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Anthropology, Reporters and the Middle East

April 6, 2014 Leave a comment
Click to see on Amazon.com

Click to see on Amazon.com

Holland’s enfant terrible of Middle East journalism, Joris Luyendijk, proved the law of unintended consequences back in 2006 when he blitzed the Dutch news-reading public about the shortcomings of his adopted profession. He had hoped that his book Het Zijn Net Mensen (published in English as ‘Hello Everybody!’ but roughly translatable as ‘they’re almost human, aren’t they?’) would stir the media to raise their game and prompt wider intellectual curiosity about the region. As sales soared, however, he found he hadn’t counted on one common reaction.

“People would come up to me, clap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I always wondered if the media was lying! So since that you say that they do, I’m just going to cancel my [newspaper] subscription’”, Luyendijk told me on his whirl through Ankara to promote the Turkish version of his book (Herkese Merhaba!) – its 14th language translation.

The account of his five years reporting from the Middle East – on top of years of Arabic study — came out four years before my own Dining with al-Qaeda. The narrative of journalistic self-criticism comes from different perspectives, but the conclusions of our two books are so much on the same wavelength that when Hello Everybody! came out, the Guardian newspaper reviewed them together.

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

I’d never met Luyendijk, however, and it proved a delight to share a podium with him in Ankara last week at a lively outpost of Dutch civilization, Leiden University’s NIHA Institute. We discussed our pet loves and hates in journalistic coverage of the Middle East, and his book’s central arguments: that Western coverage of the Middle East is superficial, misleadingly uprooted from its context since it is purveyed by a crisis-hopping class of “presenters”; that few of these talking heads speak local languages; and that time pressure forces many to work from agency copy forwarded by their headquarters. It points out that few spend much time outside their hotels, omit the human context and have little special knowledge of local peoples who are caught up in long, complicated disputes that are not all of their own making.

Some in the Dutch media establishment rejected this newcomer’s lèse majesté, and indeed what makes the book so readable and hard-hitting is its funny mix of oversimplification, exaggeration and iconoclasm. Luyendijk claims an outsider’s legitimacy, insisting (often with a thump of his fist into his hand) that he has been first and foremost moulded by his first career as an anthropologist. His study of journalists in action, he believes, is scientifically analogous to the work he’d really like to be doing: studying Dutch-speaking grandchildren of the arrow-shooting aboriginals of the Surinam rain forest.

For our audience in Ankara we argued over whether to blame television or parti pris op-ed columnists for the Middle East’s wars and the shortcomings of Western reporting of them. I found his book over-envious of the well-funded correspondents of the great U.S. media outlets, a position which I (mostly) greatly appreciated during my decade on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I was jealous of him, I said, because any story he wrote would have a head start in getting closer to the truth because he was writing for an open-minded, well-educated, relatively neutral country like the Netherlands. We sparred over whether to blame the reporter or the audience for journalism’s lack of far-sightedness and nuance, and found a useful scapegoat in the editors. Then we wondered if more editors wouldn’t improve a brave new Dutch initiative of collaborative, crowd-funded journalism, de Correspondent, which allows writers perhaps too much space.

Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

To listen to a YouTube recording of our debate, please click on the photo. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

Luyendijk kept his insights flowing at another launch event at the Dutch ambassador’s residence, acknowledging how much had already changed in the business since he was having agency copy faxed to him. Back then, not having images from, say, Chechnya, meant that the deaths of thousands never even got on the TV news. At the same time, the neatly choreographed if sometimes deadly daily Arab-Israeli ballet of Palestinian stone throwers vs Israeli troops in a small corner of Ramallah – filmed by the global media and watched by spectators, both served by falafel sellers – made it seem as though the Middle East was ablaze with violence.

Now, he said, leading blog sites are helping editors frame their ideas on the Middle East (he singled out the “excellent” website Arabist, for instance). An articulate modern-day Dutch embassy dragoman in the audience noted the paradox that there is now a plethora of film from Syria, but that these cellphone shorts have done little to blunt the violence ripping the country apart. Luyendijk doubted that this holy grail of 100 per cent truth or objectivity could ever be attained. (“A report is always going to be either ‘Ajax beat Liverpool’, or ‘Liverpool lost to Ajax’”). He proposed a better gold standard would be trustworthiness. In journalistic terms, we agreed, that could be defined as “an honest best shot”.

Both maybe it’s easy for us to talk. We are no longer burdened with the intimidating task of making sense of day-to-day Middle Eastern turmoil for a non-expert audience. I’m now with International Crisis Group, and find its research, reports and advocacy method far better suited than journalism for detailing, explaining and ultimately trying to do something to end Middle East turbulence. But, illustrating Luyendijk’s point about simplification, even the best-intentioned broadcast media still often find it easier to keep calling me a journalist, as here on Dutch TV news last week.

Photo: Jak den Exter

Photo: Jak den Exter

Fed up with requests to come in on the fourth day of every crisis to criticise the media coverage, Luyendijk has moved to London and reinvented himself as an anthropologist of the banking business. He has blogged from the front lines of finance for the Guardian (here), an experience he’s now turning into a book. After hearing him retell some of the stories whispered anonymously to him by apparently self-hating Masters of the Universe, I’m looking forward to reading it — if he survives the the English food, out-of-body encounters with the British intellectual classes and all-year-round swimming at the open-air Lido lake on Hampstead Heath.

