A historical hotbed for conflict Iraq is no stranger to war. Once an agriculturally fertile land because of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers running through the middle of Iraq, it was christened Mesopotamia or the Cradle of Civilization by the Greeks. The Baghdad of today is to turmoil as Paris is to fashion, “…there is virtually nothing left to hint at the city’s exotic past, the Baghdad of a thousand years ago, of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and other stories from The Thousand and One Nights, when the city was the capital of an Islamic empire,” (p. 11) reminisces Anne Garrels in her memoir Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath As Seen By NPR’s Correspondent. Iraq was once a cultural Mecca where in the 4th millennium BC the first recorded system of writing was transcribed. Garrels keeps the tradition alive publishing in 2003, 2004 by Picador, the memoir chronicles her personal experiences reporting in Iraq before, during, and after the Iraq war.
Geographically speaking Iraq neighbors are Jordan to the west, Syria to the northwest, Turkey to the north, Iran to the east and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the south. If Iraq itself isn’t fighting then most likely one of the nearby residents are. This proximity to the Arab world makes the government’s plea in 2003 for pan-Arab nationalism without Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Qatar, all of whom wield great international power, an impossible dream. The current borders were drawn in 1920 when the League of Nations disbanded the Ottoman Empire which occupied Iraq for almost four hundred years. Unfortunately for Iraq the colonization doesn’t end there. It became another notch in the British colonial belt until Iraq gained independence in 1932. But the British left behind the monarch system of government which The Kingdome of Iraq adopted until the takeover by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, the party who helped to elect Saddam Hussein as the fifth president.
After almost thirty years of strife the bombs embraced the land, rekindling the flames of a toxic relationship in 2003 when The United States military invaded Iraq on orders from the Bush administration. The Iran-Iraq War lasted for the majority of the 1980’s only to be stopped by the United Nations Security Council resolution to cease fighting. Although the United States supplied weapons to Iraq the friendship was a brief affair. Two generations of Bush’s had their way with the country first with George H. W. Bush in 1989 due to Iraq’s unlawful invasion of Kuwait causing the Persian Gulf conflict. This atrocity caused the United Nations to slap sanctions on Iraq as punishment. The backlash of these sanctions was detrimental to the people not policy makers defeating the purpose of putting restrictions on Iraq.
Most of this can be blamed on long-term presidency of Saddam Hussein whose charisma seemed to put people under a spell. The citizens blindly follow a system that in the moment of truth quickly abandons them by executing attacks on its own people just to demonize the United States. Saddam was not always the emasculated Dorito loving Guantanamo Bay prisoner portrayed in the media during the last few weeks of his life. A fearsome leader who nationalized Iraq’s oil, he overstayed his welcome as president from July 1979 to April 2003. To paint an accurate picture of Hussein Garrels compares him to another infamous dictator, “I can’t say it enough: the power of Saddam Hussein is much like that of Josef Stalin, a man he said to revere.” (p.66). She would know best after extensive correspondence in Moscow, Russia during the Cold War. The parallels are attested in her notes on December 10, 2002 in the before section of the memoir.
Garrels started her journalism career in the former Soviet Union in the late 1970’s where her fluency in Russian was her greatest ally. Regrettably in Iraq her lack of knowledge of the Arabic language is one of the biggest hindrances when reporting on the war. Luckily all wasn’t lost because of the education spread by the Soviet Union some Iraqi people spoke Russian. Both regimes heavily monitored the press. The authoritarian media can be privately owned but it is always subordinate to the state, which often bolsters self-censorship by journalists and citizens alike. Leading up to the 2003 Iraq war the government brought the hammer down on the media by confiscating tapes from the Qatar funded network Al Jazzera and casting out a CNN correspondent when the network carried live feed of a protest. Japan has media in common with Iraq even though on paper it outlines one of the freest presses in the world.
Her prestigious educational background, she graduated from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College in 1972, does hinder her in one way, especially in Naked in Baghdad. An impressive vocabulary that may prove useful in a game of scrabble excludes the average reader. Terms like “smarmy” (p. 39) increase the reader’s vocabulary but she waits to explain the concept of a “fixer” a common term among journalist which is mentioned in the first Brenda Bulletin. The Brenda Bulletin’s cleverly named after “that intrepid comic book character… Brenda Starr, who was always getting into and out of impossible scrapes” (p. 3) by her husband J. Vinton Lawrence a former CIA paramilitary officer. These bulletins are letters to friends and family written by Lawrence and serve as a brief break from Garrels diary like entries. It is one of the more pleasurable parts at the book and provides a good narrative for a personal and international situation.
The Iraqi people aren’t the only ones who are forced by circumstance to reach deep inside themselves to find strength that in most humans remains dormant. Garrels is a parachute journalist who battles language, bombs, and annoying minders, the shadow of an authoritarian dictatorship. Sa’ad is a pesky minder who has no trouble reporting Garrels every move to the Information Ministry. From the jaded conductor of the Iraq symphony to a shattered mother she weaves together the stories of everyday citizens to produce a Technicolor flag that is the true representation of a misunderstood country. Garrels takes it upon herself to be the conductor describing the beginning of the war as a symphony of sirens harmonizing with bombs as they drop all around her and a gruesome solo by antiaircraft gunfire. As one of the few reporters left after the start of the war she is courageous and does whatever it takes to get the stories including reporting naked.
As a major part of the Islamic Golden Age the Abbasid Caliphate built the city of Baghdad in the 8th century as their capitol. Because of these historical ties to Islam religion seeps into politics. While the acknowledgment of religion is inevitable Garrels finds a way to achieve what Hussein’s government never could. She gives historical context to the Sunni Shi’a debate she does not let religion consume the book and the reader.
Interviews with the unfortunate Iraqi citizen’s not just government officials are what set Naked in Baghdad apart from media’s broadcast counterparts. It’s refreshing to hear thoughts from a firsthand account rather than what the United States news media says. The people are the ones who suffer for Iraq’s politics not the officials in charge making the wrong decisions. Although many citizens do not approve of Saddam Hussein’s policies they still feel nationalistic for their homeland. Perhaps years of relentless propaganda by the government like the seemingly mandatory portraits of Hussein around the county paid off.
Perhaps the saddest part of it all is the dramatic irony of situation. The Iraqi people after decades of trials and tribulations still hold on to a shred of hope for a peaceful resolution that still ten years later has yet to come. Bush declared the end of major combat operations in May 2003 but the last combat troops stayed until Aug 2010 with over 50,00 United States “advisory” troops still in Iraq. This occupation and the further spreading of Western culture is hauntingly reminiscent of our British father making Harry Chapin’s song Cats in the Cradle evermore relevant. The only questions left after reading Naked in Baghdad are for the United States and Iraq government not Garrels. Unfortunately it is made obvious that a democratic world campaigned by America is an unachievable utopia.