by Chris Borgen

I have been particularly interested in Haider Hamoudi’s observations in his book on cultural differences within Iraq. In two contratsing examples, Haider describes his visit to Basra in Southern Iraq and Suleymania in the North. Basra is predominantly Shi’a and Suleymania is in Kudish territory.

A couple of vignettes were striking. First, there was a guard in Basra asking Haider to prove he was Iraqi by reciting the Muslim profession of faith… specifically the Shi’a version. But what if you are a Sunni? (Or a Christian?)

That same day he was in a faculty meeting in the law school in Basra and the faculty discussed the possibility of starting a graduate level program there, which they noted would be especially useful for female students. One of the other USAID consultants explained that funding was questionable as the CPA may simply say such programs already exist in Baghdad and that the female students could study there. The response was interesting:

Howls of protest interrupted him. A more conservative professor, Ali, said, “Our women aren’t going to Baghdad unaccompanied!”

“Not everyone has a relative in Baghdad,” another added. ‘What about the ones who don’t?”

“And there are cultural and social norms they have to respect,” chimed in a third…

What strikes me about these, and other observations in other parts of the book, is the description of the different communities in Iraq and how these differences affect day-to-day life. Of course we hear about the sectarian conflicts often from the punditocracy, but it is often couched in sensationalistic “they’re all killing each other” terms.

My question to Haider is this: how deep are the commonalities as opposed to the differences? Some U.S. observers argue that it took (and will take) an authoritarian regime to hold Iraq together. (This is essentially the “it took a Tito to keep Yugoslavia together” argument.) Based on your time there, what are your thoughts on whether Iraq is primarily a cohesive community (with some violent sectarian elements that are fighting each other) or three (or more) communities that really are separate? If the latter, how effective are the efforts to knit them together? And what do you think of this talk by some foriegn policy commentators of the near-inevitability of a soft partition, if not a hard break-up?

One Response

  1. Not unrelated to your questions, I was also struck by Haider’s statement that the prominence of tribal identity, at least outside the poor and/or uneducated, is a fairly recent phenonomen (cf.: ‘As for the tribes, I had a hard time understanding the origin and development of their newfound importance.’), encouraged and cultivated by Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Ba’ath party for crass if not dark political purposes.

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