After that Luyendijk says his next project will be the European Union and its native species, the Eurocrat. He has his work cut out. Europe’s often self-imposed sense of slow decline means that even NIHA, the Dutch centre of learning in Ankara where he and I talked, will close down this year. But I parted company with him with a reinvigorated belief in the qualities and energy that Europe still has, if only Europeans could articulate it better.

Thinking too about Luyendijk’s insistence on the importance to his work of his scientific background, I feel even more flattered to remember how an elderly Canadian professor once came up to me after I’d presented my last book Sons of the Conquerors at Montreal’s McGill University. After listening to me talk about this account of my search through two dozen countries for the soul of the Turks, he told me: “you know, Mr. Pope, you could almost have been an anthropologist”.

A full video of our debate can be found here http://youtu.be/BdLqFqOCiRs

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Afghanistan: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Graeme Smith has many metaphors for the often bloody mess made of Afghanistan by the supposedly good intentions of the world. One that stayed with me from his knockout new book on the country is that of his favorite barber shop in the south Afghan city of Kandahar. Despite some blue tile and sofa improvements over the years, the roof of the salon picked up a crack in the arched vault from a nearby suicide bomb. The fissure occasionally widens. The hairdresser, and his clients, assume that one day the whole structure will come tumbling down. Until then, however, he just clips to the fashions of the day: long and shaggy when the Taliban are close, cropped or spiky when more pro-Western powers are strong.

Buy book from Amazon.com

Buy book from Amazon.com

The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan” (Knopf Canada, 2013) lays out in chiseled detail much that everyone needs to know about the most important, Pashto-speaking theatre of the Afghan war. The Taliban, Smith discovers, are far more “a bunch of rebellious farmers” than foreign zealots. Military strategies of “clear, hold and build” are delusions, and, like Newton’s law of reaction equaling action, the reality is that levels of violence simply rise in direct correlation to levels of force applied. Foreign forces graft themselves onto local tribal feuds, not a struggle of good versus evil. Many Afghans view the Afghan police as more predatory than the Taliban. Goals and missions may at first be noble, but foot-soldiers on both sides fight mostly in self-defence or for revenge. Ordinary Afghans cannot see the difference between the dominant United States and Canada, or, by implication, any other “willing” coalition partner. Even Canada’s impressive moral codes are stretched to breaking point by association with torturing Afghan security agents. “The Westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war,” Smith concludes, “and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation”.

Finally, for those wondering what will happen after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Smith persuasively argues that the likely outcome will be similar to events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As long as the West keeps paying for the Afghan government (now 90 per cent of budget revenue), the current regime will likely have the means to keep going, and perhaps things will work more smoothly than when foreign troops were charging around. But the relatively effective regime of President Najib fell within months of Soviet subsidies drying up in 1992, and Smith implies that much the same will happen when the West tires of its Afghan project. In the ensuing chaos, the best-educated Afghans, the backbone of whatever the West was trying to build, will then be almost bound to leave.

Before Smith (full disclosure: the author is now an admired colleague of mine at International Crisis Group) won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for this book, publishers in London and New York were dismissing its wider relevance. (“We thought it was about Syria”, one told his agent while turning it down, while another rejected it even after the prize because “getting media for a book like this in the States is just too tough”). In fact, it should be required reading for anybody who thinks that nations can be built by foreign troops on temporary assignment. It’s also the best lesson in how lucky we are that no Western soldiers are trying to do in Syria today what they tried and failed to do for 12 years in Afghanistan.

"I survived" - Afghan soldier standing to attention after a suicide bombing nearby. Photo by Graeme Smith

“I survived” – Afghan soldier standing to attention after a suicide bombing near Kandahar in 2006. Photo by Graeme Smith

Above all, Smith warns against believing NATO statements that there was any kind of “victory” in this graveyard of empires. “Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting or drilled into skulls to treat madness,” he says. He is cautious, too, about the way humanitarian agencies passionately wanted to make the NATO intervention to work for the best. Perhaps there were some eager classes of Afghans on the internationals’ wavelength in Kabul and the north. But, Smith asks, “whose dreams were we chasing in southern Afghanistan? … the road to Kandahar was paved with the best intentions, but the foreigners had no idea what Afghans wanted. That disconnect [had] horrendous consequences.” A persistent piece of graffiti in a Kandahar Air Field washroom – NUKE AFGHANISTAN – prompts Smith to reflect:

Maybe it was a more sophisticated commentary on the absurd logic of the war, a Swiftian modest proposal that revealed the only way Western countries could feel absolutely certain that Afghanistan would never serve as a terrorist haven. Given that no sane person wanted to turn the country into a sheet of radioactive glass, perhaps this was the soldiers’ way of saying that the civilians at home had better get used to accepting risk in their lives, because there was a limit to how many people you can kill as a preventative measure. The phrase ‘never again,’ so often heard after 9/11, represented an impossible task for any military force.

Smith is not naïve about the Taliban, whose propaganda “showed a sickening taste for blood,” and whose tactics included a ruthless pattern of assassinations of anyone they believed to be cooperating with their enemies (500 people in Kandahar at the latest count). But his innovative interviews with the militants taught him four main lessons: the war is basically a family feud; air strikes, rather than being an effective deterrent, often pushed people into the insurgency; things were only made worse by destroying poppy fields (now double the size they were under the Taliban, a drug that “powered the south like … an invisible life-giving energy”); and that the real Afghan nationalism of the Taliban does ultimately leave room to negotiate.

