Baghdad, Babylon, Brandeis

The Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who has been working with the State Department on Iraq’s “transition,” has started writing a “war diary” for one of the weeklies. In one entry, he reports that “there are hundreds—if not more—of Iraqis in America, Britain, and the rest of the diaspora who are quitting their jobs and boarding planes to help rebuild their ravaged country.”

It’s a noble notion—perhaps too noble. To gain just a bit of the flavor of what the encounter might involve, see the documentary film Return to Babylon by the Iraqi film director Abbas Fahdel. Fahdel left the country at the age of 18 for France, and returned last year after an absence of 25 years, to see what had become of his house, his town (Al-Hillah), and his childhood friends.

This place, in Babil (Babylon) province a short drive south from Baghdad, is remembered by Fahdel as a busy provincial capital, graced with movie theaters that filled him with wonder for the cinema, and lush parks and playgrounds. It’s now bleak and forlorn. The parks have turned to dust, the theater is a decrepit shell, where sullen young men watch old films recycled year after year. His friends—those who haven’t “disappeared” or died on some battlefield—have had their dreams dashed. In their sparse shops and homes, he hears of an entire generation lost, and marvels (with a mix of guilt and gratitude) at his own incredible luck. Fahdel has brought along a batch of old photographs; each poignant comparison of what was and what is evokes loss.

The smooth-shaven Fahdel, in his neat white jacket and sunglasses, looks like a tourist. In the marketplace, a boy mistakes him for a foreigner, and calls out “Mister!” I’m not a “Mister,” he replies in Arabic with hurt and embarrassment, I’m an Iraqi. One has a gnawing feeling that even the most patriotic Iraqis in exile will be mistaken for so many “Misters” when (and if) they do reappear.

Makiya quotes an e-mail he’s sent to Iraqi “democrats” living abroad, and it’s a sharp rebuke:

Some of you think you can lift your noses and ride into Iraq on American tanks, above the stink of it all, without having to wade knee-high in the shit that the Baath Party has made of your country. You cannot. That is a pipe dream. The Americans will be here for the shortest time that they can possibly get away with, and they will not understand during that time, nor even are they capable of imagining, exactly what it is they are dealing with, much less have they the stamina to move it all in the direction of the gentle and forgiving way of life (by contrast with Iraq) that we all have enjoyed for so many years in the West.

Makiya, who left Iraq 35 years ago, has been an adjunct professor at Brandeis University since 1997. He’s been on leave this year, to work on Iraq’s “transition.” But he won’t be among the returnees. Two weeks ago, Brandeis named him incumbent of the new Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. “We look forward to his return to Brandeis,” said the president of Brandeis on the announcement.

I assume that Makiya is looking forward, too. “I am getting too old to be going on wading in the shit of Arab politics, as I have been doing for over 30 years now,” he wrote in his e-mail. “I am not sure how much more of it I can take.” No one can blame Makiya, and certainly the job description of his chair—to assist in “the development of a new Center for Middle East Study at Brandeis”—is as important a task as any in American academe. Somewhere there must develop an alternative to what now passes for Middle Eastern studies. I wish Makiya well. I advise him not to throw away his high boots. He’ll still need them.

FILMOGRAPHY: I saw Return to Babylon on La Cinquieme, but it was also broadcast in Canada in December. It’s distributed by an outfit in Paris, and there is a version with English subtitles.