Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes

Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes is about his year spent working in Iraq as deputy governor of Amara and then Nasiriyah. Stewart worked in Iraq from August 2003 until the handover in June 2004, and what he captures in this book is the utter futility of the whole exercise.

The book is an interesting follow-up to his earlier one, The Places in Between, about walking across Afghanistan. Stewart goes from being a lone traveler on an inexplicable quest to a member of the coalition, or occupying, government in Iraq, trying to put together a workable government with the Iraqis in his provinces. He is open about his lack of qualifications; at the time of his governorship he was only thirty years old, “spoke little Arabic, and had never managed a shattered, unstable, and undeveloped province of eight hundred and fifty thousand people” (7).

Most of the book is composed of descriptions of meetings and other interactions with members of the countless local political parties and powerful local figures. Stewart is trying to put together local governing councils and find local governors, while working within the unique constraints of the occupation. That so much of the book is a baffling list of names and off-kilter interactions with these local figures makes it hard to keep track of who is who, but I think that’s the point; it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand these local power structures and struggles as an outsider.

Stewart repeatedly refers back to colonial times with a sort of longing that at first seemed odd to me. But he writes of the lifelong commitment colonial administrators had to their provinces, and their resulting fluency in the local languages and understanding of the workings of local politics. In comparison to what the Coalition did in Iraq (of bringing in people who were poorly qualified, giving them short deadlines and wads of money to create a democracy) Stewart’s positive remarks on colonial administration begin to make sense.

The turnover rate in Iraq was high; as difficult as keeping track of the Iraqis is remembering the Americans, Brits and Italians who move in and out of meetings. And every once in a while one of these characters turns up dead – someone briefly mentioned for having roomed with Stewart once, or having shared a breakfast. This, in combination with the heartening list of kidnapped or murdered Iraqis Stewart worked with, is a harsh reminder that even with Stewart’s writing on the development and employment projects he was working on, this was probably not the best environment in which to be trying to forcibly build an American-style democracy.

Stewart’s orders came from above, of course, from people in the Green Zone who were even less connected to the needs of Iraqi provinces than the temporary members of Iraq’s government like Stewart. He writes, “The CPA in the Green Zone wanted to build the new state in a single frenzy. Instead of beginning with security and basic needs and attempting the more complex things later, we implemented simultaneously programs on human rights, the free market, feminism, federalism, and constitutional reform” (78 – 79). Such a task was impossible, and the only real hope anyone could have was to ignore those directives that didn’t fit with the most pressing needs of their province. “We needed security before we could create any kind of functioning government. I could help with development projects and political reforms, but all our policies depended on the rule of law” (81).

A while ago I read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and so found interesting the way Stewart’s descriptions of the Green Zone echoed Chandrasekaran’s. Stewart writes:

I was accustomed all over the world as a civilian in post-conflict zones to eating food made from local ingredients. The BBC in Kabul might serve fried chicken and salad, but they bought in the market. Here everything had been imported, much of it directly, twelve thousand miles from the United States. (109)

He writes also of entering the Green Zone alongside an Iraqi translator, who asks why Americans are so aggressive. Stewart fumbles an answer, to which the translator responds:

“We know these are just young kids. They are frightened and hot and don’t know anything. But they should learn something. Why don’t they learn a little? Just a few phrases. Yesterday, I was on the highway at a checkpoint and they stop a car and they are shouting at the driver, ‘Stay in your car’ in English. He cannot understand what they are saying – he was not educated man – he is opening the door. And I am running to him and saying in Arabic, ‘Don’t get out.’ But I cannot in time and they shoot him. Dead.”

I looked at him.

“You don’t believe me. Listen, I saw this with my eyes. This is why they are losing Iraq.” (105).

Both these passages show a certain disconnect the occupation had from Iraq as a nation, and it would be my inclination to say, “Well, we should have learned the language, we should have been out there ‘winning hearts and minds,’ and maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad.”* But like Stewart writes in the epilogue, “the invasion was crippled not by what we did but by who we were. Coalition leaders never had the power to define the future of Iraq” (397). Even with this, though, the invasion was further crippled by the unstable goals of America and its allies:

Not only did our officials struggle with the ethical and practical uncertainty of invasion, they also struggled to define its purpose. The political aims of our home governments changed continually. Initially they wanted to topple Saddam and leave immediately. But by November 2003, Bremer’s ambitions extended from the computerization of the Baghdad stock exchange to the reform of university curricula and the creation of a full liberal democracy. Six months later, the objective had become to exit as soon as possible and declare a victory. We could not articulate consistent views on how our security and interests related to the interests and rights of Iraqi citizens. (399 – 400)

Even as he recognizes the futility of his work in Iraq, the impossibility of ever understanding a culture from within the well-fortified walls of a compound in which he works 16 or 20 hour days, Stewart maintains a certain sort of idealism. After news of the torture in Abu Ghraib is released he nearly resigns, writing, “…I had believed that we were in a position to set an example and lecture Iraqis about democracy and human rights. I would have taken the news better if I had thought it an isolated incident. But I realized that I had always known, without admitting it to myself, that such things were going on” (343). He doesn’t resign, because he has only two months remaining in Iraq and wants to finish his work; but he writes, “The Iraqis hardly commented on it [Abu Ghraib] and I saw for the first time that they had always assumed we were doing these things and had never believed my statements about human rights and the rule of law” (343).

Stewart doesn’t try to answer every question he poses, and while he leaves a fairly bleak picture of the Coalition’s mission in Iraq, it’s one worth reading by anyone who wants a better picture of what happened after Saddam was toppled. And happily, as of this writing, the book is on sale at Amazon for $5.30. (Well, happily for you. Maybe not so much for Rory Stewart or his publishers.)

* It’s impossible to address most of what Stewart brings up in his book – it’s a lot, especially given that towards the end he is moved from Amara to Nasiriyah, where political parties may have the same names but entirely different make-ups and goals – so I’m jumping on to the end here.


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[…] Charles Portis – True Grit (12/29/10) Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go (12/28/10) Rory Stewart – The Prince of the Marshes (12/27/10) Bill Bryson – Shakespeare (12/25/10) Elizabeth George – Well-Schooled in […]

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