Graeme Smith at work in more peaceful climes

Graeme Smith at work in more peaceful climes

Amid the tragedy and hypocrisy are moments of black comedy. The man given a U.S. contract to plant pomegranates in the war zone jokingly calls it “combat farming.” The military’s positive thinking about how each final push would bring victory becomes a doctrine Smith sums up as “rivers of blood … but it’s a good thing.” He describes the paradox of a “stubbornly optimistic atmosphere [in which] a bright young commander could stand near a troop carrier spattered with human remains and declare victory.” Amidst a rich feast of soldiers’ vocabulary, bullets popping off inside a burning armoured car are known as a “cook-off”. Then there is the Kandahar governor who takes Smith for a walk along a path where a disabled land mine still lay half-concealed and gestures “at the hazard casually, the way somebody might warn a friend to avoid dog poop on a sidewalk.”

Smith told me that much of his reporting technique involved transcribing hundreds of hours of audio recordings, one reason perhaps why the quotes in the book are so vivid. A soldier describes bittersweet Afghanistan as “eating at McDonalds and then going and visiting the slaughterhouse”. Then of course the battlefield quote from a Canadian officer for the book’s title: “We hit a couple of guys over there. Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now”.

He is also a superb photographer, the 16 chapters accompanied by gems of images that capture both desert wastes and human spirit in grainy paper tones of grey. These in turn complement his literary gifts, particularly intense as he writes down exactly what it was like to experience military camp life, battles and suicide bombings. He describes an Afghan earth so fine it is puffs up “feathery plumes of talcum powder”; an early commitment by the internationals to saving Afghanistan is so intense that a whole military camp “seems to vibrate with an energy like the thudding rotors of a helicopter”; and at one point he finds the Afghan government presence in the insecure south like “the dust devils that flitted into empty quarters, appearing and disappearing, taking form only long enough to make you wonder if they had shape.”

Smith’s voice is in tune with other clear-eyed narratives of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – Deedee Derksen’s Thee met de Taliban (Tea with the Taliban, my review here), or Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (review here). As a Globe and Mail reporter, Smith regrets how he just can’t fit into stories some comments by interviewees that don’t match his Canadian readers’ preconceptions, the same problem I encountered as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (described in my book Dining with al-Qaeda).

When writing a story about apparent popular support in Kandahar for the Taliban, for instance, Smith meets a psychologist who tells him that the main reason for it is the ruling foreigners’ own mistakes, including their desire to change the way Afghan women dress. “’Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka’ [the psychologist said]… That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.”

The book’s last reporting tour de force is from Kandahar’s main prison. Here Smith details with elegant lucidity the failure of all the vigorous, expensive efforts of the internationals to make it safe, well-guarded and impregnable. “None of these improvements would matter, however, if the ideas behind the mission proved incorrect” he writes. “They cleared, they held, they built – but it fell apart in an instant … there was nothing they could do about the bigger problem, that few people in the south seemed enthusiastic about resisting the Taliban”.

Turkey’s Armenian Ghosts

July 19, 2013 31 comments

For many years in Turkey, conversations became awkward if they turned to defining what used to be called the “events of 1915”. Basically, I had read one set of history books, which discussed the genocidal deaths of 1-1.5 million Armenians who died in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War deportations. Most Turks had read a completely different set of books. If there was a mention of the Armenian question at all, it was suggested that some unfortunate wartime accidents had been exaggerated by Turkey’s enemies as part of great conspiracy to do the country down.

Ergen, in Dersim/Tunceli. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

This old lady in Ergen (Dersim/Tunceli, Turkey)  is an Armenian who converted to Alevism, the heteredox faith influenced by Islamic Shia thinking that predominates in that province. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

Discussion, therefore, would usually soon choke up, having revealed a genuine absence of knowledge of what happened to the Armenians, accompanied by a naturally offended sense of personal innocence; a counter-assertion of the never-addressed trauma of the wrongs done to millions of Muslims expelled from their homes in the Balkans and elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries; legalistic arguments about how by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide cannot be applied retrospectively; and among a few who worried that something awful could have happened, fears that any recognition of an Armenian “genocide” would result in expensive reparations, awkward atonement, and, not least, odium or worse for contradicting the official narrative of denial.

With such minefields to cross, therefore, I found I alienated less people by discussing basic facts of the case rather than how to label it. I agreed with the advice of Hrant Dink, the late Armenian newspaper editor, who would say it was counterproductive for outsiders to insist upon one label or another until Turkey was ready to debate fully and reach its own conclusion. He believed that processes like Turkey’s EU accession would bring freer information, and with that, understanding of what really happened. The trouble is, Dink was murdered in 2007, perhaps precisely because he represented what should have been a joint Armenian-Turkish road to reconciliation. Sadly, Turkey has yet to get far in undoing the official ideology of denial and hostility to Armenians that formed the mind of the young nationalist who pulled the trigger – let alone bring to justice acts of official negligence and even official complicity with this killer.

CouvNow a new book by the Turkey reporters of France’s Figaro and Le Monde newspapers has done an electrifying job of filling Turkey’s information gap. Surprises lurk under every stone turned over by Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier’s “Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide.” (La Turquie et le fantome Arménien: sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, March 2013: Arles, France). It will be published in Turkish by İletişim in January 2014, and deserves to find an English publisher too.

