One winter’s day in the early 1980s, a young Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was watching a military parade in Baghdad with his father. Despite the cheering crowds, the Iraqi soldiers that filed past were as silent and solemn as their Iranian prisoners of war. Suddenly, one Iraqi soldier grabbed Abdul-Ahad’s waving hand and pressed a large copper bullet into his small palm. Abdul-Ahad kept it as a sacred memento for a while after.
“Little did I know that it was a harbinger of the many wars to come,” writes the award-winning, Baghdad-born journalist, at the beginning of A Stranger in Your Own City. That copper bullet symbolises what lies ahead – a chronicle of the past two decades of chaos, upheaval and bloodshed in Iraq. Comprising memoirs, war reportage and recorded testimonies from a wide range of civilians and combatants, Abdul-Ahad’s monumental book, more than 10 years in the making, tells of how Iraq was overrun and torn apart.
After touching on the eight-year “Iranian adventure”, the first American Gulf War and the debilitating effects of 13 years of UN sanctions, the author turns his attention to the US-led invasion of 2003 and the all-out anarchy and barbarism that ensued.
He reveals that he had his reservations at the outset – while he wanted an end to Saddam’s brutal misrule, he knew that invading Iraq and launching a sustained bombing campaign would not bring about democracy or human rights. A better strategy wouldn’t have altered the outcome. “No amount of planning could have turned an illegal operation into a liberation,” he argues.
Abdul-Ahad explains how the day after Saddam’s statue was toppled, he abandoned his career as an architect and took on a job as a translator for a British journalist. Gradually, translating turned into war reporting, which Abdul-Ahad threw himself into. However, as the cycle of violence and counter-violence intensified, that initial enthusiasm was replaced by paralysing fear.
He excels with his coverage of pivotal events, from Saddam’s trial to the Arab Spring and the fall of Mosul. There are captivating accounts of mass protests and street battles, corruption and cronyism, kidnappings and disappearances. He reports from exit points where Iraqis are desperately trying to flee, and from final destinations such as Baghdad’s morgue and a bleak dumping ground known as the Sadda. “Two kinds of people came here,” notes Abdul-Ahad, “the killers and their victims".
However, the book is at its most absorbing when Iraqis relay their stories. Abdul-Ahad’s interviewees stem from all walks of life – some are friends, others foes. We meet Hameed, a former officer in the General Security Apparatus, who describes his journey into the insurgency and his militant efforts to thwart what he believes is “an American plot to destroy Iraq”.
We also meet a senior official working in the Council of Ministers who, in 2009, makes the startling declaration that “Iraq is ruled by institutions that are not covered by law or the constitution". A group of Shia militiamen disclose their favoured torture techniques and their desire to start “cleansing” Baghdad. A mother tells how one of her sons was killed and three others were abducted and never seen again.
We hear how Rafiq, a fixer at the Ministry of the Interior, takes bribes to secure the release or reduce the torture of a detainee. “At least there is someone to negotiate with,” says his colleague, “unlike in the days of sectarianism when we paid the money and they killed our sons anyway". When Abdul-Ahad interviews an ISIS commander – mere weeks before the group started kidnapping journalists – he remembers little of the encounter: “I was terrified and trembling with fear".
The book is full of sobering statistics: in 2007, a “quiet” day was one on which only 40 dead bodies were found in Baghdad; in 2019, thousands of murders remained unsolved as “the worst disasters in Iraq are forgotten within 72 hours". Abdul-Ahad’s depictions of horror and injustice make for grimly compelling reading, due to his vivid prose and eye for detail.
But his book isn’t a complete catalogue of atrocities. Abdul-Ahad witnesses acts of merciless cruelty, but also some of selfless bravery, such as Mosul inhabitants rising up against Islamic State and switching from passive resistance to active rebellion. Another ray of light is the heartwarming tale of a Sunni man and a Shia woman who, forced to plan their wedding like a “military-style operation”, manage to defy the odds and get married in the midst of civil war.
Important and insightful, A Stranger in Your Own City is a comprehensive history of an agonisingly long conflict. At the same time, it is a collection of stories of struggle and suffering, but also of fortitude and endurance.