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The Difficulty Writing Iraqi History in the United States

Who are America's historians of modern Iraq? They exist, but you would not know it from the U.S. mass media. As a second war looms with Baghdad, one would have thought that journalists were besieging them for informed views of the country. Instead, they have remained virtually anonymous and unheard in the unfolding debates.

It is an index of America's longstanding anti-intellectualism that long hours of cable television news are filled with the views on Iraq of small town radio talk show hosts and retired colonels, but virtually no one who actually knows Arabic or has written substantially on the country appears on the small screen

Even the History News Network recently ran an allegation from Barry Rubin, an Israeli-based scholar, that there were no historians of Iraq in the U.S. Surely he must have meant to say that there were few scholars of the Baath period, since 1968. Although the numbers of books written about modern Iraq by American historians can be counted on the fingers of two hands, the field does exist and its practitioners are not obscure in the ranks of the Middle East Studies Association.

There are many reasons for this paucity. First, there are not very many historians of the Middle East in the US at all. About 328 tenured and tenure-track historians are members of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. Some of these MESA members reside abroad or are not Americans, and so should not be counted for my purposes here. On the other hand, some American Middle East scholars (especially medievalists) do not get around to renewing their MESA dues, so that this number is probably a fair guide to the situation. Most of these scholars know Arabic or another relevant language of the region. In contrast, there are 14,000 historians in the American Historical Association. The 300 or so academics I just mentioned have to cover everything from Muhammad to the present and from Morocco to Afghanistan in their teaching and research, so obviously coverage of some times and places is going to be shallow.

Historians depend on access to archives and documents in order to do their work. The Baath, a radical political party standing for secular Arab nationalism and socialism, has been hostile to the United States for most of the period since it took power in Baghdad in 1968. Since that date, American historians have not had access to the Iraqi archives. Within the history field, much prestige is attached to work in archives, and it is increasingly unacceptable to write Middle Eastern history primarily out of British and other colonial archives, as was common a generation ago. One would want to see Arabic and Ottoman Turkish documents. Further, simply as a practical matter, the ability to visit a country spurs interest in it, and lack of field work opportunities conversely tend to render it less visible and less attractive to researchers.

Other Arab countries competed successfully for the attention of US historians in this regard. The Egyptian archives are extremely rich and have been increasingly open for the study of the modern period up to about 1940. Arguably, Egypt has been the site of among the more important new historical writing by Americans on the Middle East. Despite poor diplomatic relations between the United States and Syria, American scholars have been able to conduct research in the Syrian archives in Damascus, especially in the area of social history.

Most departments have at most one line in modern Middle East history, and search committees tend to focus on what they consider central sorts of expertise when hiring. Scholars writing about Egypt and Syria, the "front-line states" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, have had more success than others in the job market, apparently because the American and European historians who do the hiring within the department feel they are most important. In contrast, a history dissertation on smaller and less politically central countries such as Yemen or Tunisia can easily become a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. Even specialists on the 20th century history of unarguably important countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Morocco often meet resistance when they go on the job market because of the privileging of the front-line Arab states. (Of all the major lines in modern Middle East history in the US, none is occupied by a specialist in the post-Ottoman twentieth century history of Turkey!) Iraq for some reason falls into that same category, and not all American-trained historians of that country who brought out books on it in the past two decades found employment in this country.

During the periods when the US is not actually at war with Iraq, the American public does not buy books about the country's history. Since it costs $40,000 to bring out an academic book, publishing books that do not sell is a shortcut to bankruptcy court. When I proposed a book about the making of modern Iraq to an editor at a major New York publishing house in 1993, he declined the project as "too risky." I took him to mean that if there were another war it might do well, but if there were not, it would be a $40,000 bomb. I applied for grants to get time off to do the project anyway, and none ever came through. So, I gave up on the survey project. My recent work on the modern history of Shi`ite Islam, Sacred Space and Holy War, treats Iraqi Shi`ism at some length, though.


Let us turn to historians who have written monographs on the country. Note that I am speaking of US-based historians and therefore am excluding important works by Iraqi and Egyptian historians, not to mention those based in Europe or Israel. Likewise, I will not cover work done by non-historians, whether political scientists or security analysts.

The grand old man of American history-writing about Iraq is Majid Khadduri (b. 1908 in Mosul), a distinguished emeritus professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Khadduri was in the Iraq delegation at the formation of the U.N. in 1945 and then became an academic at Johns Hopkins, where he taught for 30 years. Among his 29 books are a trilogy, Independent Iraq, Republican Iraq, and Socialist Iraq, published 1951-1978, chronicling the modern history of the country. As late as 1997 he co-authored a book on the Gulf War!

