March 05, 2010

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A: Six Questions for Deb Amos

Today we have a special interview with NPR's Deborah Amos. Deb is a longtime reader of this blog and an even longer-time student and observer of the Arabic-speaking world. I asked her to discuss, for the benefit of the readership, her quite lovely new bookir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1586486497 on Iraqi refugees and some of the regional dynamics set in motion by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

1. Let me start off by saying that I really enjoyed this book. For a journalist who has spent most of her time in radio and television, you are an exceptionally eloquent writer. But I want to talk about the tone with which you wrote your book as opposed to your diction. It strikes me that you can write a critical essay on the Arabic-speaking world with contempt, or you can write an equally critical essay on the Arabic-speaking world with compassion. I can't help but notice that at the same time Max Rodenbeck has been taking Lee Smith to task for apparently doing the former, you have done the latter.* But then, you have spent most of your professional life working in or on the Middle East, haven't you? Your love for the cultures and peoples of the region shines through your narrative, and even when you pass judgment, you pass it with a high degree of sympathy and self-awareness. Tell us a bit about how you first came to the Arabic-speaking world and how your long engagement with the region set the stage for this book.

Thank you for recognizing that broadcast journalists can write complex sentences. In some ways, this book represents a long journey. I first arrived in the Arabic speaking world in 1982. I landed at the port of Jounieh to report on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. My first image of a Middle East war zone was a woman water skiing off the waters of Christian east Beirut as Israeli jets were pounding Muslim West Beirut. It was my first lesson in sectarian fault lines. I also had the best meals of my life that summer; it is Beirut, after all. Over the next three decades I reported from almost every corner of the Middle East. Iraq had been off-limits in Saddam’s time. I could get a visa to travel there, but it was illegal for Iraqi’s to talk to foreigners. When I arrived in Baghdad in 2003 I could talk to everybody. They all had plenty to say and in some ways that opening conversation in this formerly closed country set the stage for this book.

2. I want to ask you about the Iraqi refugee crisis in just a minute, but your book is about more than that. As eloquent as I found the prose inside the cover of your book, the title is a rather blunt, inelegant "Eclipse of the Sunnis". On the other hand, maybe that title says all that needs to be said. Is that the theme of this book? Are we seeing a seismic shift in power relations in the Arabic-speaking world? And how can that be so when Sunni Muslims still constitute such an overwhelming majority of the Arabic-speaking peoples?

When I first started writing the book I had a different title in mind. I was interested in the experience of exile and I wanted to use the opening line from a poem by Dante that expressed the pain of political banishment. “You shall leave everything you love most,” wrote Dante and it seemed to capture the complicated emotions of Iraqis who hated Saddam but were deeply tied to their culture and community. The title changed as I understood that the sectarian cleansing in Iraq had a wider implication. The majority of exiles and refugees are Sunni Arabs. Baghdad has had a demographic shift that is historic and seismic. Baghdad is now a Shiite capital which has an impact on the way power relations work in the country. Iraq’s Shiites won the sectarian war, the Sunnis lost. However, Iraq is not an island. As you correctly point out, Sunni Muslims still constitute an overwhelming majority in the region. Iraq’s Sunni neighbors see the resolution of the exile crisis as an indicator of Iraqi’s identity. An eclipse implies a phase. There will be no stability in Iraq until there is political reconciliation and power sharing. To quote an Iraqi political analyst, “The Kurds are only 20% of the population without a friend in the region, and they’ve managed to destabilize Iraq for 80 years. The Sunnis have friends in almost every neighboring capital.”

3. About a year ago, The Gambleir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1594201978 by Tom Ricks came out and seemed to have as many detractors as admirers. I was one of the people who liked it, taking it for what it was, largely because I knew it was just one of many books that would be written about the events known as the "Surge" and that other books would soon be published telling the story of Iraq from the perspective of grunts, insurgents, and ordinary Iraqis. Tom Ricks has told me that he himself looks forward to reading those books. I think your book is, in some ways, a "Surge" book in that it speaks to the effects the war and especially the U.S.-led offensive of 2007 has had on ordinary Iraqis -- and especially those who came to be refugees. What do you think about the idea that your book -- meant to be a broader narrative of the region -- is in some ways also a book about the Iraq War and the Surge?