The authors’ inventory of discoveries shows just how much that is Armenian has carried through into modern Turkey. They then use these to make a controversial yet compelling argument: that the Turkish Republic founded in 1923 shares moral responsibility for whatever happened to the Armenians. They contend that Turkey’s many decades of denying that there was anything like an Armenian genocide is actually part of the continuation of a pattern of actions by the Ottoman governments responsible for the Armenian massacres and property confiscations of the 1890-1923 period. For instance, the judicial “farce” of the investigation and trial of Hrant Dink’s murderer is, to the authors, proof positive that “since 1915, impunity has been the rule”.

There are other rude shocks. Some Turks now realize they were being misled by the old official narrative of denial, thanks to a new openness about and better understanding of the Armenian question in Turkey over the past decade. But how many appreciate that Istanbul’s best-loved Ottoman landmarks are often designed by Armenian architects? How many know that the famed Congress of Erzurum, corner stone of the republic’s war of liberation, was held in a just-confiscated Armenian school? And how many have heard, as Marchand and Perrier allege, that even the hilltop farmhouse that became the Turkish republic’s Çankaya presidential palace was seized from an Armenian family – and that descendants of the family, some of whom were well-enough connected to escape with their lives — can calmly be interviewed about this “original sin” of the republic? (The official history of the palace simply says that Ankara municipality “donated” it to republican founder Kemal Atatürk in 1921).

It seems apposite that the authors quote Çankaya’s current incumbent, the open-minded President Abdullah Gül, as saying while he toured the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani on Turkey’s closed border with Armenia: “That’s Armenia there? So close!”

Amid such evidence that Turkish perceptions can be naïve, one problem with the book is its unrelenting insistence that Turkey end its “fierce” and “obsessive” denial that a genocide happened (unlike, the authors point out, Germany, Serbia, Rwanda and others). This tight argumentation leaves the impression of a Turkey that is deliberately calculating and somehow evil, rather than the more likely case that it is clumsy, embarrassed and a prisoner of its own contradictions. A preface by U.S.-based Turkish academic Taner Akçam, a once-lonely pioneer who calls for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide, sets a trenchant tone and outlines the problem. “To recognize the Armenian genocide would be the same as denying our [Turkish] national identity, as we now define it”, Taner writes. “Our institutions result from an invented ‘narrative of reality’… a coalition of silence … that wraps like a warm blanket…if we are forced to confront our own history, we would be obliged to question everything”.

Marchand and Perrier brush aside any need for a transitional commission to study the history of the genocide, as suggested in the still-born 2009 protocols between Turkey and Armenia, because the genocide “is a fact that that is barely debated in scientific circles”. Even though the study of Russian archives on the matter is still in its infancy, for instance, the authors dismiss valid elements of the Turkish narrative as yet more ghosts whose abuse has made them an extension of the earlier misdeeds. Parts of the Turkish story are therefore mentioned in passing or only partially, like the massacres of Turks and Muslims by Armenian militias operating behind Russian lines, the 56 people were killed by Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) terrorists during their 1970s and 1980s terrorist campaign against Turkey, or the fact that most of the one million refugees from the fighting in Mountainous Karabagh are Azerbaijanis who fled conquering Armenians. Also, there may be some ill-judged memorial ceremonies, but Turkey does not have a “cult” of Talat Pasha, a probable principal architect of the Armenian genocide. As the authors themselves point out, the site of his grave in a small official memorial park for the Committee of Union and Progress leaders of late Ottoman times gets little official or popular attention.

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Still, Marchand and Perrier state early on that their mission is not to write history, but to “give visibility to what has been erased … to gather together an antidote to the poison of denial … because impunity is always an invitation to reoffend”. And here they succeed to a remarkable extent, finding much that remains of Armenians, even as Turkey nears the 2015 centenary of when they were effectively erased from Anatolia: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second- hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, songs and traditions. “Turkey”, they say, “is still haunted by the ghost of an assassinated people”.

Indefatigably, the authors travel to remote mountain villages and with President Gül to the Armenian capital for a football match that was part of the ill-fated late 2000s reconciliation process. They listen to the Armenians of Marseilles, France’s second city where 10 per cent of the population are descended from Armenians who fled Turkey, and explain why France and its parliament are so sensitive to the Armenian question. (They also suggest that some in the Armenian diaspora have constructed a counterproductive dream of a “fantasy Armenia, a promised substitute land”.) They interview the grand-children of a brave Turkish sub-prefect, Hüseyin Nesimi, who tried to stop the massacres in 1915, but was quickly assassinated near Diyarbakir, presumably at the orders of an alleged local organizer of the killings. They sit with the family of an Armenian citizen of Turkey killed by a far-right nationalist fellow soldier while on national service – on April 24, 2011. They slip into the mountains and show in a feast of detail how the spirit of the Armenian ‘brigands’ of yore lives on with the left-wing TIKKO group (Turkey’ Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, founded, you guessed it, on April 24).

In Sivas, they visit the last few rat-infested ruins in the once-thriving Armenian quarter. In Ordu, they find the old Armenian quarter rebaptised “National Victory”, and the old main church now turned into the mosque. In another town, an Armenian protestant church survived as a cinema and now an auditorium, with no sign of its provenance. Elsewhere, the dismantled stones of Armenian monasteries and houses have become the building material for new houses, sometimes with their religious symbols becoming decorative features. State ideology, they think, “even wanted to assimilate the stones”.

