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

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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Decorating the Palace

Source: Iran Chamber Society

Remember those terrible ISIS videos showing the destruction of idols and museum pieces? I remember feeling sick to my stomach watching them. It’s very strange how powerful that imagery can be – and the anger that it can stoke.

Time has passed, and we’re at a place now where researchers and scholars are beginning to publish on those events.

I recently listened to a good interview with professor and researcher Aaron Tugendhaft on the New Books Network. The topic was his book titled The Idols of ISIS which discusses those events.

The striking point he makes during the interview is that it is not simply the destruction of the idols that was important, but replacing those idols with the image – the video – of those idols being destroyed. This is such an important and often overlooked concept. Someone is always holding the camera, and there is a purpose.

The book sounds fascinating, and discusses Saddam’s appropriation of Assyrian iconology to support his political ambitions (a subject I’m endlessly interested in). I couldn’t help but think of the video of Saddam’s statue being taken down in 2003 (the statue is an idol). Taking down the statue was important, but more important was replacing that with the image of it being taken down. We think we are watching a video of something happening – but it is in fac the video itself that is the new thing.

I know this gets kind of meta – but this is an important and easily missed phenomena.

There’s also a portion of the interview that discusses how the ISIS aesthetic was inspired by imagery in video games – Call of Duty is mentioned.

There is an endless deluge of scholars who look at ISIS – and for good reason. It is refreshing to get a take from someone outside of “terrorism” studies.

Lastly, during the interview, the below political cartoon was mentioned. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is still infuriating on so many levels.

PATRICK CHAPPATTEMosul Museum Devastated, 2015. Published in Le Temps, Switzerland, February 28, 2015. © Chappatte 2015.

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Clash of Loyalties

I came across this short video on the Iraqi film “Clash of Loyalties.” It was part of Saddam’s effort to shape perceptions of the Iraqi state, this one with an eye towards an international audience. It’s a bonkers story. The film features British movie star Oliver Reed who spends much of his time boozing in Baghdad bars during the shoot. The whole thing was shot during the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam insisted that filming continue to project a sense of normalcy.

The film is about the early days of Iraqi state formation and features well-known figures of the time, including Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. It’s a fascinating story that has really only been told through books, mostly memoir. T.E. Lawrence is the more well known orientalist of the day because of the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, but the political scheming of Cox and Bell would have a more significant and long-lasting impact on Iraq and the region.

The political intrigue stems from “who” would control Iraq – a struggle between the British colonial service’s Cairo office and India office with little thought towards the Iraqis themselves.

Looking at it now, the episode looks very similar to a combatant command rivalry. 

The film was never released in the West, but through the magic of the internet, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, but there are some drawn out scenes fully in Arabic. 

Watching the movie, it felt like the British got a fair portrayal. The personalities of the key figures (Cox, Wilson, Leachman, and Bell) were all exagerated for sure, but the gist of the film accurately portrayed Iraq (and the proto-Iraqis) as a canvas for British imperial interests. Wilson, who preferred a more militant approach versus Bell and Cox who preferred a gentler, scheming approach, in the end were all working towards improving the Crown’s prospects in Mesopatamia. 

In going down this rabbit hole, there are a number of good articles on the film – mostly interviews with the director Mohamed Shukri Jameel (Vice, Esquire). 

Lastly, I just want to point out there is a shot of a fantastic map board used by one of the British officers – complete with a sling.

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Iraqi Security Forces and the Will to Fight

Iraqi Flag

Originally I wanted to write a longer post on the Iraqi film al-Qadisiya (القادسية). I’ve been fascinated by it since graduate school when I first learned it existed. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot written about it English, and most of the basic Arabic articles I’ve seen say similar things.

The movie was commissioned by Saddam Hussein himself sometime around 1979. He hired prominent Arab film-makers to make what was widely reported at being the most expensive Arab film ever made. The excellent score was written and composed by the late Walid Gholmieh who later would work with the Gorillaz shortly before his death in 2011.

I haven’t been able to find a version of the movie with English subtitles, but just by skimming through it, you can see the scale of the film. Lots of extra, lots of costumes. It was an epic.

The film depicts the battle of qadisiyyah between the early Muslims and Persians. The Muslims win and later go on to seize territory in both Persia and the rest of the Middle East.

