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The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq Paperback – 1 Apr 2007
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"Rudyard Kipling meets Dilbert in this engrossing memoir."
"[Stewart's] spare, vivid, understated prose serves him brilliantly."
"Both shrewd and self-deprecating...Recalls an earlier generation of British travel writer."
"Richly detailed, often harrowing...Stewart seems to be living one of the more extraordinary lives on record."
"A surreal and futile yearlong struggle, scrupulously recounted...Stewart is a fearless reporter and smart observer."
"[Stewart''s] spare, vivid, understated prose serves him brilliantly."
"A thoroughly readable book."
PRAISE FOR THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES"Rueful, richly detailed, often harrowing . . . [Stewart] brings his yearlong diary to a conclusion with a thrilling shoot em-up, an Alamo-like last stand in Nasiriya, where Sadrist forces attack coalition offices with mortars."THE NEW YORK TIMES"Rory Stewart can write . . . His spare, vivid prose serves him brilliantly . . . There s sometimes something Monty Pythonesque about the way he sails gallantly, if not quite blindly, into danger."MICHAEL UPCHURCH, THE SEATTLE TIMES"
PRAISE FOR THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES
"Rueful, richly detailed, often harrowing . . . [Stewart] brings his yearlong diary to a conclusion with a thrilling shoot em-up, an Alamo-like last stand in Nasiriya, where Sadrist forces attack coalition offices with mortars." THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Rory Stewart can write . . . His spare, vivid prose serves him brilliantly . . . There s sometimes something Monty Pythonesque about the way he sails gallantly, if not quite blindly, into danger." MICHAEL UPCHURCH, THE SEATTLE TIMES"
PRAISE FOR THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES
"Rueful, richly detailed, often harrowing . . . [Stewart] brings his yearlong diary to a conclusion with a thrilling shoot 'em-up, an Alamo-like last stand in Nasiriya, where Sadrist forces attack coalition offices with mortars."--THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Rory Stewart can write . . . His spare, vivid prose serves him brilliantly . . . There's sometimes something Monty Pythonesque about the way he sails gallantly, if not quite blindly, into danger."--MICHAEL UPCHURCH, THE SEATTLE TIMES
PRAISE FOR THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES
From the Inside Flap
In August 2003, at the age of thirty, Rory Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad. A Farsi-speaking British diplomat who had recently completed an epic walk from Turkey to Bangladesh, he was soon appointed deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the remote, impoverished marsh regions of southern Iraq. He spent the next eleven months negotiating hostage releases, holding elections, and splicing together some semblance of an infrastructure for a population of millions teetering on the brink of civil war.
The Prince of the Marshes tells the story of Stewart s year. As a participant he takes us inside the occupation and beyond the Green Zone, introducing us to a colorful cast of Iraqis and revealing the complexity and fragility of a society we struggle to understand. By turns funny and harrowing, moving and incisive, it amounts to a unique portrait of heroism and the tragedy that intervention inevitably courts in the modern age.
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"The Prince of the Marshes" is certainly a very informative book. It is astonishingly detailed in every aspect of the rule of Iraq in the early years of the occupation after the 2003 war, from the local tribal and religious leaders and their individual proclivities to the boardroom discussions with Paul Bremer. One gets a sense he leaves very little out that he was permitted to put in (likely security reasons proscribe some information). It is to some degree also a personal book, although not as much as his travelogue of Afghanistan in 2002, "The Places in Between" (The Places In Between), but given the more formal and impersonal nature of his job in Iraq that should come as no surprise. It is an intriguing and at times exciting book also. Stewart's deft attempts to engage with the many different power players in Maysan and their constantly shifting contradictory interests and alliances, and the sense of total disinformation and opacity of politics in Iraq, make for fascinating reading. His survival of various mob riots and militia offensives against his office are an extra thrilling diversion in between, although I'm sure Stewart at the time would have preferred it differently. He manages amazingly well to keep the narrative clear and structured despite the perpetual confusion around him, and a moderately informed reader should have no difficulty remembering names or meanings.
That said, there is also much missing from the book. Stewart says he wants the reader to make up their own mind as to the purpose and success of the occupation in Iraq, but precisely his lack of much reflection on this subject makes the point of the book somewhat unclear, informative as it is. He also insists that the use of political concepts to describe the situation in Iraq are wrong, whether it's talk of classes or of civil wars; instead, he insists it is all about the personal relations between the relevant individuals, and whether or not the 'reconstruction' of Iraq succeeds stands and falls with that. But he gives the reader absolutely no reason to believe that he is right about this, and neither does the history of empires and occupations of the past. Rory Stewart himself often reflects on how his position differs from that of the British colonial officer of olden times, who would be more or less permanently in one place and would have intimate knowledge of local conditions as well as a clear goal (maintaining the colonizer's power), whereas he is there very temporarily and barely knows Arabic. But this is all the more reason to disbelieve the idea that the personal attributes of this or that leader, whether they are American or Iraqi (like the eponymous Prince of the Marshes), matters very much to how events developed and will develop in Iraq. Stewart's refusal to do any systematic analysis is a result of the lack of knowledge and skills to govern Iraq on the part of the occupation, and yet he is not willing to acknowledge this but attempts to make a virtue of it. This is simply unconvincing.
