Prof. Kanan Makiya's (NEJS) new novel "The Rope" was released worldwide earlier this week. To celebrate, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department and the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life hosted a discussion on Wednesday about the book and its reflections on life within Iraq's Shiite population after the death of Saddam Hussein.
"The Rope" follows the life of a young Shiite militiaman from April 2003 — just after U.S. forces took control of Baghdad and ousted Hussein — to the day of Hussein's execution on Dec. 30, 2006. The titular rope is the noose used to hang him. Makiya, who is Iraqi and a former exile under the Hussein regime, was a vocal proponent of the United States invading Iraq in the run-up to the war. He advocated for a complete dismantling of the former regime, frequently appeared in the media and famously told the Bush administration that the Americans would be greeted with "sweets and flowers," according to a March 17, 2013 Boston Globe article. Makiya told the crowd on Thursday that "The Rope" does not present the American story of the war in Iraq; indeed, there are no American characters and few references to the invading force. Instead, it tries to show how life within the Shiite community was affected by Saddam Hussein's ousting. Makiya said that the Arabic title of the book is not "The Rope" but "Il Fitnah," using an Arabic word without a clear English equivalent that roughly means sedition or betrayal, and which is said to be "worse than murder" in a verse of the Quran. Il Fitnah also refers to the seventh-century schism in Islamic history that led to the divide between Sunnis and Shiites, and is, according to Makiya, "the perceived cause of Shia victimhood."
The United States, according to Makiya — who described himself as "born into a Shia family" — knowingly "empowered the victims" after 2003. "Not through any effort of their own, the Iraq Shia had been empowered for the first time in their 1000 year history." To Makiya, the murder of Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoei — a Shia cleric who was killed shortly after Hussein lost power — was "the first clue or sign, symbol even, as to how things were going to go terribly terribly wrong. Mine is, therefore I freely admit, a kind of Iraqi morality tale."
Makiya said the Shiite community's perceived victimhood is critical to understanding its actions and Iraq today, as well as the broader Middle East: "Everyone is or chooses to wallow in their real or imagined victimhood with the possible exception of Turkey and Iran. ... It is — just pause and think about it — a hopeless and seemingly immovable and certainly permanently depressing state of affairs."
"So I like to think of this book of mine as trying to nail down this politics of victimhood in the very particular case of the Shia of Iraq," Makiya continued. "And show it to be the debilitating, degrading, soul-and-world-destroying thing that it almost always is, and that is everywhere around us today destroying Middle East states and societies."
Makiya's address included an excerpt from the book where the fictionalized version of Hussein speaks to the book's narrator a few hours before his death, justifying his actions. After the reading, Prof. Dan Terris (PAX) — the Ethics Center director — led a panel discussion and question-and-answer segment with Makiya and three guests. First to speak was Hayder al-Mohammad, an Iraqi-British sociocultural anthropologist conducting fieldwork in Iraq. Al-Mohammad commented that when he reads Iraqis' writing in English about Iraq, he often jokes that he can tell when they left the country by figuring out what they are criticizing. "Who is the monster? Is it Saddam Hussein? Well, that will lead to [the writer having left Iraq in the] sixties, seventies, eighties. If you leave after the nineties, halfway through, it's the sanctions."
To modern Iraqis, al-Mohammad argued, the biggest concern is the economic devastation left by American sanctions and the way in which they forced out the most highly-skilled members of society, such as doctors and engineers. This is a major reason why current government efforts are failing, in al-Mohammad's view. "What I think this novel does very interestingly is point to a kind of imaginary [world] that occurs once you take the sanctions story out of Iraq. Then Iraq becomes an enigma. ... But if you have a story of the sanctions, then it's a very different story. There, you don't see differences between Sunni and Shiite; you'd never talk about a Sunni or Shiite community in Iraq."
Next, Emma Sky spoke. Sky is the director of Yale University's World Fellows program and served for three years as an advisor to the commanding general of U.S. forces in the war on terror. She said that in her view, nothing that happened after 2003 was "inevitable" for Iraq and that the U.S.-led coalition deserves a large amount of blame for its poor planning and unwillingness to let Iraqis aid in planning the country's future; she indicated that before the war, most of the intelligence about Iraq came from exiles who had not been in the country for years. "What I liked about Kanan's book is the self-criticism," she said. "There's been very little honesty or self-criticism about this war."
Last to speak was Dexter Wilkins, a current staff writer for the New Yorker who covered the Iraq War for four years for American newspapers. He said that he appreciated "The Rope" for telling the story of the Iraq war from the Iraqi perspective because, in his opinion, the American perspective is the only version most people have heard. When he is asked to explain what happened in Iraq, he said he usually describes the Americans as invading a country that was "broken, psychologically and physically" and only supported by "the steel frame" of the Hussein regime, which the Americans promptly took away and did not properly replace. However, one of his frustrations as a journalist was not being able to properly represent the stories of Iraqis. "I think that we haven't heard a lot of the Iraqi story. ... As a reporter there, I did my best, but I felt that a lot of that was closed. Maybe because I was a foreigner. It always felt like a mystery to me."