Without question, Saddam chose this battle because of its resonance with Muslims and its tie-in to contemporary nationalist aspirations. This was the eve of the Iran-Iraq War, and while both Iraqis and Iranians were Muslim, only one side consisted mainly of Persians. Saddam wanted to stoke pride in the ability of his citizens, and those who served the nation by “carrying the gun.”

But there really isn’t much more for me to say about the movie without doing some serious research.

It did get me thinking about the will to fight, and the issues the Iraqi Security Forces have been facing. As a military, Iraq has been the butt of jokes, for seemingly fleeing in the face of a small force of religious zealots.

It’s easy to just write off the Iraqis as cowards, as plenty of people do, but it doesn’t tell an accurate story.

Service in the Iraqi Army just about guarantees combat. Training is accelerated to get soldiers to the front as soon as possible. Incentives and benefits are generous (steady work) to encourage enlistment, where just showing up to sign up can get you killed in a fiery car bombing.

And what is it that they are signing up for?

An Army that suffered through a terrible war of attrition with Iran that left indelible scars on the entire populace.

An Army that was demolished in the Persian Gulf War in days and sent reeling back to to Baghdad.

An Army that atrophied under crushing sanctions and airstrikes for twelve years.

An Army that melted away during the invasion of Iraq.

An Army that was told not to return after being disbanded in 2003.

An Army that struggled to rebuild itself in fits and starts throughout the 2000s.

And all to defend a state that suffers from severe corruption and can barely govern.

On the other hand, the enemy they face appears well-organized, motivated, and aggressive. Their ideology is rooted in familiar terms and promises much more than a steady pay-check. They are unafraid to die for their cause, and in fact, welcome it. They have a worldwide fanbase that injects them with the certainty that their cause is righteous.

A young Iraqi soldier signing up for the Army today was likely born in the mid-1990s. His youth was spent under sanctions and US occupation. His life, thus far, has probably been pretty shitty. He has few job prospects and is being encouraged to join the Army, to fight ISIS.

He will likely see combat.

If he should be injured, where and how will he be treated?

If he should die, will he go to heaven?

It’s very easy to sit on this side of the world and sling the word “coward.” It’s much more difficult to consider what is actually happening over there.

There are examples of successful Iraqi units, though. Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ Gold Division is touted as the most successful Iraqi force. But it’s small. And the training required is more intense and longer in duration than typical units. And there there is a risk of relying too heavily on one, well-trained unit to the detriment of others. This is what happened to the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. They eventually became a praetorian guard for the dictator.

From what I’ve seen, the only sort of appeal to to something higher from the Iraqi state has been the “othering” of ISIS through state-sponsored cartoons and propaganda. For all of its disgusting elements, ISIS remains appealing to a disenfranchised youth. Simply making fun of it isn’t enough. What alternative does the state offer? What motivates an Iraqi soldier to give his life in service to the state?

When placed in those terms, it’s easier to understand why a poorly trained Iraqi regular might drop his weapon and flee Ramadi or Mosul in the face of an approaching enemy. Where is the example of the stalwart Iraqi soldier?

Saddam knew.

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Introduction

I’ve toyed around with blogs in the past. I had a blog while I was studying at the American University in Cairo. It was shortlived, though, since it was soley based on me being in Egypt. I enjoyed the process, and enjoyed writing.

Since then, I’ve started a few blogs for a day or so, and then quickly deleted them. Always too worried about taking on the added responsibility and feeling compelled to produce, while putting myself out there for criticism.

I thought about doing an anonymous blog, but why? I don’t intend on writing anything nasty towards anyone, and wouldn’t that be the purpose of an anonymous blog? To be able to say what you want without worrying about being revealed? Then, though, I would worry about being revealed.

So here I go again. This will be my personal blog. The title comes from a line that caught my attention from executed ex-President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. You can read about it on the About page. The blog is centrally about soldiering, writ large. Sometimes, I’ll write about things only remotely connected to soldiering, but there will be a connection there, somewhere.

From time to time, I’ll also write about some of my other interests, like Arabic, the Middle East, or the arts.

I don’t anticipate posting daily. Maybe weekly. Maybe longer. I’d like to write longer pieces. With good research and an appropriate number of hyperlinks. A lot of people blog about other blogs, or post news links. I don’t want to do that.

I have a good feeling about this one.

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