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Reading in Iraq

If the army of victors had better frameworks than Disney to understand different cultures, perhaps the ancient archives of Baghdad wouldn't have become ashes. Writing from a perspective of lived complexity, AMITAVA KUMAR says fundamentalists of all hues are to be avoided like the plague.


The al-Muthanna National Library in Baghdad today.

THE apartment in which I had been living for the past few months, in a southern California town, was close to a large playing field. At night, the field was floodlit and groups of men and women played soccer and softball there. Over many nights during the recent war, after we had had our dinner, our eyes fixed on the television bringing the news from Iraq, my wife and I would step out for a walk around that field. The air was always sweet with the smell of orange blossoms. While we walked under the dazzle of the lights, we could hear around us the urgent shouts of the players and their laughter.

The scene in the field presented a great contrast to what we had witnessed, only minutes before, each night on our television screen. The contrast between the U.S. and Iraq could not be greater. The citizens of many cities in Iraq might not have water and electricity, but on the streets in this country, there were more American flags and bright yellow ribbons. You could almost say that the atmosphere was festive.

It was difficult for me to imagine, while walking in the balmy, night air of California, the ancient archives on fire in Baghdad. The British journalist, Robert Fisk, had stood outside the gutted National Library and Archives, picking up priceless historical documents blowing in the smoke and wind. Fisk had written: "There was a time when the Arabs said that their books were written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Now they burn libraries in Baghdad."

When history has been turned into ashes, what remains in its place is Disney. The Amnesty International has expressed concern at the report in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet which showed American soldiers escorting naked Iraqi prisoners through a park in Baghdad. In one of the photographs accompanying the report, a young Iraqi man's naked chest had the following words written on it in Arabic: "Ali Baba — Thief." This was an example of demeaning treatment of prisoners, of course. But it was also evidence of how the old Arabian tale of Ali Baba, turned into a popular cartoon by Disney, served as the only mirror in which the U.S. soldier could recognize an Arab man. Would the marines have known about a book called Arabian Nights, and, if they did, would that have moved them to protect any of the libraries in Iraq?

When reading about the episode reported in the Dagbladet, which has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream U.S. media, I was reminded of Jon Lee Anderson's story in the New Yorker about the sacking of Baghdad. Anderson described a visit to one of Saddam's palaces where a marine told the photographers not to take pictures of the troops because they were "Intel." Anderson wrote: "A Marine officer was reading a copy of Playboy as he defecated into a milk crate. He waved when we passed. Some young marines hanging out around a Humvee festooned with photos from what looked like a perfume ad asked me if I have any news from the war."

Were there no readers in the army of the victors? My search actually unearthed the name of an Indian soldier in the U.S. army who was carrying books to the war. But the details of this revelation left me feeling decidedly ambivalent if not also depressed.


The al-Muthanna National Library in Baghdad today (Above). Paperbacks on sale in Baghdad (Above right).

A news-report had it that a soldier in the U.S. Army, Nishkam Gupta, believed that his fight in Iraq was also a struggle for India. His parents, Arun and Renu, told the reporter that Gupta's participation in the war in Iraq was "a part of his desire to fight the larger war against terrorism, a war that would directly benefit Hinduism and its cause." The proud parents also informed the reporter that their son had founded a chapter of the Hindu Students Council and that the books he took to the war with him were the Gita, the Ramayana, the works of Swami Vivekananda and a tract called The Hindu Mind.

I do not know Nishkam Gupta, but I recognise in him a dangerous condition. In him I see the narcissism of a narrow cause, bred among immigrants bound up in their own insularity, which gets projected into the arc of a super-power's triumphalist career. Bush searches for power and oil, and claims it is for the Iraqi people; our own long-distance nationalist packs his bags for Iraq, and declares that it is for India and the Hindus. Hindutva becomes a little sticker stuck on an American cruise missile.

To my mind this was little more than bigotry, but I was more appalled by the young man's reading choices. Judging from Gupta's reading list, one couldn't but feel that he was utterly incurious about the place he was visiting or the people at whom he was to be pointing his gun. He would have prepared better for where he was going if he had read books that widened his view of that part of the world. Perhaps even now, if it is not too late, the leaders of the VHP in America can send the young soldier, wherever he is stationed, books like Gilles Kepel's Jihad, Ahmed Rashid's, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism, Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage, Edward Said's Orientalism, and, if they'd want him to read only an Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land.

India is better off without friends like Gupta. And the same goes for Hinduism. Those that Gupta wants to benefit will be best served if democracy and peace win anywhere in the world — and not if the powerful, equipped with guns and their ignorance, remove a dictator they had earlier armed and then put in his place a few corporations that they have now created. There is a further piece of advice I will give Gupta. If he will not read books about the region he had invaded, it is the common men and women in that country whom he should talk to and find out about the details of their faith and their lives.

Albert Camus, in his Nobel lecture, had said, "By definition the writer cannot serve those who make history: he serves those who have to live it." After the events of September 11, I would read newspapers and look for stories that would tell me about people, ordinary people, whose lives had been overtaken by forces that they were powerless to anticipate or oppose. Everything that has happened since, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, has deepened that sense of inadequacy and pain which had suddenly become a part of the lives of people in cities like New York. The greater tragedy is that for people in the rest of the world this script has been a more familiar one and it goes on being repeated, ad nauseam.

Paperbacks on sale in Baghdad.

Several weeks after September 11, I was on a visit to Pakistan. One evening, I was in Lahore, and my driver Qasim — a slight man, in his late twenties, with a thin moustache — quietly asked me where it is that I was visiting from. I told him that I was a writer living in the U.S. He turned his face to me and said in Urdu, "The Americans are the true Muslims." I did not understand this. The attacks in New York and Washington DC were still fresh in everyone's minds. I had also seen the images from the streets of Lahore and the rest of Pakistan, of bearded men shouting slogans in support of the Taliban. Qasim said, "The Americans have read and really understood the message of the Qur'an." Of course, I was baffled. But Qasim explained his point to me. He said, "Woh log apne mulaazimo ke saath sahi salook karte hain. Woh unko overtime dete hain." The Americans treat their workers in the right way. They pay them overtime.

Ah, overtime! Fair wages, just working conditions, true democracy. There was little place on American television in all that talk about terrorism for this plain man's sublime understanding of his religion. Or for his deeply human and compassionate sense of the goodness of the American people. Islam in Pakistan had not freed Qasim, and he wanted his minimum wage!

All fundamentalists are to be avoided like the plague — whether they be Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jewish, or of any other faith — because their worldviews are rigid and unchanging. There is no place in their minds for the new. Nor is there any place in their doctrines for the actual and lived complexities of people's identities. In his own unassuming and simple-minded way, Qasim had surprised me by defeating generalisations and that is why I would like to introduce him to President George Bush and Nishkam Gupta of the U.S. Army.

Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos and Bombay-London-New York, both published by Penguin-India. He teaches English at Penn State University and was recently a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of California, Riverside.

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