It is true nonetheless that the book does well maintain a balance in its description of the occupation, and both proponents and opponents will be able to find ammunition for their position in it. On the whole, I would say it does not lend itself as well to the cause of the proponents; Stewart is eventually put in charge of the province of Dhi Qar which is even worse off than Maysan, and he leaves in both places in a spate of sectarian and nationalist violence. What is particularly important about the book with respect to 'success' or not in Iraq is not so much his own successes or failures, but the internal relations in Iraq itself as he portrays them. Despite the reformist-nationalist policies of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is clearly a deeply divided country; and not just by religion, but also economically. Regional and class divides in income and education are enormous, unemployment was and is very high, and the Iraqi secular left is strong among the workers but greatly hampered by the still very rural and underdeveloped nature of most of Iraq's countryside, as well as by the religious divides. Saddam's tyrannical policies against his own people and especially Shia and Kurdish rebels need little elaboration, but what is important is to also not overstate his socio-economic successes (although some of the problems were caused by the sanctions policy). This book gives some evidence of that. Nonetheless, it is not at all clear from "The Prince of the Marshes" that anyone in the occupation is at all capable of improving any of this, and indeed since occupation the socio-economic indicators have become much worse.
Overall, the "Prince of the Marshes" is fascinating and highly informative reading to get an impression of what contemporary Iraq is like and how difficult it is to govern or manage, whether by politicians or officers. It also gives some more insight into the already highly remarkable career of Rory Stewart, who is standing in the coming elections as candidate for the constituency of Penrith and the Border, unsurprisingly for the Conservative Party. Since he is almost certain to be elected there, one can expect some great political future for him in Britain too, given his indisputable talents and his Eton background. But this book is not the best to turn to for analysis of the political situation and prospects of Iraq.
Perhaps the above quote from THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES could just as well represent the overall experience of the nations of the Allied Coalition during their presence in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
In September 2003, Brit Rory Stewart took up position as the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) deputy governorate coordinator in the Iraqi province of Maysan at the behest of the British Foreign Office; British troops occupied Maysan subsequent to Saddam's downfall. Young Rory was offered the position on the strength of his twenty previous months in Asia, including Afghanistan, and his knowledge of Farsi (though little Arabic).
My description of Stewart as "young" is only supposed as his age goes unrevealed. However, contemporary photos of him in Iraq suggest he was twenty at the time going on fifteen. But never mind, personal gravitas isn't conditional on years, apparently at least when dealing with radical Muslim clerics and quarrelsome Arab tribal sheikhs.
Rory manned his position in Maysan until March 2004, when he assumed the same in the adjoining province of Dhi Qar, this one occupied by the Italians.
Stewart's mandate on both assignments was to help the CPA's governorate coordinator prepare the locals for the resumption of self-government in June 2004. Presuming that Stewart volunteered out of idealism, his own narrative in THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES may be eloquent argument that no good deed goes unpunished. In any case, he's a better man than I.
The book includes a section of sixteen black and white photographs that only haphazardly relate to the text. Creating a photographic record of his time in-country was understandably not high on Stewart's list of priorities, especially when literally under siege in the governorate's compound. Oddly, however, there's not even one photo of the Maysan strongman for whom the volume is titled, The Prince of the Marshes, Abu Hatim.
As the United States remains mired in Iraq, THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES stands as a testament to the untenable position of Western reasonableness when confronted with the Middle-Eastern stewpot of long-standing tribal and religious rivalries and hatreds. (True, there's tribalism in the West also. Just go to any city council meeting holding public discussions on a divisive topic. But, at least in my home town, once the final vote is taken, shooting doesn't break out; the battles shift to the courts. I can't speak for, say, Texas.)
And a simmering Afghanistan, a past thorn in the side to both the British and Soviet empires, can apparently expect a further escalation of Western military involvement. If Iraq is Dubya's War, Afghanistan will be Obama's or McCain's Interminable War. They, and the American public, just don't know it yet.
After finishing THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES, one must at least stand in awe of Saddam Hussein's ability, brutal thug that he was, to keep the lid on. One is tempted to believe that the country got what it deserved. On the other hand, in reference to his responsibilities in Iraq, Rory makes the point that he and his fellow CPA administrators weren't there as colonial officers in the traditional sense. The young men 19th century Britain sent out to rule The Empire could administrate with both carrot and stick, the former being sacks of gold and the latter the act of shooting down malcontents gathered in front of the Residency. In Iraq, the CPA had only the carrot - bags of dollars and good intentions. Perhaps, in Stewart's narrative, the reader can discern a wistfulness for the approach of times past when serving the Queen involved simpler, more direct methods. The closest Rory comes to hindsight is his statement in the Epilogue:
"The job of an administrator on the ground in Iraq was not the job of a diplomat, a development worker or a soldier: it was the job of a 1920s Chicago ward politician."
Stewart writes well, and we see that though there are still immense problems, small improvements can be achieved through compromise, conciliation, an understanding of the local people and politics, and a smattering of Arabic. Stewart is now an MP in the UK, and I wish there were more like him in the government: intelligent and resourceful, and in the job to do something for the people, rather than self aggrandisement.
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