British-born Peter Sluglett, former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utah, is among the foremost historians of Iraq now based in this country. His Britain in Iraq, 1914-1932 (London, 1976) is still among the better treatments of British imperialism in early twentieth century Iraq. The late Hanna Batatu of Georgetown University (where he taught 1982-1994) published The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, N.J., 1978), a massive investigation of the social origins of members of Iraq's Baath and Communist parties. Batatu, while teaching at the American University in Beirut, had lucked into a private collection of documents from the police archives in Baghdad, and put it to imaginative use. His work has had a powerful impact on all subsequent writing on modern Iraqi history.

Reeva Simon, associate director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, published Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Creation and Implementation of a Nationalist Ideology, in 1986 at Columbia University Press. In a sense, it builds on Sluglett's work to take political history forward into the 1930s. The only American attempt at a survey of modern Iraqi history is The Modern History of Iraq by Harvard-trained historian Phebe Marr (Boulder, Co., 1985). The author, an emerita scholar at the National Defense University and among the country's more important Iraq experts, depends mainly on Western sources for her treatment.

The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War caused some scholars to take up the history of Iraqi Shi`ism. Israeli-born Yitzhak Nakash of Brandeis published The Shi'is of Iraq at Princeton University Press in 1994. Based on a plethora of biographical dictionaries and good use of printed works and the British archives (including records stored at the National Indian Archives in Delhi), it was the first thoroughgoing treatment of Iraq's majority religious persuasion.

A banner year for the historiography of modern Iraq arrived in 1997. Three UCLA-trained historians brought out important books. Dina Rizk Khoury of George Washington University's history department published State and Provincial Society in the Ottoman empire : Mosul, 1540-1834, at Cambridge University Press. Mosul has generated a large amount of chronicle writing and biographical dictionaries, of which she took advantage to look at the evolution of social strata over time. The same year, her colleague Hala Fattah brought out The Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq, Arabia, and the Gulf, 1745-1900 (Albany, N.Y.). Fattah is the first to have looked at inter-regional trading networks in the Gulf region. Fattah is now at Jordan's Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies. Finally, Samira Haj, now at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, published The Making of Iraq, 1900-1963 : Capital, Power, and Ideology (Albany, N.Y.). Haj provides interesting new information on the impact of small manufacturers on Iraqi politics and development.

The history of Mosul was brought forward into the nineteenth century by Sarah D. Shields of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in her Mosul before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells (Albany, N.Y., 2000). A social history attentive to the position of minorities, this book sheds light on provincial politics in a late Ottoman province. The most recent important work on modern Iraq is that of Georgetown-trained Abdullah Thabit, now teaching at York University in Canada, who published Merchants, Mamluks, and Murder : the Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Basra (Albany, N.Y., 2001). As noted, Iraq is treated extensively in my Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam (London, 2002).


This survey of recent seminal books shows that a few American historians have found ways of overcoming the obstacles to writing modern Iraqi history. Sluglett and Simon depended especially on the British archives and Arabic memoirs in writing about the period up to World War II. Nakash innovated in investigating the vast corpus of Shi`ite printed works and biographical dictionaries. Printed works, chronicles and biographical dictionaries likewise underpin the works of Khoury, Fattah, and Shields. Khoury in particular has innovated in tracking down important manuscript resources for modern Iraqi history in Istanbul.

Unlike some scholars of Ottoman Syria, few American historians of Iraq have gotten into the Istanbul archives for the Ottoman period. On a site visit in 1999, I saw a large number of documents on Iraq listed in the Prime Minister's Archives in Istanbul, which have yet to be exploited by historians. (Knowledge of both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish is rare among American academics.) Likewise, the resources of the Maharashtra State Archives in India, housing documents from the Presidency of Bombay, are rich for the eighteenth and nineteenth century history of Iraq and the Gulf, but have been little tapped. In any case, writing about Iraq has in several instances not led to a tenure-track position in this country for American-trained historians.

No American historian has essayed a major work on Baathist Iraq, for which the sources would have to be propaganda-ridden Iraqi newspapers, expatriate memoirs with an axe to grind, Western news wire reports, and what documents the U.S. government has been willing to declassify. Given the limitations of these sources, it is no wonder that most scholars have devoted their energies to the Ottoman and British periods, for which more documentation exists, the biases of which are more easily dealt with because passions have cooled with the passage of centuries.

The extreme disconnect between the distinct worlds of Washington policy-making, mass media, and grassroots academia is well demonstrated by the small numbers and near-invisibility of the U.S. Iraq historians at this juncture in our country's history. Whether it is wise for the United States to get deeply involved in a region about which so few of us know anything serious, and whether it is wise for journalists to exclude the voices of those steeped in Iraq's history from the public debate, are both questions it would be well to ponder.