.
Few Iraqis would recognize Aziz's description of their homeland. "Until the U.S. occupation in 2003," she writes, "little priority was given to religious affiliation." But why then did the Iraqi government provide electricity to Sunni neighborhoods twenty-four hours a day and just hours per day to Shi'i areas? If Kurds were equal citizens, was it simply coincidence that the Iraqi government expelled so many from their homes in order to resettle Sunni Arabs? For Aziz, there was no Halabja chemical weapons attack and no mass graves throughout southern Iraq. Indeed, it is questionable whether she ever bothered to explore Iraqi Kurdistan or the southern marshes.
Aziz has proven herself the Iraq equivalent of David Irving on the Holocaust. That the University Press of Florida legitimized such venom and dishonesty, though, is a black mark impossible to erase.
Related Topics: Iraq | Michael Rubin | Winter 2009 MEQ
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