Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Last Exit from Fallujah

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Last Exit from Fallujah

Article excerpt

For more than a decade, academic Victoria Fontan has borne witness to Iraq's unfolding tragedy. She tells Chris Havergal about her dealings with Islamic State, her close encounters with trigger-happy US troops, her fears for the country's future - and her reasons for moving there

For more than a decade, academic Victoria Fontan has borne witness to Iraq's unfolding tragedy. She tells Chris Havergal about her dealings with Islamic State, her close encounters with trigger-happy US troops, her fears for the country's future - and her reasons for moving there

The street was in turmoil as the American soldiers went from door to door, making arrests. When they reached the end of the street, they came across a corner shop. The trader stepped out and, clocking a visibly overwhelmed soldier, said: "You must be thirsty after all this."

As the shopkeeper offered the soldier some water, the tension in the air dissipated. In the words of Victoria Fontan, who was watching on that day in Fallujah in May 2003, "people just went back to being normal people again".

The episode was over in minutes, but Fontan says she remembers it "as clearly as 12 years' passing would permit".

To her, it demonstrated the warmth of the Iraqi people and showed that most of them were just trying to live normal lives as chaos unfolded around them.

Since then, Fontan has returned to Iraq on several occasions as her academic career has developed. She has interviewed members of Islamic State (IS), faced kidnap and believes she was the last Westerner to leave Fallujah as the city descended once more into chaos in 2013.

French-born Fontan is now completing a PhD (her third, following doctorates at the Republic of Ireland's University of Limerick and Costa Rica's De La Salle University) at King's College London. At the same time, she has moved her life and family to Iraq to become director of the Centre for Peace and Human Security at the American University Duhok Kurdistan.

So what drives a researcher to eschew the comforts of Western society for a life on the front line? For Fontan, it is the urge to tell the story of the Iraqi people's resilience and their desire to live in peace.

"I feel that if I can show the humanity of the people, if I can show them to others the way I see them, maybe I am contributing to a normalisation of relations," she says, referring to ties between the Western world and the Middle East. "As an academic you can be detached and you can bring some objectivity and...a different narrative to the same story."

Fontan's interest in the Middle East was sparked by her time as a politics undergraduate at the University of Sussex in the late 1990s, where her lecturer, Michael Johnson, gave a class on Lebanon during the 1960s and 1970s.

She was fascinated by the society but at that point had never even met an Arab. All she had come across was the anti-Arab racism that permeated French society.

"To me, it was like watching The Godfather, but the godfather was the [Lebanese] president," she says. "Studying Lebanon made me want to understand more and know why these people were supposed to hate us and why they were always denigrated."

While completing her first PhD, Fontan spent two and a half years as a research associate at the American University of Beirut (2001-03) developing her thinking about the role of humiliation in insurgencies. There she made contact with the militant group Hezbollah - simply by looking them up in the phone book - and it gave her carte blanche to speak to anyone she wanted. She also met Robert Fisk, The Independent's Middle East correspondent. As her time in Lebanon drew to a close, she decided to take up his offer to come to Iraq to work as a researcher for his book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005). …

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