Western YouTubers and Influencers touring Iraq

a picture of baghdad at night along the river

Not something I ever thought I’d see.

“A lot of YouTubers and influencers from the West started coming,” Haroun, a native of the ancient city of Babylon, told Middle East Eye.

Iraq: Western YouTubers and influencers a new ‘phenomenon’ for tourism, Middle East Eye

And apparently this has been going on for a while now. The security situation has gotten better, for sure, but it seems that the proximate cause is the easing of entry requirements.

But the Iraqi government also took a big step in March 2021 when it decided to allow citizens from countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union countries to obtain a visa on arrival at airports or land and sea borders. 

Before, the cumbersome process to get a tourist visa could take months and cost thousands of dollars. Even more enticing for some, Iraq did away with the requirement that tourists have a government-approved guide with them.

Agreed. Getting a visa in advance coupled with a government-sponsored minder would be a major hindrance to visiting.

I’ve watched a couple of the videos, and they’re a bit mind-boggling to watch.

This is a good development. I hope it continues.

Could you even imagine?

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Bahamut

the monster bahamut from final fantasy
Bahamut (bottom) is much less intimidating here.

Wow! This came as a complete surprise!

Bahamut, one of the most powerful “summons” in the Final Fantasy universe has its roots in Middle Eastern mythology.

The name in Arabic is بهموت (bahamut) and the creature supposedly forms the base of the world, with other creatures standing on top of it.

The name “behemoth” (also a Final Fantasy creature) and now just another word for “huge” or “monstrous” is based on the same word.

This whole thing led me down a nice Saturday afternoon rabbit hole where I learned about Zakariyya’ al-Qazwin who wrote the Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat (The Wonders of Creatures and the Marvels of Creation). It contains some seriously creepy illustrations.

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“Nicotine and bullets bring the world together”

soldiers in the film mosul

Finally got around to watching Mosul, which I felt shamed into watching after reading this article that declared it “the best Iraq War film ever made.”

It was good. I enjoyed it.

It’s a different kind of Iraq War movie, though. It felt like the ruins of something that came before. It felt like an alternate reality of what would happen if it all went wrong.

Except it’s true.

I’m not sure that the world recognizes the incredible sacrifice shouldered by young Iraqi men and women in their battle against ISIS. Especially in Mosul. It all kind of happened in the back of the newspaper while we were otherwise distracted.

I especially appreciated the scene below, which captures the absurdity of the whole thing, in a blown-out dark room. The Mosul SWAT team meets with an Iranian Colonel who is in Mosul supporting the ha’shd al-sha’abi – the “Popular Mobilization Forces.”

They’re trading cigarettes for bullets.

This is what “strategic competition” looks like on the ground.

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We Want a Nation

iraqi women protesting

A great talk with former Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman.

The complicated relationship between Iraq and the United States is once again approaching a crossroads. Parliamentary elections held in Iraq last month promise a new government featuring a new cast of political forces with their own difficult histories with the United States. The United States, meanwhile, is approaching the self-imposed deadline by which it has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops from the country, even as its diplomatic and military presences in the country have continued to come under attack by Iran-backed militias. To discuss these developments, Scott R. Anderson sat down on Lawfare Live with Ambassador Doug Silliman, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019 and was previously the deputy chief of mission and political counselor there. They talked about the Sadrist block that appears to have won the recent elections, what other challenges are facing the Iraqi state and what they all mean for the future of our bilateral relationship.

The Lawfare Podcast: Ambassador Doug Silliman on What’s Next in U.S.-Iraq Relations

I enjoy listening to Doug Silliman. He understands the region and he certainly understands Iraq.

And he also understands US interests in the region and in Iraq.

Better yet, he can communicate it.

A few things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Slogans – نريد الوطن – We want a nation! Simple, but so important.
  • ISIS Propaganda – Ambassador Silliman talks about how the desertions in the Iraqi Army were partly due to ISIS propaganda. Iraqi soldiers believed that if they were captured by ISIS they would be beheaded and displayed, potentially to an international audience. Propaganda works.
  • The Counter Terrorism Service – A good chunk of this interview is Ambassador Silliman extolling the benefit of having a robust mil-to-mil arrangement in Iraq. The State Department, and foreign service officers specifially often get a bad wrap as being ‘anti-military’ in some regard. That is (mostly) unfounded. And in this interview we hear it, where Ambassador Silliman is talking about how important the mil-to-mil partnerships were in Iraq. Fostering military cooperation is a diplomatic win.

Interviews like this give me hope.

Want to quickly build clout? Shout out into the void about how if we want to compete more effectively we need to invest further into our diplomatic corps.

But what is often missing is our diplomatic corps saying how much of a useful tool our military partnerships can be to further diplomatic aims.

That is interagency cooperation right there.

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Subversive Chants

I love this recent episode of the Bulaq podcast which discusses the politics of Arab football chants.

Football and Arabic literature haven’t always had an easy relationship. Football has inspired famous authors like Mahmoud Darwish, and anonymous fans who have composed powerful stadium chants. But the sport is sometimes looked down on by writers. We celebrate the sport and its chroniclers, featured in the FOOTBALL-themed fall 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly.

Football Writing: The Passion and the Provocation

This episode is a companion to the Fall 2021 issue of Arab-Lit Quarterly, which is on football writing in the Arab world.

There’s something that happens when you get thousands of people together united behind a common cause.

There’s a reason regimes everywhere are terrified of crowds. Add to that the passion of a chant and things can quickly get out of hand.

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If you control the countryside, you control the towns

taliban fight holding an m16
We got it wrong. We always get it wrong.
Image source: The Times

Good episode from Angry Planet on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Conquerors and nations have been trying to rebuild Afghanistan in their own image for thousands of years. The U.S. is just the latest to fail. The Soviet Union also failed, with a little push from the United States. But they learned their lesson in only 10 years, from 1979-1989.

Angry Planet – When the Soviets Fled Afghanistan

I loved the quote that titles this post from Mark Galeotti:

“If you control the countryside, you will control the towns.”

Basically, we did things backwards. Control the towns, control the provincial capital, and then the province turns blue, right?

Wrong. The province is red with a blue dot where the city limits end. We got that wrong. We always get this wrong.

There really needs to be a post-mortem on this whole endeavour. There was a way to do it better.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Gertrude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

cairo conference picture at the pyramids

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

a fantasy space mosque

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!

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Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

black and white photo of saddam hussein signing something

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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