They join an Armenian guide who arranges tours for diaspora visitors to find the many souvenirs of Armenian-ness in eastern Turkey – and inhabitants who are not as hung up about their Armenian connections as might be expected. This picaresque explorer has tracked down 600 former Armenian villages, in some of which 1915’s survivors occasionally lived on for decades (the authors even stumble upon one during their travels). Other small Armenian communities “hidden, forgotten or assimilated” still live in thirty small or medium-sized towns. They show how village names have been changed and the memory of Armenians has been expunged. Very few people in Turkey are aware that the now iconic and ubiquitous signature of “K. Ataturk” was one of five models of signature dreamed up for the new republican leadership by a respected old Armenian teacher in Istanbul – whose son tells the story to the authors.

The authors discuss the impact of Fethiye Çetin’s 2009 book ‘My Grandmother’, which lifted the veil on Turkey’s many Armenian grandmothers, saved from the death marches to become servants or wives. In Turkey there are now, the authors believe, “millions of grandchildren of the genocide” who, because of the way Armenian-ness has been denigrated, have not wanted to be identified “more out of shame than fear”. In a province like Tunceli/Dersim, “it’s rare to find a family that doesn’t have an Armenian grandmother or aunt”. Shared saints’ days, common dances and music have blended into a new Armenian-Turkish-Kurdish mix in which it is hard to tell where one ethnicity ends and another begins. The book recounts touching scenes from Armenian churches as some of the descendants of Armenian converts try to return to the Armenian church and community. Indeed, the picture that emerges gives new meaning to the sign held up by many in the massive funeral procession in Istanbul for Hrant Dink: “We are all Armenians”.

Marchand and Perrier do not spare Turkey’s Kurds, who they say need to accept not just that there was a genocide but also recognize their part in plundering and kidnapping from the Armenian death marches. Still, a mainly Kurdish-speaking city like Diyarbakir has played a leading role in trying to make amends for what happened to the Armenians, rebuilding a church that had fallen into ruins, and bringing the language back into official use at a municipal level. Much of Diyarbakir actually used to belong to Armenians – more than one half, the authors suggest.

Indeed, the authors point out that many of Turkey’s grand companies today got their start in places where Armenian businesses had been forced out. Crucially for their argument of continued responsibility, appropriation continued into the republic, with the wealth tax that crushed the “minorities” in 1942 and the state-tolerated actions that took successive tolls on minority properties in the decades thereafter. (This continues: the front page headline of Taraf newspaper today, 19 July 2013, is an angry denunciation of municipal plans to appropriate, knock down and redevelop the last stone houses of the abandoned old Armenian quarter in the eastern town of Muş). It’s not all grand state policy: they meet the family of an Armenian convert to Islam who came back from his years of military service to find that his lands had been peremptorily seized by his neighbours. There are harsh words about the energy that goes into the search for gold and valuables thought to have been hidden by Armenians as they were forced out of their homes: “pillaging is still today a national sport … a prolongation of the plundering.”

At first the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked as though it would lead Turkey out of this dead end. But it failed to see through normalization protocols with Armenia in 2009, and later it was Erdoğan himself who ordered the demolition of a monument to friendship with Armenia in the border town of Kars – on another 24 April. The authors give little credit to his government’s restoration of some Armenian churches and reinstatement of at least some Armenian property confiscated by the republic. Perhaps this reticence is because of the bad grace sometimes on display. At the reopening of the Armenian church of Akdamar on Lake Van, favorite of Turkish tourism posters, the envoy from Ankara managed to make a speech that mentioned neither the words “church” nor “Armenian”. Also, there were more than 3,000 active Armenian churches and monasteries in Anatolia before the First World War; now there are just six.

“Turkey and the Armenian Ghost” ends by conjuring up the changing spirit of the Armenian history debate in Turkey. This is largely thanks to the determination of Turkey’s academics since 2000-2005 to end what they knew to be an unacceptable and professionally untenable official policy and culture of denial. Clearly, it is real and trusted information developed by such experts at home, not the grandiose and sometimes hypocritical declarations by foreign legislatures, that has the best chance of changing the Turkish public’s mind. Marchand and Perrier’s stiletto-sharp impatience with the Turkish state’s slow pace or lack of official change may alienate many of those who most need convincing. But people can increasingly see more elements of what happened, and the deeply researched, convincing reportage in this book can help open up minds. “Of course it’s a genocide, but that’s a word that doesn’t work,” academic Cengiz Aktar tells the authors. “The only way to block the narrative of denial is to develop a policy of remembering, and to start the process of informing the population.”

Gay life in the Levant

April 9, 2013 Leave a comment
Jean-Pierre Thieck, RIP

Jean-Pierre Thieck, RIP

The opening scene in Dining with al-Qaeda is in a brothel in Aleppo, where my first Middle East mentor, the late Jean-Pierre Thieck, took me in March/April 1980 as an undergraduate to introduce me to life in Syria. Appropriately, the very next morning, the Syrian army invested the town for three days of shooting, strike-busting and carting citizens off to torture/detention cities on the outskirts of town in open trucks in pyjamas. Plus ça change. And far from meeting any Syrian madames, even though I would have welcomed that, as Jean-Pierre’s side-kick I was in fact introduced to his parallel life of gay adventure. So I was fascinated to read the experiences of of a gay couple whose very different voyage to the east is described in Jack Scott’s book Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey. As I point out in this review I did for Istanbul’s Hürriyet Daily News, Jean-Pierre’s many “Turkish and Syrian counterparts would rarely have viewed themselves as homosexual, and, paradoxically, I was always astonished at how normal and even socially acceptable Jean-Pierre’s extraordinary behavior was considered. As in Europe, Middle Eastern societies have much more trouble with the idea of a stable, loving, explicitly homosexual marriage.”

