Politics & Society

The best books on Life in Iraq During the Invasion

recommended by May Witwit

Iraqi academic May Witwit tells of the horrors of US-occupied Iraq: "We were being shot at, and for three days a body lay at my front gate and nobody dared to move him"

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May Witwit

May Witwit is an Iraqi who is now living in the UK. She was forced to flee Baghdad when her life became too dangerous – leaving her job as a university lecturer in literature behind her. She has recently published a book about how she managed to escape Iraq with the help of a gutsy BBC journalist.

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Your first book is My Year in Iraq by Paul Bremer.

Yes, I bought this book when I was living in Syria in 2007 after escaping with my husband because it was too dangerous for us in Iraq. I started reading it immediately because I was interested in finding out about Paul Bremer’s impressions of Iraq. He was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority which was the provisional government following the invasion of Iraq.

When I read his book the thing that caught my eye was, that there were some authorities in Iraq that communicated with Bremer behind closed doors. People like the prominent Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with whom he exchanged at least 30 letters. But Sistani wanted it to be kept secret because he thought that if people found out it would tarnish his image with the Iraqi people. So what was going on was, that when Bremer wanted to get things done he would get in touch with Sistani who would issue a fatwa to make it happen.

As an Iraqi how did this book affect you?

Well it made me think there must have been all sorts of things like this going that we just didn’t know about. And I read about the mistakes that were made, how the former opposition exaggerated the true situation in Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein, which helped to bring about the invasion. They misled the US and the Allies about quite a lot of things. And this really shocked me.

“We were being shot at, and for three days a body lay at my front gate and nobody dared to move him. I still remember it was a young man with a can of Pepsi rolling just near him. It was a nightmare.”

The power was gradually moving into the hands of the Iranian-backed opposition. The religious side, which are Iranian-backed, gradually took power from the secular side. And if you know what is happening in Iraq you will see that now they have banned the secular side from entering into elections on the pretext of being former Baath Party members.

And how do you feel about the Iranian influence?

I don’t accept that any foreigner should have an influence on my country. Another thing the book did was open my eyes to many things that weren’t covered by the Iraqi press. They were always talking about the invasion and the invaders and the cost of living. But, we were never informed about anything that was going on behind the scenes, all the political power struggles.

Your next book is The Assassination Attempts against President Saddam Hussein by Barzan al-Tikriti.

This was written by Saddam Hussein’s half-brother. It talks about eight or nine assassination attempts that were made against the president. These assassination attempts were mostly by the Iranians, because they wanted to topple the Baath regime and they have been trying to do this since the late 1970s. In the end they achieved what they wanted.

The book was factual so you didn’t really get much of an idea about their relationship. But, what is interesting is that the book was removed from the market and it is very hard to get hold of these days.

Why?

Well we were never told the reason why things happened during the regime. In a dictatorship you don’t get given an explanation and we certainly didn’t dare to ask.

But there must have been speculation; what were people saying?

I didn’t discuss it with anyone, you just don’t discuss the president – you really could get into trouble if you did.

It sounds like a very frightening time. You actually ended up in Syria because you feared for your life.

Yes, my husband and I ran away because it was very bad in 2007. We reached a point where we were being shot at and there were bodies lying at our front gate. For three days a body lay at my front gate and nobody dared to move it. I still remember it was a young man with a can of Pepsi rolling just near him.

It was a nightmare. There were troops and extremists from all sides fighting and there were people trying to get into the district to push us out of our house and to take our things. It was complete chaos. That is why we ran away, we were scared. A lot of Iraqis felt like us and went to Syria. It was just too unsafe to carry on living in Iraq with all that violence going on around us.

You are living in the UK now. Would you ever go back to living in Iraq?

I don’t think so at the moment. It is just so difficult. We left everything in our house and locked the door. There was nowhere to take it. There is no cultural life in Iraq any more; it’s so sad. I miss the old days. If it could go back to how it was back then, I would go back and live there.

Your next book is Cultural Cleansing in Iraq by Raymond Baker, Shereen T Ismael and Tareq Ismael.

This book interests me because I want to understand all the crazy things that have been going on. I mean the museums were looted and the libraries were looted and burned. This was the illiterate mob at work. But the problem is that no one stopped them. Where were the troops? They were busy guarding the Ministry of Oil, but no one was there at the museums. They just let them in, even into the presidential palace. I remember seeing this procession of people coming out with things like sofas, pictures – anything they could find. These things should be preserved for later generations to see.

Academics were being killed. There was a kind of cultural cleansing going on. They are still being killed but not as much as before. Many colleagues of mine are dead.

Why do they target academics?

Maybe it is because they can influence people. If you have brains in a brainless estate you are potentially dangerous to the authorities.

Your last two books aren’t directly about Iraq, but you say there are parallels with the situation there. Tell me about The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

I taught this book to my students during the economic sanctions. And I feel like it gave me some kind of strength to continue. When I read about the struggle of the old man and the blood running from his hands because of the heat of the rope, I would always think, one day we will make it. At that time I had to work three jobs just to make ends meet. I thought I will struggle on and in the end things will come out fine, but they didn’t. We were invaded and our lives were shattered and people changed.

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Invasions bring out the ugly side of people as they struggle to survive. I was shocked to see that many people changed loyalties and turned into open crooks. Some of them even changed their faith.

What about your final book, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

I started a paper about the historical reality in this book. And as I studied it more deeply I got depressed because the things that were happening were similar to Iraq. How the mob could be turned against people by devious minds. They just killed people without even knowing them. The people who were killed were probably very good people, you never know. You just can’t kill haphazardly, heads rolling everywhere for nothing. There must be a way to check these things. You can’t allow mob anger. There were people behind the scenes subconsciously motivating them to do all these terrible things without really thinking about it.

I was looking at this thinking, well, this reign of terror ended in France, but in Iraq it is still going on.

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May Witwit

May Witwit is an Iraqi who is now living in the UK. She was forced to flee Baghdad when her life became too dangerous – leaving her job as a university lecturer in literature behind her. She has recently published a book about how she managed to escape Iraq with the help of a gutsy BBC journalist.