Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Power of Public Memory

Tariq Ali says that many "otherwise intelligent people" in Britain and the United States are "surprised on learning that the occupation is detested" by a majority of Iraqis because they do not remember "what it is to be occupied": "the United States has never been occupied as a modern country. The last time the American mainland was hit, apart from 9/11, was in the early part of the 19th century. So they have no idea what it is to be occupied and likewise in Britain. The last time it was occupied was during the Roman Empire. So citizens in these two countries have no idea what it means to be occupied by a foreign power, whereas a large part of Europe does. And a large part of the colonial world does" (David Barsamian, "A Conversation with Tariq Ali: Cracks in the Empire,", January–February 2004). The virtual absence of public memory of being occupied by a foreign power makes it difficult for them to identify with Iraqis who resist the occupation, especially Iraqis who resist it with force. Even liberal peace activists, who condemn the occupiers' killings of Iraqi civilians and demand an end to the current US-led occupation of Iraq, often wish to believe that "good" Iraqis need "good" occupiers who protect them from "bad" Iraqis. One such liberal activist, Milan Rai, wrote that "the Iraqi people seem to want some outside military presence, for security reasons" ("Iraq Opinions," March 24, 2004), taking the results of Iraqi opinion surveys conducted by American and British firms without a grain of salt. However, it should go without saying that even the most conscientious pollsters would have been unable to accurately gauge opinions in occupied Iraq, what with ever-proliferating no-go areas on one hand and the occupiers' censorship on the other hand: "In June [2003], Bremer issued a nine-point list of 'prohibited activity' that included incitement to violence, support for the Baath Party, and publishing material that is patently false and calculated to promote opposition to the occupying authority" ("Exporting Censorship to Iraq," October 1, 2003). Not surprisingly, the aforementioned opinion surveys proved to be a poor predictor of unrest in Iraq. Journalists like Hannah Allam and Tom Lasseter who listened to whispered Iraqi rumors and gossips inspired by their public memories of anti-colonial revolts fared much better than pollsters:
Whispers of "revolution" are growing louder in Baghdad this month at teahouses, public protests and tribal meetings as Iraqis point to the past as an omen for the future.

Iraqis remember 1920 as one of the most glorious moments in modern history, one followed by nearly eight decades of tumult. The bloody rebellion against British rule that year is memorialized in schoolbooks, monuments and mass-produced tapestries that hang in living rooms.

Now, many say there's an uncanny similarity with today: unpopular foreign occupiers, unelected governing bodies and unhappy residents eager for self-determination. The result could be another bloody uprising.

"We are now under occupation, and the best treatment for a wound is sometimes fire," said Najah al Najafi, a Shiite cleric who joined thousands of marchers at a recent demonstration where construction workers, tribal leaders and religious scholars spoke of 1920. . . .

[Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al] Sistani's representatives expect widespread civil disobedience and violence if elections are deemed impossible.

"They know what will happen if they do not listen to us," said Sabah al Khazali, a religious scholar who joined last week's demonstrations [demanding general elections]. "They know this is a warning."

The historic rebellion has broad resonance. A band of anti-American insurgents has named itself the "1920 Revolution Brigades," and Sistani himself, in a newspaper advertisement this month, asked Iraq's influential tribes to remember that year.

"We want you to be revolutionaries ... you should have a big role today, as you had in the revolution in 1920," the ad said.

Elderly tribal leaders recently discussed revolution amid plumes of incense smoke and the gurgle of tobacco-filled water pipes. Many men on the 50-member Independent Iraqi Tribes council proudly claimed ancestors who rose against the British in 1920. They likewise would join a revolt if Sistani and other clerics gave the word, they said. . . .

To many Iraqis, today's U.S. occupation reads like an old play with modern characters: America as the new Britain, grenade-lobbing insurgents as the new opposition, and Ahmad Chalabi and other former exiles on the Governing Council as the new kings.

"We've sacrificed many martyrs and we would do it again," said Sheik Khamis al Suhail, the secretary of the tribal council. "In 1920, we faced a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims in Iraq. We are living under basically the same conditions now, and revolution is certainly possible." . . .

The al Hamdani tribe, with thousands of members across Iraq, provided key organizers of the 1920 revolt. These days, the family name is linked to the cream-filled confections sold at the popular al Hamdani pastry shops throughout Baghdad.

Yaser al Hamdani, a 28-year-old tribe member whose great-uncle fought in the revolution, said he'd give up his job in the steaming bakery for a rebellion.

"Of course I would join," Hamdani said. "There would be bloodshed along the way, but sacrifice is important for success." (Hannah Allam and Tom Lasseter, "Iraqi Whispers Mull Repeat of 1920s Revolt Over Western Occupation," January 27, 2004)
Public memories of the 1920s revolt, embodied in material culture of Iraq, must have served as fertilizers of Iraqi resistance, which, despite Sistani's failure of nerve, has by now grown into a joint Shiite-Sunni uprising.

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