Blogs > Cliopatria > The Iraqi Press in the Tens, Twenties and Thirties (PART ONE)

Jun 19, 2004 6:13 am

The Iraqi Press in the Tens, Twenties and Thirties (PART ONE)

There are so many parallels between the British occupation of Iraq in 1917 and the American occupation in 2003 that the British journalist Robert Fisk is writing a book about them. But I’ll bet that there are similarities that will elude even him. One is the incredible outpouring of newspapers in both eras. While the development of the print media in Baghdad, Mosul and Suleymaniya has been commented upon at length in 2003-2004, little is known, at least in the West, of Iraq’s first newspaper rush, and the fledgling editorial talents that created the earliest commercial press in the country.

The first newspaper ever published in Baghdad was Al-Zawra’, which was started up by the reformist governor, Midhat Pasha (1869-1871). But this was a government paper that had little competition from private sources. Forty years later, under less stringent censorship rules(brought on by the Constitutional Revolution in Turkey in 1908), a number of Iraqi as well as foreign-owned papers made their appearance. About thirty-six papers and magazines were published in Iraq by Iraqis before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. For example, an outstanding weekly, Al-Riyadh, began publication in 1910. Owned by Suleiman Al-Dakhil, who is considered to be the first journalist/editor from Najd (Central Arabia) to own and publish a newspaper, it was put together in Baghdad, due in no small part to the fact that Arabia and Iraq had long been linked by longstanding cultural, economic and social ties. Although it only lasted for four years, Al-Riyadh published original and path-breaking reports on Central Arabian tribes and dynasties, and courted the Ottomans by openly appealing to them to intervene against British schemes in the Arabian peninsula.

Al-Riyadh was only one of the many newspapers published at the turn of the twentieth century, of course. Other, Iraqi-owned newspapers of note were Al-Raqib, published by the crusading journalist Abdul-Latif Thunayan and Sada Babil, owned and operated by the two Christian intellectuals, Dawud Sliwu and Yusif Ghanima. Echoes of those papers continue until today. For instance, Al-Nahda was established by Ibrahim Hilmi Umar and Muzahim Amin al-Pachachi in 1913. Al-Nahda lives on today because Al-Pachachi’s son, Dr. Adnan Al-Pachachi, established a paper under the same name in 2003. Having read many of its issues, I can honestly say that it is one of the most sober and well-researched papers currently published in Baghdad.

In 1917, General Maude entered Baghdad as a “liberator”. The fate of Iraq’s media establishment was to change radically under the British occupation. There are some theses that have been written both in foreign as well as in Iraqi Universities to show a connection between the establishment of an oppositional Iraqi press and the growth of nationalism in Iraq in the 1920’s and 1930’s. But, much as in the same vein as the touted connection between the Iraqi press today and the growth of Iraqi nationalism, was the link really so concrete and so immediate? Who was writing in the press in the 1920’s and 1930’s and who was reading? What sectors of society, if any, were moved to action because of certain newspaper editorials or articles? What was the relationship between the press and political parties in Iraq under the British occupation? This will be answered (I hope) in my next blog entry. TO BE CONTINUED.

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David Patrick Getman - 3/26/2008

Interestingly, if one looks at the topics in the articles of the Iraqi radical press in the 20's and 30's in parallel with the developments in legislation, its pretty clear that the threat posed by such articles to the legitimacy of the Anglo-Iraqi government had a significant influence on the diffusion of British control in favor of increasing Iraqi autonomy in the various treaties and protocols. I wonder if you could elaborate on the sources for the two arguments for and against the influence of the Iraqi press during this period. David

Hala Fattah - 6/20/2004

Dear Greg,
Thanks for your comment. I am still trying to figure out if Iraqi intellectuals were really that important in the 1920's and 1930's. There are two lines of thought here, the first arguing that Iraqi intellectuals were out of touch with the masses because they were a Westernized elite and so could not accurately reflect popular sentiment; the second that Iraqi intellectuals were the guiding force for the initial democratization of Iraqi society in that same period. Both of these points of view are partly true and partly false. First, not all of the newspaper editors and journalists that started these newspapers could be termed "westernized" in the literal sense of the word (lots of them had had some experience with the press in India or Egypt, not Europe so perhaps they were several degrees removed from a truly authentic "Western" perspective, although they sure imbibed metropolitan ideas in vogue at the time). Second, literacy did not keep up with the spread of newspapers which Benedict Anderson says had to be in existence for print journalism to have an effect. This is what I'll be arguing in my second entry on the subject.
Yes, there are intellectuals in Iraq now that people can coalesce around, but Iraq is in a different place than it was in the 20's or 30's. Its become an atomized society which speaks across, and not TO each other. Perhaps after the terrorism threat abates, saner voices will emerge.

Greg G Zugrave - 6/20/2004

Fascinating argument regarding the emergence of an opposition press in Iraq. I look forward to reading more as I have just stumbled onto your blog. Benedict Anderson argued that intellectuals were essential to rise of nationalism in colonial territories. How much of a role did intellectuals play in the 1920s and 30s? What do you think about the situation in Iraq today, are there intellectuals that would be accepted by the public at large?

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