Book by gay couple provides new view on

same-sex marriage in Turkey.

By Hugh Pope

Turkey is stuck between East and West, which is why I like living in Istanbul. It’s also why I get frustrated each time I see the headline “Where is Turkey going?” as if the country was about to run off somewhere. So it was fun to read a book that included both a fundamental challenge to Turkey’s status quo and accepted the country as it is. More surprisingly, “Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam move to Turkey” is also the story of one of the first overtly gay married couples to set up house and home here.

Moving to Bodrum

To be precise, Jack Scott and his spouse moved to the Bodrum peninsula, a hedonistic enclave on the Aegean coast that some Turks barely think of as really being Turkey, or at least where some Turks go in order to escape from the rest of Turkey. It’s hard to imagine their openly homosexual household lasting long in many other places in the country. But they managed, for a year or two anyway. Their experience makes for a compelling and enjoyable read, if you’re broad-minded enough for some in-your-face emotion and choppy BBC sitcom dialogue. Scott is always empathetic, respectful to the country and people that became his host and pretty acute about Turkey’s politics, society and foibles.

It was nice to see someone else agree, for instance, that “there are more parallels between Britain and Turkey than many realize … anchored to the edge of Europe but chained to it economically.” Living in the Turkish provinces opens his eyes to something those trapped in the bubbles of Istanbul high life or Ankara government rarely see: “How could Turkey ever hope to become an industrial powerhouse if they couldn’t keep the bloody lights on?”

Despite limited Turkish, his insights are sharp: “Turkish arguments are different: loud, passionate, sometimes physical and ultimately pointless. No one gives in, no one wins and no one loses.” And he has a great answer to that most difficult question: what’s Turkey like? “Amazing. Educational. Terrible. Surreal. All four.”

Jack Scott

Jack Scott

Scott is amusingly merciless in his dissection of British expatriates – one category is the VOMITs, well-off, middle-aged nymphs who become “Victims Of Men In Turkey,” including a VOMIT subgroup of MADs, those who have persuaded themselves that “My Ahmet is Different.” But such diversions were not enough to keep the couple interested in staying for long. Any frictions over their open gayness seem not to have been the main reason for leaving Turkey, but a bigger, less-defined disorientation and missing of home, a realization that without family, language and roots, “our life in Turkey wasn’t real. Not really. We were drifting around in an extraordinary expat bubble with people we didn’t know or really care about.”

The gay angle on Turkey was of particular interest to me. My first visit to Turkey was with a fellow student at Oxford, the remarkable, warm, generous French polyglot Pierre Thieck, who died of AIDS in 1990. This brilliant Arabist also introduced me to his Middle East of addictive homosexual encounters, often several times a day. But his Turkish and Syrian counterparts would rarely have viewed themselves as homosexual, and, paradoxically, I was always astonished at how normal and even socially acceptable Jean-Pierre’s extraordinary behavior was considered. As in Europe, Middle Eastern societies have much more trouble with the idea of a stable, loving, explicitly homosexual marriage.

Model was ‘making a real difference’

Scott and his spouse bravely hoped that their pioneering model was “making a real difference.” It was difficult for them, especially when one of their Turkish homosexual friends in Bodrum was murdered. Scott points out how hard it was to understand repressed, contradictory attitudes in a country “where sexual ambiguity is an art form … my gaydar [gay radar] malfunctioned as soon as I entered Turkish airspace … I was left in a continuous state of disarray, thrown by the intensive penetrating stares and contradictory playful signals from the swarthy men around me. I never played the game because I never got the rules.” In his epilogue, Scott suggests that “a respect for difference won’t destroy” the many old-fashioned qualities of Turkey, and a parting message: “It’s okay to be queer. It won’t bring down the house, though it might bring in a little more style.”

Hugh Pope is the author of “Dining with al-Qaeda,” “Sons of the Conquerors” and “Turkey Unveiled.” After 25 years in Turkey, Scott would probably define himself as part “emiköy” (the village type of expatriate with chickens) and part “vetpat.”

March/22/2013

Original article here

A loaded pistol scares one person; an unloaded gun scares two

May 27, 2012 Leave a comment

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Now that talks of a kind are beginning again between Iran and the West on the Iranian nuclear program, anyone wanting the back story behind Tehran’s thinking should dip into with Scott Peterson’s excellent book “Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – a journey behind the headlines” (Simon and Schuster, 2010). Reading it is to join the best moments of 30 trips to Iran in the company of an ace reporter – Peterson is Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor – with no need for endless visa forms, corrupting negotiations with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, or the frustration of having to fight tooth and nail for every interview.

A manhandled Muslim democrat – President Khatami (photo Scott Peterson)

After setting the post-1979 revolutionary scene, including a great first chapter on the all-dominating U.S.-Iran relationship, Peterson’s experiences start with the false spring of liberal Iranian hopes that accompanied the late 1990s rise of President Khatami and his “democratic Islam”. False, because “an organized minority [of hardliners] have more power than a disorganized majority”, and Khatami’s downfall follows. A conservative newspaper editor points out to Peterson that his hardline faction won when it realized that the demonstrating moderates lacked the ruthlessness for a final push. As he puts it, “a loaded weapon scares one person, but an unloaded one scares two.”

(That could just as well be a metaphor for the current nuclear talks, since Iran most likely does not have any real weapon pointed at the U.S., and is doubtless as scared as the Americans think they are themselves. Which may be why the Iranians are now signaling they might give a tiny bit of ground.)

