The New Iraq

    Overview

    Ten years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, fostering civil society in Iraq remains a global responsibility. Joseph Braude’s book The New Iraq, published in 2003, presents an overview of the peoples and travails of this complex country and examines the challenge of state-building – past, present, and future.  Part I, “Memory,” narrates the past as Iraqis remember it, from ancient Babylon to the Islamic period to the late-20th century.  Part II, “Power,” analyzes the institutions of politics, religion, and military culture as they evolved under the rule of Saddam Hussein.  Part III, “Money,” evaluates the economy of Iraq on the eve of the 2003 invasion with an eye toward the challenge of reconstruction as well as business opportunities arising from it.  Part IV, “Truth,” explores Iraqi journalism, entertainment media, and the educational and legal systems of the Ba’th regime.

    Since its publication, The New Iraq’s formulations have been validated by post-war events.  The book predicts an Iraqi insurgency, calls for a reengineering of the Iraqi army from within rather than its dissolution, and flags Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as a crucial player in Iraq’s political future.  For a book on a somber topic, it is surprisingly entertaining – with classic Baghdadi jokes and political satire woven into the chapters.

    Backstory

    The New Iraq was inspired by anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s 1946 classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an analysis of Japanese culture that influenced American efforts to rebuild Japan after World War II as well as subsequent studies of Japanese society and politics. Like Benedict, Joseph Braude was barred from entering the country he was studying due to wartime tensions and, in his case, the author’s Iraqi Jewish roots. He sought to practice a junior version of Benedict’s technique, “anthropology at a distance” – relying on interviews with Iraqi refugees in Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United States together with extensive library research. In 2004 The New Iraq was published in Arabic by Jordanian Prince Hasan’s Arab Thought Forum. The Arabic edition became a bestseller in Jordan, where several hundred thousand Iraqis live. It is also widely read in Iraq itself, by Iraqis as well as Americans.

    Praise

    “Combining sensitive description of centuries of history with vivid eye-witness reports on the present, Joseph Braude offers a fascinating, horrifying, yet hopeful description of Iraq.”
    —Ernest May, Professor, John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis

    “A superb guide for the rebirth of the great civilization of Iraq by one who knows the country, its history, and its culture intimately. It’s all here: how to resuscitate the judicial system, the army, the economy, even the cinema. Lucid, balanced, and wise.” – R. James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence.

    “As a writer and a player of Oud, Joseph Braude moves softly back and forth, between the greatness of the past and the graveness of the present, from the brutality of Saddam to the beauty of Iraq. It is a lyrical tribute to the Iraqis of the future.”
    —Ali Salem, Egyptian playwright

    “A welcome departure from the usual discussion of contemporary conflicts and disputes in the Middle East … Braude comes to his subject with personal experience and empathy. He knows the languages, has lived and eaten with the residents, has thought long and hard about past achievements and future possibilities. A must for those who want to understand.” – David Landes, Harvard University professor and author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

    Excerpt

    In the eleventh century, there was a remarkable man named Tanukhi, who was born in Basra but lived and worked in various parts of what is now Iraq and western Iran. He hailed from a family of transmitters of Hadith, the traditions of the prophet Muhammad’s word and deed that together with the Qur’an form the basis for Islamic law. But Tanukhi was inclined early on to study the profane literature of the Arabic and Islamic city culture that was emerging around him, also a respected pursuit at the time. He learned from some of the most important scholars of his day and acquired a well-rounded medieval education, which used to be called adab, a term that meant the sum of stories, ideas, and knowledge necessary to make a person courteous and “urbane.” This kind of education was meant to foster balance and a sense of fairness. Still a teenager, he won the sensitive job of inspecting weights and measures at one of the empire’s mints. He moved on to bureaucratic work near Baghdad, and within a few years had earned the post of judge. Medieval Baghdad was not a place that atomized knowledge and pigeonholed people into specialized fields; it was a place where a belief that you were wise could win you an appointment in the courts.

    Tanukhi left more than a trail of rulings behind him. The stories he heard from witnesses and defendants fueled his fertile imagination, and the experience of reasoning his way through cases refined the color scheme of moral gradations he saw between right and wrong. Like all judges everywhere, he met people who had suffered and hoped for a little relief. He found himself meting out wisdom and advice as well as judicial pronouncements, and eventually saw fit to share his insights with a broader audience through writing. He chose as his vehicle an edifying style of entertainment that goes by many different names and never falls out of style. Back then it was called “Relief after Distress” (al-Faraj Ba’d al-Shidda), although in today’s pop psychology terms, we might call it “Post-Traumatic Joy.” In volume after volume of collected works, Tanukhi wove together memories and stories to demonstrate that bad times do not last forever and people can always reasonably hope for relief – a courtier saved from execution by his boss in a moment of compassion, a husband reunited with his estranged wife by a stroke of luck. The hope that Iraqis today will encounter relief after many years of distress makes Tanukhi’s idiom all the more prescient.

    How would Tanukhi have judged the educational and legal systems of Iraq under Saddam? Of his own day, he registered the following complaint: “The desire for learning is waning, and there is a lack of noble aspirations. The populace are distracted from such things by care for their living, while the magnates are satisfied with the gratification of brutal passions.” The poverty of Iraq in 2003 and the moral depravity of its departed rulers make these comments relevant again. As for knowledge taught in Iraqi schools, Tanukhi might have found fault with much of it, beginning with the Iraqi pledge of allegiance. For several generations now, children in the country’s schools have worn mandatory blue-gray uniforms and gathered once a week around a flagpole. They have watched one of their classmates raise the Iraqi flag while a teacher clutching a megaphone led the following call and response:

    “Our President?”

    “Saddam Hussein!”

    “Our slogan?”

    “One Arab nation with an eternal message!”

    “Our goals?”

    “Unity! Freedom! Socialism!”

    After which one lucky youngster with a semiautomatic rifle got to fire a round of blanks over the heads of his classmates.

    Imagine the legacy of a morning salute like this on Iraqi children. The tender years of childhood never leave us. They form the prism through which we view the world. Whereas between family and teachers, Tanukhi’s upbringing exposed him both to the tenets of Muslim tradition and to the complexities of urban society, enabling him to parlay the two brilliantly into a legal and literary career, Iraqi families centuries later continue to emphasize education – but recent generations of young people in the country have a set of classroom memories that parents and outside observers find distressing. They have come of age in a society conditioned to locate truth and pursue justice in the persona of one elusive man – a man who has neither taken kindly to critical thinking nor valued the concept of litigation. A recent issue of the Ba’th state’s legal gazette contains a quote from Saddam on the cover page: “Justice is above the law.” In light of the legacy of Saddam’s sensibilities, the educational and legal systems Iraqis attempt to build over the next few years require an overhaul for the children of today and relief for the children of yesterday.