This is chronological journal of Stewart's experiences with the various local and occupation military and the formal and informal leadership of Iraq in the confusing aftermath of the Second Gulf War. Stewart was the British administrator appointed as deputy governor of Amara and then Nasiriyah in the Maysan district of Iraq in the reconstruction after the Coalition invasion in 2003.
He was the first civilian administrator taking over after the initial military administration. He details here the intrigues and projects and processes and rivalries that made up the collection of rival warlords, tribal animosities, violent radicals and religious bigots he had to deal with in trying to bring some semblance of order to the suffering mass population.
I bought the book because of the title initially, after confirming that it really did involve the ethnic group called the Marsh Arabs. The "Marsh Arabs" are actually the Sumerian remnant from the people who lived in this area and ran a huge technological and commercial empire thousands of years ago. The Sumerians were great scientists and developed agriculture, urban centers and literature.
The Sumerians were a major population group in this region of modern Iraq, and Stewart had to relate to their leader called the Prince of the Marshes. This is a fascinating first-hand portrait of the cultural and political threads of the lower Riverine cultures and their political tangle.
Stewart is a specialist in Islamic societies, having lived in several countries and speaking many languages of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Stewart's job entailed keeping peace and forming adminstration and facilitating total rebuilding, in the midst of fighting factions who each wanted him to take their side against the others.
The reader will gain insights on several fronts, depending on each reader's interests. This is a credible and coherent account of the administration and chronicled the specific needs, problems, accomplishments and failures of the new civilian administration led by the invaders. The writing style is a pleasant mix of serious scholarship and self-deprecating comedy. In that position, if Stewart was to keep his sanity, I expect he had to maintain a strong sense of humour!
He provides vivid and thoughtful portraits of the local personalities and powers vying for power with the new administration, while following traditional lines of tribal jealousies and values of their honor- revenge culture, extending their old world into the structures of the new. Important cultural insights are provided as Stewart deftly analyzes the various dynamics and structures coming to play in this delicate and volatile situation.
Stewart admirably outlines the deficiencies he observed from the very first in the occupying forces. They had no cultural training, none of the soldiers spoke Arabic, and sometimes killed civilians who got out of their cars at checkpoints when commanded not to - in English, which the locals could not possibly have been expected to know! The administrators, especially the early military administrators, gave no attention to local leaders, made decisions without involving local decision-makers or even those involved in the matter. The cultural ignorance and insensitivity is amazing.
The book reads like an exciting adventure novel or story of international intrigue. And it is these, only real-life. For a traditional diplomat and self-confessed bureaucrat, Stewart is an excellent and skillful writer of clear and flowing story prose! This 400-page work is enjoyable and informative.
The reader can skim through the story for the light adventure, or pause and take as much time as focus requires on the well-stated and well-analyzed detail. This combination is unusual in a diplomat writer and I commend Stewart in his readable and engaging style.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
Christians and Other Minorities Under Fire in Iraq
The Real Causes of "Islamic "Religious Violence"
Reclaiming Islam from the Hijackers: The Real Islam Stands Up
Yezidis, an Angelic Sect
Yezidis, Kurds and Zoroastrianism
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First reading notes written 30 May 2009
Reviewed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and OJTR 2 June 2009
Last edited 27 December 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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