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The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

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  • Posted June 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Sumerians, Arabs and the Invading Coalition

    This is chronological journal of Stewart's experiences with the occupation military and the formal and informal local leadership in the chaotic aftermath of the Second Gulf War. Stewart was the British deputy governor of Amara and then Nasiriyah in the Maysan district of Iraq in the reconstruction after the Coalition invasion in 2003.

    I initially bought the book because of the title, confirming that it did involve the ethnic group called the Marsh Arabs. The "Marsh Arabs" are actually the remnant of the Sumerian people who lived in this area and ran a huge technological and commercial empire thousands of years ago. The Sumerians were great scientists and developed agriculture, urban centers and literature.

    The Sumerians were a major population group in this region of modern Iraq, and Stewart had to relate to their leader called the Prince of the Marshes. This is a fascinating first-hand portrait of the cultural and political threads of the lower Riverine cultures and their political tangle.

    Stewart's job entailed keeping peace, forming infrastructure and facilitating total rebuilding, in the midst of fighting factions who each wanted him to take their side against the others.

    The reader will gain insights on several fronts. This is a credible and coherent account of the administration and chronicled the specific needs, problems, accomplishments and failures of the new civilian administration led by the invaders.

    He provides vivid and thoughtful portraits of the local personalities and powers vying for power with the new administration, while following traditional lines of tribal jealousies and values of their honor- revenge culture, extending their old world into the structures of the new. Important cultural insights are provided as Stewart deftly analyzes the various dynamics and structures coming to play in this delicate and volatile situation.

    Stewart admirably outlines the deficiencies he observed from the very first in the occupying forces. They had no cultural training, none of the soldiers spoke Arabic, and sometimes killed civilians who could not understand their English commands. The early military administrators gave no attention to local leaders, made decisions without involving local decision-makers or even those involved in the matter. The cultural ignorance and insensitivity.

    The book reads like an exciting adventure novel or story of international intrigue. For a traditional diplomat and self-confessed bureaucrat, Stewart is an excellent and skillful writer of clear and flowing, scholarly but comedic prose! In that position, if Stewart was to keep his sanity, I expect he had to maintain a strong sense of humour! This 400-page work is enjoyable and informative.

    The reader can skim through the story for the light adventure, or pause and take time on the well-stated and well-analyzed detail. This combination is unusual in a diplomat writer and I commend Stewart in his readable and engaging style.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2006

    The typical ┬┐Second Book┬┐ syndrome

    Rare is the writer whose second book equals or outshines his first. Rory Stewart is no exception. Even though this book is written well, it lacks the dazzle of his first book, ¿The Paces in Between¿, and I found it a lot less gripping. This book was first published by Picador in London in June this year, with the title 'Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq'. It has now been published in the USA by Harcourt with a new title: 'The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq'. The Prince of the Marshes is a tribal leader named Abdul Karim al Muhammadawi, who led a group of Shia men who opposed Saddam Hussein's reign over the marshy territory. This tribe fought with Saddam Hussein's army in the 1990s and until the fall of Saddam's regime. The marshes were drained by Saddam's army as a collective punishment to the tribe, to deprive the tribesmen of their source of food and trade. Writing about the marshes, Rory quotes Azzam Alwash, manager of the Iraq Foundation's New Eden project: 'In a few short years, Saddam drained them to allow access for his tanks to establish control in the area. After they were dried, the marshes were burned and villages were destroyed.' After the invasion of Iraq by the coalition army, Rory Stewart, seeking employment, sent his resume to the occupying British army, but received no reply. Writes the author: 'I had resigned from the Foreign Office, but when the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, I sent in my CV(Curriculum Vitae',resume). No one replied. So in August I took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad to ask for a job from the director of operations. A month later, the Foreign Office asked me to be the deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan, which lies in the marshes just north of the Garden of Eden.' This is how he describes Iraq as he saw it upon his arrival: 'But the province on election day looks a little like a police state. There are armed men at checkpoints every few kilometres up the highway policemen with vehicle-mounted machine-guns are checking IDs on almost every street corner no civilian vehicles are allowed to move on the streets. This may be part of the reason `security has improved.' Yet despite the checkpoints, which are in place every day, there are still daily car-jackings and roadside bombs, and towards the Iranian border there's drug smuggling, looting, and kidnapping of children.' As in 'Places in Between', the author's much acclaimed book, there are quite a few humorous passages in this book also. Writing about a reporter named James Astill, a reporter for the Economist, interviewing an Iraqi: 'Astill's longest conversation with an Iraqi in Fallujah was with a man urinating against a wall with a suitcase on his head, and thus unable to move for twenty seconds.' Here is an example of the author's wicked sense of humor: In a lounge the author decides to dance with an attractive woman to while away time, and talks with her in Bosnian as he dances. 'But I must have bored her with my bad Bosnian, because she turned her back on me and went to join a group of women who, from their build, looked as though they were in the army'. If you wish to know one of the reasons why the invasion of Iraq has turned into a fiasco, you can gleam it from this minor episode. The military officers of the occupying army know very little about the Iraqi people and their culture, and even less about how to deal with and talk to the Iraqi men. They have only contempt for the Iraqi men. Soon after Rory's arrival in Iraq, this is what a British military officer says to a small group of new recruits at the airport, in case they are taken hostage by Arabs: 'Since you will be taken hostage by Arabs, it is likely that they will male-rape you.' Also, he says something so outrageous that it's quite unprintable in a decent website. Shocking, isn't it, that this is what the British military officers think of Arabs? And now you know why they failed so mis

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    It is said this man will be Prime Minister one day

    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 deputy 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.

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    Posted December 28, 2011

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