An ordinary Iraqi story.
As a corollary to the piece I wrote below, let me tell you a typical Iraqi story. In the early twentieth century, after the defeat of Turkey in the First World War, and at the peak of ongoing pogroms against Armenians, Armenian refugees began fleeing Turkey to adjacent Arab countries for safety. A young woman with two children found herself in Diyarbakr, in what is now southern Turkey. At that time, Iraq, Syria and even Turkey’s borders were tenuous constructs, having only very recently been mapped out at successive international conferences where the British and French held sway. Much later on, in the early 1930’s, Iraq and Syria would exchange Agreements pledging to uphold their part of the new borders, and the new monarchies of Iraq and Saudi Arabia would come to similar terms on their respective frontiers.
But to this young Armenian woman, fleeing the chaotic upheavals of war, any place that offered her haven was home. As it so happened, Diyarbakr abutted on to northern Iraq, then the unregulated borderland for hundreds of tribesmen, who crossed yet un-demarcated frontiers in search of pasture and markets without giving a hoot about state sovereignty, and only changed their roaming habits after being defeated by the RAF’s bombing campaign in the Iraqi desert. Meanwhile, in the ensuing melée of expulsion, flight and massive refugee dislocations so typical of the disastrous aftermath of military defeats, this young woman became separated from her son, then only two or three years old. Try as she might, she was unable to find him, however hard she searched in the teeming population centers hastily set up under International auspices. Disconsolate, she finally moved to Baghdad to live with relatives, still hoping for the eventual recovery of her son.
In the meantime, the little boy had been rescued by several tribesman of the Shammar confederacy, a large and powerful tribe that straddled the frontiers of northern Iraq, most of Saudi Arabia, northern Syria and southern Turkey. The child was taken in by an important Shammar chieftain, if not the paramount shaykh (here my facts get fuzzy) and brought up as a Muslim. After the postwar turmoil died down, and people could more easily move about the country, the mother was able to track down her son and, enlisting the help of several notables, both Christian and Muslim, was able to bring him back with her to Baghdad.
Now here is the crux of the story: the Shammar chief sent several tribesmen to escort the boy and his mother to Baghdad, and to stay with them for awhile. He did this because he wanted the boy to acclimate to his new surroundings and to help him come to terms with his Armenian family after such a long absence. The tribesmen remained until they felt that the boy had assimilated to his new context, and then they left.
The story was told to me by the now-grown son’s daughter, and it illustrates a fundamental principle in Iraqi society. Up till very recently, the fluidity of relations among various sectors of Iraqi communities, ethnicities and sects was such an ordinary occurrence that it hardly caused a ripple in the broader society at large. This example goes some way to show the flexibility of intra-ethnic relations. So there you have it: An Armenian boy, saved from an uncertain fate by Arab tribesmen visiting the local market, brought up as an Arab Muslim with all the anti-urban biases a tribal society could muster, taught the folklore and poetry of the tribes and the customs and traditions of the eponymous founders of the confederacy, was yet re-inserted into his own original family with the help and support of his adoptive clan, to the consternation of virtually no-one!
By the way, the Armenian man in question became a great expert on tribal oral poetry, something that ordinary Iraqi city dwellers find difficult to understand, let alone emulate, and until the last years of his life, kept trying to teach it to his family and friends. For me, that alone is worth the price of admission to his own private history of growing up Iraqi.
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Hala Fattah - 11/12/2006
I forgot to say that, after the Shammar tribe moved into Iraq, two large sections of the tribe split off. One made northern Iraq its home, the other inhabited southern Iraq. The northern Iraq section is the one from which shaykh Ghazi al-Yawar, the first postwar President of Iraq, hails.
Hala Fattah - 11/12/2006
Saudi Arabia is close to western Iraq and was the most important source of re-tribalization oif Iraq in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Shammar tribe comes from northern Najd (now northern Saudi Arabia)and moved very significantly into Iraq in those centuries because of drought and tribal warfare. The Iraqi section of the Shammar tribe still cherishes its alliance with the parent tribe in Saudi Arabia until today.
Ralph E. Luker - 11/12/2006
Mr. Gress, You are generalizing too broadly from a particular. Surely not every Muslim would have done as these did then, nor do all Muslims do as a few do now.
David R Gress - 11/12/2006
What strikes me at once in this account is that the Arab tribesmen courteously gave up the son to his Christian mother instead of killing him for potential apostasy from Islam. This sort of example is valuable to illustrate the sad decline since those days.
I am also somewhat puzzled to learn that this Arab confederacy covered "most of Saudi Arabia". Really? Saudi Arabia is quite far from the Iraq-Turkey-Syria triangle in which the story begins. And as far as I was aware Saudi Arabia after WWI was, as its name denotes, in the control of the House of Saud and its allies.
Hala Fattah - 11/11/2006
Thank you, Jonathan and Ralph. I agree that, as historians, we have a special vantage point that doesn't get translated into public discourse. This is why I'm doing an oral history of older Iraqis. I figure I'll pick up more of these wonderful nuggets on the way. Then I'll immediately come over here and post them!
Ralph E. Luker - 11/11/2006
I think that Hala's story makes another point that Rick's story about Andrew Jackson doesn't. That point would be that the Arab Muslims, who raised the boy, returned him to his Armenian mother and stayed with him there until they believed his adjustment to his new surroundings was satisfactory. Andrew Jackson's taking and raising of the native American boy could very well be read as a token of conquest.
Jonathan Dresner - 11/11/2006
You're not wrong: the story is a very important one, particularly given the "age-old conflict" meme being flogged to death on an hourly basis. And the fact that we historians know intellectually about these things doesn't mean that we can't use stories like this to show our students.
Hala Fattah - 11/11/2006
Your example and that of the two Jonathans do make that point very well. I guess I was overwhelmed by the story because the present situation in Iraq is so much less charitable than the past.
HNN - 11/10/2006
This is a moving story, but I could just easily tell the similar story about Andrew Jackson and the Indians. After one battle in which he slaughtered the Indians in one village, women, children, just about everybody, he adopted an Indian boy who had been left behind.
He raised the child.
You can find the details in HW Brands's superb biography of Jackson.
Ethnic lines were fluid in America to an extent, but in the end whites felt that they could not live with Indians. Jackson believed that whites would exterminate Indians as the obviously stronger and more populous group.
Probably Shiia wouldn't say that about Sunni, but from this distance it appears that they are beginning to share a discouraging hatred for one another.
Hala Fattah - 11/10/2006
In Iraq's case, I think that the reification of sub-national identities in various crises throughout the 20th century paradoxically helped keep that aspect of common humanity alive because it kept the state's often chauvinistic and racist tendencies at bay!
Jonathan T. Reynolds - 11/10/2006
Goodness knows the story rings true for my (relatively recent) experience in Nigeria. Indeed, the real truth is that there are probably thousands of similar stories being played out in Iraq (and Nigeria, and elsewhere) even today.
The question remains, however, if the identity politics of the 20th (and 21st?) centuries have made people less willing to reach across ethnic, cultural, or political boundaries.
It strikes me that the real "border" here is when people cease to think of the others as truly human. When that happens, such acts become far far less likely.
Hala Fattah - 11/10/2006
You're absolutely correct, Jonathan. It happened at a time when borders were in flux, and so were identities.
Jonathan Dresner - 11/10/2006
...it's an ordinary story for much of the world, for much of human history. We take our boundaries and identities so literally now. Kind of sad, really.