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Iraq's Unruly Century

Ever since Britain carved the nation out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the land long known as Mesopotamia has been wracked by instability

In any event, Marr says, Britain’s imprint was profound. “Even after the mandate ended, the British presence focused Iraqis constantly on independence. Not on developing the country, not on how to make the constitutional system work better, not on how to integrate Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Instead, the question that was always asked was, how can we get rid of the British? As a result, there is even to this day an obsession that there be no foreign control.” As Fromkin says, “We tend to overlook a basic rule: that people prefer bad rule by their own kind to good rule by somebody else.”

 

An unusual and perceptive Western chronicler of Iraq in that critical era was Freya Stark, 36, an English adventuress and journalist, who arrived in Baghdad in the fall of 1929 with ten pounds in her pocket and a conviction that “the most interesting things in the world were likely to happen in the neighborhood of oil.” She was excited by Iraq’s ancient glories, writes her biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse. Those included Babylon, 50 miles south of Baghdad; the ruins of Ur, where Abraham was born, and of Uruk, not far from the banks of the Euphrates; and the Assyrian cities of Khorsabad and Nineveh.

 

In Baghdad itself, Stark sought out traces of the eighthcentury caliphate that had turned the city into an extraordinary intellectual and artistic center—at a time when Europe plunged into its dark ages. “What you first see of the Caliphs’ city is a most sordid aspect,” she wrote in a dispatch to the Baghdad Times. “The crowd looks unhealthy and sallow, the children are pitiful, the shops are ineffective compromises with Europe; and the dust is wicked.” But Stark wasn’t put off. At dawn, she walked the narrow, winding alleys under latticed balconies. She strolled through the bazaars where Muslims, Indians, Jews and Armenians hawked silks, velvets, indigo and spices.

 

Fluent in Arabic, she interviewed the women of the harems. She studied the Koran and, veiled from head to foot, slipped into a Muslim shrine. Shunning the suburban bungalows of the Western community, Stark initially settled across the Tigris in a slum—the prostitutes’ quarter, it turned out, to her amusement. An English acquaintance accused her of “lowering the prestige of British womanhood.”

 

Most important, Stark witnessed Iraq’s mounting rebellion. In the 1930s, the Baghdad press railed against overbearing British advisers in government and the Royal Air Force’s control of bases around Baghdad and Basra. The British found few defenders even among the Iraqi elite who owed the British their status and prosperity. “To be anti-British made you successful either as a lawyer, a politician or a journalist,” wrote Stark.

 

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