Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart
I was unprepared for this book. It surprised me utterly. I didn't know what to expect, given the author's previous book, which was his walk through Afghanistan, called The Places in Between. To say I liked that earlier book does not quite describe my reaction--I was bowled over. I gave the book as a gift to several people and looked to see what else he'd done. I bought this one and put it aside, thinking it would be nice to read someday. When I stumbled upon his participation in some interviews in which he claimed his world view changed after "his experience in Iraq," I decided I had to read this RIGHT NOW. As with The Places In Between, I listened to the audiofile and read the hard copy to clarify and review.
Stewart had been at home in Scotland planting trees after his Afghan trek when the US entered Iraq. He was an ex-infantryman and ex-foreign service officer and was well connected enough to be somewhat known. He was still young: late 20s, early 30s. He wrote to Baghdad and the Powers That Be and offered his services helping to set up the new Iraqi government. He got no response. He took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and offered again. His offer was accepted, and he was sent to a province in the south--ostensibly to work as an assistant and with several others on reconstruction projects. No one else showed up for awhile, so he managed on his own.
He describes situations, individuals, conditions with a poet's eye and a truly sublime sense of the ridiculous. Even the photograghs he included are choice. In describing the clash of cultures that came with the occupation, something emerged that seems as obvious as 2000 years of human history: that only Iraqis can manage their country. We can help if they ask for our help, but the issues are so ancient, if you will, and culturally-specific, that really what we must do is avoid situations where we are fighting and occupying a foreign country with the idea that we can install a government that works.
Some books turn on a light and illuminate dark corners where confusion reigns. This book did that for me, on a human scale and in a humorous way. It is one man's experience in one province, but it enlightens and enlivens all other discussions of these issues because of its particulars. I did manage to find a discussion by Stewart and radio talk show host Christopher Lydon that likewise set me to musing for long hours. In this podcast, Stewart talks of his two books and his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what this means for foreign involvement in Islamic states. It is a terribly important debate for how we move ahead in the world, and it has made me want to see more of this very human, deeply interested and interesting individual.