Anthony Shadid is that rarest of Americans: an Arab American, fluent in Arabic and entrusted by major media to report from Iraq. In 2004, his work...
Anthony Shadid is that rarest of Americans: an Arab American, fluent in Arabic and entrusted by major media to report from Iraq. In 2004, his work for The Washington Post won him a Pulitzer Prize. Now he has put his experiences and thoughts into a book.
“Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War” (Henry Holt, 448 pp. $26) is a colorful and moving account. Shadid tells the story through the words of ordinary Iraqis, most of them decent folks. Few have anything good to say about Saddam Hussein but most are critical of the Americans who started a war in order to remove him. Complains bookstore owner Mohammed Hayawi: “What does he have to do with us?”
First Saddam, now this. That is how the Iraqis in this book see the invasion: One damned thing after another, all of them interfering with the chance of a normal life. One example is a man named Hussein whose family is in a two-room apartment. The doors have been blown off their hinges by American bombs. Many Iraqis learned to open their doors when the B-52s were overhead; this man apparently forgot. A refrigerator and a TV have been tossed across the room, and his family has been cut by flying shards of glass.
In another family, Omar and Faruq are arguing about whether the conquerors are imperialists or liberators while the TV is tuned to Fox News. When Fox reports that B-52s have left for Baghdad, they all tense up and begin to listen intently.
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The Americans come, bringing “upheaval without design.” Some Iraqis are expecting a shower of wealth from the superpower. Iraq has, after all, been an oil state in which the government passed out wealth from oil. Others denounce the Americans from the start and are mostly judged later to have been right. American soldiers barge into the houses of innocent people when the men are not there and force the women to show them from room to room to look for weapons. The soldiers urinate in the street. They are infidels. The free stuff from America does not come. The electricity still cuts out.
It all spirals downhill. In one village, young hotheads go out and ambush soldiers on a road. The Americans have superior firepower and kill them all. What did they expect? That is our thought; the Iraqi thought is that these were good boys and that the corpses were treated with no respect.
Shadid writes of the wider conflict, “Each side, American and Iraqi, saw their actions as responses to the other’s threats. Each side felt the other was forcing it to act. Each side thought the other only understood force.”
Anthony Shadid will discuss “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War” as part of the World Affairs Council’s Great Decisions fall lecture series. 7 p.m. Wednesday, El Centro de la Raza, 2524 16th Ave. S., Seattle; $10 to students and World Affairs Council members, $15 to nonmembers (206-441-5910; www.world-affairs.org).
Some Iraqis collaborate. Shadid interviews a group of the new police who say they take the Americans’ money so their families can eat. All expect to be killed. Shadid interviews a man whose son informed on fighters in the village. The man was given an ultimatum by the families wronged: Either you kill your son or we start killing everyone in your family. The man has done the practical and honorable thing and is in grief.
Reading this book, the thought comes that there is no end to this. It will go on until we leave.
This is a book about ordinary people. Shiite rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr is the exception, and he is a cagey fellow, not revealing much. There are also a few Americans in the book. Most memorable is the bleakest, Army Staff Sergeant Charles Pollard, 43, a reservist from the maintenance department of a community college in Pittsburgh. Pollard hates the war and wants to get out. Of the Iraqis, he says, “I don’t trust them, none of them. I don’t build bonds. I don’t build friendships. … I just come in and do my job.”
After reading this book, you don’t blame him. It is not because the Iraqis are bad — the people in this book are good by their terms, and often by ours, too — but their history is different and the facts of their lives are very different. They have been conquered and occupied, and they don’t like it.
Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer
for The Seattle Times.