The war through Iraqi eyes

December 4, 2008

Paul Heideman reviews a book that tells the story of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq from the standpoint of its victims

FARNAZ FASSIHI'S Waiting for an Ordinary Day is a welcome addition to the ever-growing pile of literature documenting the horrors of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. While several other journalists have written excellent accounts of the war, Fassihi's is unique in several aspects.

First is its subject. In her foreword, Fassihi writes of her objective: "In this book, I hope to paint the story of the war through the eyes of Iraqis." She points out that "despite the widespread coverage the media is giving to Iraq, the scope of the war's impact on Iraqis remains scarcely told."

This goal of telling the story of the U.S. invasion and occupation from the standpoint of its victims sets Waiting for an Ordinary Day apart from most other books written about Iraq, which have focused primarily on the actions of the Americans.

The book's perspective is also different from that of many of the best books written about the occupation. Unlike Christian Parenti, Nir Rosen or Patrick Cockburn, Fassihi does not write from the perspective of a developed critique of U.S. imperialism.

Indeed, for most of her time in Iraq, she was reporting for the Wall Street Journal. While some may see this as a drawback, it results in an interesting narrative where the reader is able to witness the transformation Fassihi undergoes as she comes to terms with the brutality of the occupation

Waiting for an Ordinary Day begins shortly before the invasion. Right away, we begin to see the depth of Iraqi opposition to U.S. intervention. In the context of a nationwide referendum staged by Saddam Hussein to prove his supposed support among the Iraqi public to the world, Fassihi listens as her taxi driver explains to her that "voting yes for Saddam is really a no vote for President Bush."

When she asks him what will happen during the invasion, he replies, "We will fight very hard. Not just the army, but the people, because we don't like foreigners to tell us what to do. There will be a lot of blood; you will see."

Shortly after this, Fassihi introduces us to the Nassers, a Christian Iraqi family with whom she becomes close. As they talk of the imminent invasion, Marie-Rose, the mother, expresses her frustration with the way American politicians talk about Iraq:

I wish I could remind Bush that there are people living in Iraq. We have lives, get married, have babies, go to work. All you hear is America talking about Saddam, Saddam, weapons, inspectors, war, bombs. Nobody talks about the Iraqi people. You can dehumanize an entire country like that.

Fassihi returns to Iraq in April 2003, shortly after the initial invasion. One of the people she interviews is Wamid Nadhimi, a political science professor described as "an outspoken critic of Saddam's regime." Fassihi is surprised to learn of his anger at the Americans.

At this point, Fassihi still retains a great deal of her faith in the invasion, as she asks Nadhimi, "Don't you think no matter what happens Iraq is better off with Saddam gone?" His response is crystal clear:

Look, anger for Saddam doesn't translate into support of American occupation. Why don't you people understand this? If there were a normal situation, with an Iraqi government in place, a functioning army, and no occupation, then I would be a lot less skeptical.

AS THE occupation wears on, Fassihi recounts the deterioration of the security situation. We read of the infamous looting of Iraq's national treasures that went on under U.S. soldiers' noses. We also learn of the developing insurgency, which occupies a considerable amount of the rest of the book.

It is around the topic of the insurgency that Fassihi receives one of her greatest shocks as she gathers the stories of ordinary Iraqis. While in Falluja with her driver and translator, Munaf and Haqqi, Fassihi expresses her outrage that the insurgents handed out leaflets to civilians warning them to stay away from American convoys. "How very kind and considerate of them to give advance warning of killings," she says.

The response of her assistants shocks her:

American military is a fair target. They are not ordinary people. They are soldiers in uniform at war with our country. So what is wrong with attacking them? What are we supposed to do, just sit and watch them rob Iraq and humiliate us day after day?

This response is especially shocking given that Munaf and Haqqi don't at all fit the image of extremists. They have cordial interactions with U.S. soldiers on a daily basis, they listen to pop music and watch Friends, and, as employees of Americans, they earn a far more secure living than the majority of their fellow Iraqis. Because of all this, the knowledge that her Iraqi employees support the insurgency forces Fassihi to rethink what is fueling the resistance.

Fassihi's perspective on the resistance is also shaped by her witnessing of the Sunni-Shia unity that developed in the aftermath of the first U.S. assault on Falluja. In March 2004, one year after the invasion, Fassihi writes about the massive strike with which Iraqis greeted the anniversary.

"The most striking thing about the double uprising," she writes, " is that it took almost no time for Sunni and Shiites to declare unity against their common enemy." Later she speaks to a friend, a Sunni shopkeeper, who tells her "I am 100 percent with the resistance group now, both Sunni and Shiite. They are giving their lives to free our country. Now I am resisting in my own way, by closing my shop."

Fassihi left Iraq in 2005, before the bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra signaled the country's descent into civil war. Her portrait of the resistance and ordinary Iraqi's attitudes toward it is thus prior to the wave of sectarianism that swept the country and crushed the hope for a unified resistance. Nonetheless, this book provides a valuable illustration of the brutality of the U.S. invasion before the civil war even began.

In these days of post-surge jubilation, Waiting for an Ordinary Day is an important reminder of the sheer scale of the destruction the U.S. has wrought on Iraq.

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