Believe or else – President Ahmadinejad (photo Scott Peterson)

Some of Peterson’s most original and memorable sections detail the populist, messianic Shiite cult of the Mahdi. Its adherents notably include President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently leaves an empty seat at his meal table just in case the Mahdi suddenly returns. As for the grim realities of Ahmadinejad’s rule outside his dining room, there are few more shocking accounts than Peterson’s of the suffocating clampdown “in the name of democracy”.  The freedom seekers of the 2009 Green Movement  were considered a grave threat in the mold of other east European “color” revolutions of that decade.  Peterson spares no detail about exactly how this ruthless regime set its thugs onto crushing middle class dreams with beatings, psychological warfare to sadistic sexual abuse.

Along the way, Peterson has a remarkable array of Iranians speak about themselves and their country. They tell how the regime’s Islamist obsessions have made ordinary Iranians “fed up with religion”, in the words of the late Ayatollah Montazeri. Remarkably, even Iran’s grand ayatollahs voted three-to-one against the Islamist regime stalwarts who stole the 2009 elections. The new hardline cabal of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard are indeed shown to be “heedless of the damage they inflict on the lives of individuals and families. They assume everyone else is as indifferent to basic human decency as they”, as jailed scholar Haleh Esfandiari tells Peterson. And one wonders how long it will be before Iran’s rulers wake up to the fact that, in the words of analyst Saeed Laylaz, “Iran cannot make up for its lack of economic might with nuclear technology, missiles and proxy threats in Lebanon and Palestine”.

Peterson’s enthusiasm for the subject can lead to some gushing moments, especially in the introduction, with Iran presented “as a paradise for journalists, where the tree of knowledge is ripe with counter-intuitive succulence”, in which the author finds glimpses of the “fundamental seedbeds of the Islamic Republic” in his role as “a seeker of revelatory experience.” Such bouquets are doubtless partly aimed at persuading the publisher to launch all 733 pages of this volume into the crowded sea of Middle East books. It was worth it, and this feast of reportage is sober, original and meticulous. He is also all-embracing, citing not just his own reporting on the past 15 years, but notable journalism by others too. (Not to mention some of his own fine photos, including a crafty extra two hidden in the cover art).

Is that a lens in my lens? Scott Peterson self-portrait

There are, however, no easy assessments of what it all means or illusory answers to over-simplified issues (e.g. “Is Iran building a nuclear bomb?”) that hurried policy-makers so often want. The merit of the book lies in its assiduous collection of all the paradoxes that make up Iran. And as always, the answer an outsider will get depends on how he asks the question.

Peterson does offer plenty of insights into the U.S.-Iran relationship, in which he sees Iranians as “prideful fighters” who don’t want to be the first to give up. Anti-Americanism is the “critical glue that helped hold together Iran’s Islamic regime” and Iranians are convinced that they must never deal with the U.S. from a position of weakness, but Peterson also foresaw Iran’s empathy for the U.S. after 9/11, a rare thing in the Middle East. He sees many similarities between the two nations, including a national arrogance, a need for an enemy, and a belief in its own exceptionalism. Whether that makes them “natural allies”, as Peterson believes, seems to me debatable. The test will come if and when the U.S. decides to ditch the old blood feud, since, as Peterson quotes Ayatollah Khomeini, “on that day when the United States of America will praise us, we will mourn.”

Such an enlightened U.S. reversal of its Iran policy is, anyway, unlikely. Peterson shows well how Israel seized upon America’s Iran fetish from the 1990s onward in order to bolster its own diminishing importance after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, one Iranian tells Peterson that Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington are all ‘hezbollahi’ regimes, loving and needing each other as essential enemies. Peterson also wisely points out that most Iranian policies are not ideological products of the “Islamist” bogeyman that the U.S. and Israel love to fear, but aim at regime survival.

Iran thinks it has the right to dominate its region, an Iranian newspaperman tells Peterson, but if that is the case, Tehran perhaps needs to consider earning that right first. In a new version of the tale of the hare and the tortoise, the oil-fueled Iranian economy was double the size of neighboring Turkey at the time of the Islamic Revolution, but has long been overtaken and is now half the size of its more plodding rival. Seizing the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was hardly an “achievement” or worthwhile “second revolution”, as Iran portrays it, and is now quite long ago. As the humanity of Iranians bursts through every page of Peterson’s book – from regretful basijis to north Tehran heavy metal bands – the reader keeps wanting to say: come on, Iran. It’s time to move on.

Beware the stated war aims of great states

March 18, 2012 2 comments

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I love history books that cast light on the modern turmoil in the former Ottoman Empire and beyond. The trouble is I often get bogged down in the details, and the pile of unfinished, pencil-scored volumes has long been steadily rising by my bedside.

Not so with historian Sean McMeekin’s new book The Russian Origins of the First World War (Belknap/Harvard, 2011). I raced through its 323 pages and put it down thoroughly satisfied that my understanding had been much broadened with new explanations of how Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbours got into the mess that they remain in today. The book also challenged many of the myths I have long believed about a conflict that cut a traumatizing swathe through my own extended family on the Western front of the war.

Myth #1. “The Germans started the First World War”. I didn’t even know there was a debate about this. But McMeekin convinced me that Russian leaders wanted the war more than their counterparts in Berlin, London, Vienna and possibly even Paris. The French seem to have been just as much to blame, but the skill of their statecraft in allying with Russia turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for their country as Russia’s war aims turned out to be very different to those of France.

