Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Roundtable: Perspectives on Researching Iraq Today

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Roundtable: Perspectives on Researching Iraq Today

Article excerpt


Mona Damluji is Associate Dean and Director of The Markaz: Resource Center for Engagement with Peoples and Cultures of the Muslim World at Stanford University

Universities around the world were prime sites for the expression of popular opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. During the year prior to March 2003, students and scholars organized protests, teach-ins, and panels to voice the outcry against the hasty plans of the Bush regime to "liberate" the Iraqis. From its inception, Operation Iraqi Freedom suffered from a lack of historical and humanistic perspective.1 As distant witnesses to the violence and injustices televised nightly, many researchers living outside of Iraq hoped that Saddam Hussein's fall would at least open up critical new avenues for research. During the thirteen years of brutal UN sanctions that preceded the war on Iraq, substantial ethnographic work, cultural studies, and historical research were exceedingly difficult if not impossible due to lack of access to people, places, archives, and information inside the country. Scholarship on Iraq in this period relied chiefly on British colonial archives and top-down political analysis.

Moreover, in April 2003, arsonists, thieves, saboteurs, and military operatives devastated national collections of archives, objects, and buildings in Baghdad. Unidentified regime loyalists and profiteers torched and looted the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA), despite its proximity to the Ministry of Defense.2 A fragile collection of original documents from the Ottoman and monarchy periods was flooded and destroyed in unverified circumstances. Much of the documentation of Iraq's Jewish community in the basement of the Iraqi Security Services building was badly damaged before the US Army confiscated and transferred it to Washington, DC. Baghdad's National Museum of Modern Art was severely vandalized and stripped of furniture and fixtures, as thieves walked away with thousands of original works of Iraqi art. Under the auspices of the Iraq Memory Foundation, Kanan Makiya assumed custody of extensive archives in the Ba'th Party Regional Command Headquarters and transferred them to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Additionally, the US military took about 100 million pages of documents from Iraq during the invasion. The Pentagon and CIA insist on keeping these papers classified.3

Reporting in the days after the invasion of Baghdad reveals that US military forces left sites of cultural significance vulnerable and unprotected despite pleas for help by local staff and onlookers. Environmental hazards caused by the bombings, rampant looting, and vandalism left the INLA, the Iraqi Museum and other government buildings in near ruins. As a result, the INLA lost one quarter of its library holdings and sixty percent of its archival collections, including rare books, photographs, and maps.4 Myriads of artifacts and sites spanning ten thousand years of archaeological and architectural history have been irretrievably lost, damaged, or even destroyed, while large quantities of looted modern artwork have disappeared from Iraq altogether.5

The loss of these historical sources, as well as the devastating toll of decades of dictatorship, sanctions, occupation, and war, has influenced critical studies of Iraq. Mass displacement and loss of life resulting from unprecedented levels of violence since 2006 have dispersed communities irreversibly and divided social worlds according to newly politicized sectarian and ethnic identities. Thus, a greater understanding of Iraq cannot rely on historical work alone. An investment in producing ethnographic and culturally oriented research, and building constructive alliances with Iraqi scholars and institutions, is urgently needed.6 Yet the volatility and intensity of identity-based violence has severely hindered the possibility of conducting fieldwork. Devastating attacks on Iraqi universities and faculty pose significant security risks to scholars researching in Iraq and organizing conferences in Baghdad and throughout the country. …

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