While the “Surge” is not the major focus of the book, I write about the Iraq war and the events that surround the surge from an Iraqi point of view. I felt it was a view missing from the war literature. I couldn’t be on the ground in Baghdad in 2007, but I was in Damascus during the troop build up. There were more Iraqis fleeing the country in 2007 than had left in 2006. In Damascus, the UN refugee center was packed each day. By interviewing the newcomers I could document the explosion of sectarian cleansing that took place as additional U.S. moved into Baghdad neighborhoods. For many Iraqis, the price of the surge was quite high and some are still paying. Tactically, the surge contributed to the dramatic drop in violence, strategically, the surge failed to spark a political reconciliation in Iraq. Which means the refugee crisis could be with us for some time to come.

4. You write, in your chapter on Lebanon, how the Palestinian refugee problem in that country is proof positive of what happens when refugee crises go unresolved. What do you see as the long-term effects of the Iraqi refugee crisis on the region?

First, I want to talk about important indicators. I believe the March 7th parliamentary elections will play a role in the refugee crisis. The outcome will determine whether there are wide spread returns. The Iraqi election commission expects that more than 160 thousand Iraqis to vote in the voting centers across Syria. Arab League poll watchers are going to be dispatched to monitor the vote. The refugee neighborhoods are papered with campaign posters and Iraq’s Sunni politicians are courting the exile vote including Tarek al Hashimi, Iraq’s Vice President. This is an unprecedented event. The exiles are part of a ‘virtual’ Iraq that exists beyond the borders. The election outcome could determine whether Iraqis remain in exile, a destabilizing population in the region, or return home. They will be watching for the signals of power-sharing and what the vote reveals about the strength of the sectarian fault lines.

5. What concrete steps should policy-makers -- U.S., international, regional, Iraqi -- take to address the refugee crisis?

A few years ago, when I started interviewing refugees and NGO’s in the region, a U.N. official estimated there would be about 100 thousand Iraqis that would not go back. The number has probably grown larger since then, but the list reflects the legacy of the past few years: those too traumatized to return, religious minorities still threatened, female headed households, and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military. While the U.S. resettlement program has made great strides, the specific program for military translators is a failure. The number of Iraqis granted special visas is dismally low. The program needs some serious attention. As for the larger picture, donor fatigue is hampering UN programs that support refugees. The International community still has a role to play in funding programs in Jordan and Syria. The latest U.S. government report portrays an Iraqi population that has no hope of employment or integration in exile; their children are largely outside the education system. This is not good news for Iraq’s future. The Iraqi government’s policy towards exiles and the internally displaced seems to be one of willful neglect. The Obama administration must use any remaining clout to get the next Iraqi government to focus attention on this population.

6. I usually end these interviews with a booze-related question, asking my interviewees to name their five favorite bars in their far-flung corners of the globe. Your book, though, reflects your love affair with the cuisine of the Middle East. You're always writing about food, and although I think we've dined together a couple of times, I remember with especial fondness a big dinner we enjoyed at Abdul Wahab al-Inglizi in Beirut with Leena, Oliver and several others. What, then, are your five favorite restaurants in the Arabic-speaking world? And your answers don't have to be all haute cuisine experiences -- what are the best places, for example, for fuul or kabob?

Thanks for letting me off the hook on the booze question. I’m not much of a bar girl, but I have done my share of sampling Arak around the region. However, the cuisines of the Middle East are my favorite topic. I would have to place Abdul Wahab al-Inglizi at the top of the list because I’ve spent many enjoyable evenings there, including the dinner you mention. Many of my favorite dinner memories include the company as much as the food. A meal at al-Mayass, an Armenian restaurant in Ashrafieh, a Beirut neighborhood, was all the more remarkable because Sami Zubaidair?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1860646034, the “cuisine sociologist,“ was a guest. There is no better place to eat Ful than Abu Abdo’s in Aleppo, Syria. The restaurant is a “hole in the wall”, serving ful for more than 70 years. The dash of Aleppo pepper makes it all worthwhile. And while I’m on this great food city, I have to nominate a meal at Aleppo’s private food club located above Yasmeen d’Alep Hotel. You have to make friend with a member to get an invitation, but you have 600 people to choose from. And finally, the kabob. This is sure to get me in deep trouble, but I nominate the Iraqi kabob as the finest in the region. Iraqi refugees have opened more than a dozen restaurants in Damascus. My favorite is Qassim al Kassam Abdul Guss. You’ve pointed out a much better translation than the one I used in my book, “slave of grilled lamb,” which says all you need to know about the Iraqi obsession with grilled meat.

Thanks, Deb! Interested readers can buy her book hereir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1586486497.

*I have not yet read Lee's bookir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0385516118, I should say, so I cannot pass judgment on it. I plan on reading it, though, and will ask Lee to do a similar Q&A for the blog if the readership is interested and Lee is willing.