Friday, April 30, 2004

The East Is a Career

Edward Said used a quotation from Benjamin Disraeli's Tancred as an epigram for his celebrated critique of cultures of empires Orientalism: "The East is a career." So is occupied Iraq, for a great variety of workers, professionals, and mercenaries, fighting Iraqis and rebuilding Iraq in the American image. Halliburton alone is said to employ "25,000 civilians in the Middle East who work as water testers, electricians, truck drivers and clerks" (Sandra Murillo, "Riverside Trucker Is Among Fatalities in Iraq," Lost Angeles Times April 28, 2004). It is estimated that there are "up to 20,000 private security consultants, bodyguards and other armed protectors active in Iraq" (Karim El-Gawhary, "The Privatized Occupation," Al-Ahram Weekly April 29-May 5, 2004). Though we know the numbers of US and allied troops serving in Iraq with relative accuracy, the total numbers of foreign mercenaries and civilian employees serving the occupier in one capacity or another have yet to be fully disclosed, and I doubt that anyone has even attempted to do the counting.

Among the countless professionals who have found that Iraq is a new career are pollsters such as Richard Burkholder (the director of international polling for Gallup, interviewed by Doug Henwood on WBAI on November 6, 2003 and yesterday), upon whom today's occupier of Iraq relies, much as the British empire looked to great orientalists. Alaa, an Iraqi civil engineer whose blog The Mesopotamian presents itself as "one more Iraqi voice of the silent majority," writes, perhaps with a hint of lament: "The British relied on an educated, high level of intelligence gathering recruiting some very high caliber people including many orientalists and wizards of the culture of the region, who loved the work and considered it as grand romantic adventure" (April 25, 2004). Indeed, Janet Wallach writes of Gertrude Bell ("Adventurer, archaeologist and Arabist, Gertrude Bell was a counselor to kings and prime ministers; a colleague of Winston Churchill and Lloyd George; a crony of T.E. Lawrence and St. John Philby, and an intimate of Arab sheiks"): "she could fathom who would be friends and who would be foes of the British" ("Daughter of the Desert," Smithsonian, April 1998). However, cultural experts of empires, be they archaeologists or pollsters, are given an impossible task: to gather the knowledge of the "natives" that the empires colonize and to legitimate the colonizing enterprise at the same time. Empire-building facilitates acquisition of information, first of all bringing imperial experts into physical contact with native informants, but only up to a point. The need to legitimate the empire's very existence, which entails an unequal relation of power between the colonizer and the colonized, stands in inherent contradiction to the task of discovering what the colonized really think. The knowledge of the "natives" produced through empire-building is inevitably an odd mixture of facts and fantasies, shaped by both what imperial experts want to hear from the "natives" and what the "natives" think imperial experts want to hear. Even Bell's knowledge of the friends and foes of the British could not prevent the 1920 rebellion. Today's experts, paying less attention to social classes than Bell did (who wrote in her June 1, 1920 letter to her father: "There's a lot of semi-religious, semi-political preaching and reciting of poems, and the underlying thought is out with the infidel. My believe [sic] is that the weightier people are against it -- I know some of them are bitterly disgusted -- but it's very difficult to stand out against the Islamic cry and the longer it goes on the more difficult it is"), are less capable of predicting Iraqi actions than she was.

The Mesopotamian, like Niall Ferguson, argues that "studying and understanding the British 'Mesopotamian' campaign is more relevant and important" than studying the occupations of Japan, Germany, Bosnia, and Kosovo (April 25, 2004). I agree that it is, but not necessarily for what British orientalists had to say about the Iraqis. Instead, what is most revealing as well as instructive is what the British said to each other about what they were doing in Iraq -- for instance what Bell wrote in her letter to her father: "[T]he chiefs of the Euphrates are tumbling over one another to make submission. The last coming is 'Abdul Wahid of the Fatlah, with whom we lunched. This is the result of British arms not of native institutions and on the whole I think the quelling of the rebellion is better done by force than by persuasion. But our tether is very short. Already India is clamouring for the return of the divisions she lent us. Very soon the force won't be here. We must therefore do the best we can; patch up matters and leave them to the Arab Govt to settle" (November 7, 1920). Jacques Lacan says that "a letter always arrives at its destination" ("Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'"). Will Bell's letter find its destination?

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