Myth #2. “The First World War was mostly triggered by competing ambitions in the Balkans”. This all came to a head in Sarajevo with the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand of (Germany-aligned) Austro-Hungary by a (Russia-aligned) Serbian conspirator. Balkan frictions did exist, of course. But McMeekin shows that the war was much more about competition for the best parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, and in particular the Russian war aim of conquering Constantinople (Tsargrad, in Russian). While Britain and France no longer took the Ottoman Empire seriously, “for Russia”, McMeekin says, “the war of 1914 was always, ultimately, about Turkey”. (Indeed, Stalin’s same aim of controlling Russia’s main warm-water trade route through the Turkish straits was behind Turkey’s decision to throw its lot in with the West during the Cold War. It probably is also why Russia today shows no sign of putting at risk its one port asset in the Mediterranean, Tartous in Syria).

Myth #3. The “Armenian genocide”. It’s not often one sees the Armenian genocide put in inverted commas these days, especially in a respectable book. I nearly fell off my chair recently when  a former chief of the Turkish foreign ministry calmly told his fellow dinner guests that he now used the word “genocide” on Turkish TV shows. But McMeekin deploys plenty of new evidence that – despite the Ottoman excesses against Armenian civilians, especially in 1915, which he condemns as wholeheartedly as anyone – the Armenian nationalist movement was indeed a willing fifth column for Russian war aims and that the Russian command was even embarrassed by the Armenians’ willingness to massacre Muslims. The tragedy for the Armenians was that the Russians promised much more than they were able or willing to deliver, were cynical about others’ casualties, attacked where they thought resistance would be least, were mostly late for battle, or simply didn’t show up for the campaign at all. Thus when the Russians finally conquered eastern Anatolia in 1916, there were few Armenians left to be rescued. “The Armenian revolutionary movement received most of its arms from Russia and aimed above all to provoke armed intervention from the same”, McMeekin says in a chapter that should become required reading on the Armenian question, “and Russian [officials] sought intentionally to exacerbate ethnic tensions as a prelude to invasion.”

Myth #4. “The British know what they are doing”. If Britons think it is only in recent years that the British policy elite has been asleep at the wheel, McMeekin’s findings can make them squirm from a much earlier date. Complacent British diplomats were blind-sided by aggressive French-Russian scheming in the run up to the war; the British Mediterranean fleet was unable to capture two German warships before they took refuge in Istanbul at the war’s start, a strategic game-changer; and the British failed to prepare militarily for a successful Gallipoli campaign in a way that was matched by the topsy-turvy politics of the enterprise. Britain and France attacked Gallipoli to help their Russian allies, but the Russians never turned up to do their share of the fighting. The Entente also explicitly promised that Russia would be handed the prize of Constantinople afterwards, even though, as McMeekin points out, the idea of Russian control of the Turkish straits “had been a full-on British casus belli as recently as thirty-six years [before, in the Crimean War].”

Prof. Sean McMeekin, Bilkent University

All this iconoclasm is lively and well-written. McMeekin cites diaries, long-secret documents, memoirs and letters to make the reader feel like an intimate from Choristers’ Bridge (St Petersburg) to the Ballplatz (Vienna) to Whitehall (London). The portrait that emerges of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov is particularly compelling, showing how misleading it can be to believe what people say about their own role in history – in Sazonov’s case, in his post-war memoir, which sought to airbrush out Russia’s warlike intentions.

I liked the polemical, clearly argued tenor of McMeekin’s prose, even if the language did sometimes border on the patronizing and Russophobic. St Petersburg’s policy is said to be “grasping” and characterized by “guile and procrastination”, while Russian suffering is dismissed because “Russians are inured to the cold”. Caustic critique is reserved for almost every actor in this drama. There are slippery Ottoman ministers (who were probably quite right to be evasive, since the Russians had spies even in their Cabinet meetings), rival historians who pay insufficient or no attention to Russian sources, and uncounted British leaders and officials who, McMeekin believes, acted as unwitting “ventriloquists” for Russian policy.

One thing that this up-and-coming, Ankara-based historian keeps returning to is that everyone should be very wary of the stated war aims of great states, whether it is supposedly “Slavic honor and the Serbs” (aired by the Russians in 1914) or “to reconstitute the internationally recognized boundaries of Kuwait” (used by the U.S. in 1991). Behind the fig leaves of such language, McMeekin clearly believes everyone should check for “cold, hard national interest”.

The world has waited a century for someone like McMeekin to demonstrate scientifically the centrality of the Turkish Straits question as it propelled Russia into the First World War — although McMeekin notes that the Bolsheviks, “mad political savants” that they were, did keep drawing rhetorical attention to this imperialist fact. I hope we will not have to wait so long to learn the real reasons why the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, or the hard interests propelling the zig-zags in Washington’s current Iran policy. The U.S. is clearly still in a strong position against the main autocratic powers of our days — China and Russia, again – and no new great war seems to be looming (fingers crossed). Nevertheless, some parallels can be drawn between the U.S. today and the struggles back then of liberal, democratic, public opinion-respecting Britain, which lost its global pre-eminence in the First World War. As McMeekin concludes:

“The bamboozlement of the British by clever Russian diplomats like Sazonov has much relevance for our own age. The cardinal weakness of a democratic power in the international arena is not so much inconsistency as naivete.”

Take my money or die

November 3, 2011 1 comment

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”

Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.

One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:

“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”

Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”

Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”

I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”

The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.

Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)

Peter Van Buren

Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”