Iraq and the Notion of Geographical Determinism
Once, not so long ago, Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire were deemed to be static, unimaginative societies forever constrained by circumstances beyond their control. The idea of geographical determinism was particularly potent with regard to largely land-locked countries such as Iraq. Even though Ottoman Iraq was linked intimately to the Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, it was Iraq’s landmass that caught historians’ attentions. Iraq was considered, more often than not, a victim of its geographical circumstances because, down to the present, it has been bounded by neighbors that did not always wish it well, and with whom past Iraqi governments have not always been on good terms .
But this so-called geographical determinism can be seen in a different form. Earlier Orientalist scholars had seen it as a limiting factor, a heavy weight on Iraq's development. I think, on the contrary, it has often been a boon to countries such as Iraq. From the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Iraqis freely traded within their own region and beyond, much to the consternation of Ottoman authorities who were supposed to be laying down the Imperial law. Even as the Ottoman Empire began to centralize its far-flung domains in the nineteenth century, causing it to write new tariffs in commercial law and erect new customs posts on Imperial frontiers, Iraqis were busy rediscovering new routes and new markets from which to exchange and ship their goods. Eventually this would be called smuggling and contraband, and be viewed as anti-state activity deletrious to the law of the land. By the early twentieth century, with new agreements on borders having been forged by British-influenced monarchies such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as with French-controlled Syria and Lebanon, the idea of a bounded nation-state, a sovereign nation-state was born.
But how bound was Iraq to its own sovereignty? In the late twentieth century, the Iraq-Iran war showed that regional influences were paramount. Even though the war was globalized, with the US entering surreptitiously on the side of Iraq, the real incentives sprung from the region. Again, smuggling and contraband came to the fore, this time arms smuggling carried out by dhows (traditional sailing ships, now outfitted with outboard motors) carrying enormous loads of arms, and sailing from the Gulf to Iran or Iraq. And we all know how the Baathist regime skirted international sanctions in the 1990’s by heavily smuggling in goods and arms across both its land and sea borders.
In Iraq today, smuggling and contraband are rife. Gasoline, copper wires, electricity pylons and food are being trucked out of Iraq at an alarming rate. If this continues, the shadow economy, more vibrant and more dynamic than the official economy, will soon denude Iraq of its very infrastructure, most of it obsolete and probably valuable only as scrap. My question is this : even supposing that Iraq will once again be a safe place to live, where laws will be obeyed and the official economy will become a self-sustaining economy ( ‘though largely based on one source, oil), how long will this last before regional incentives will again appear to tear its “sovereign” status apart? I am pessimistic. I think the region is stronger than the nation-state. The region provides incentives that the state, as now constructed, cannot provide. The region supplies the conditions for a free-for-all entrepreneurial activity that the big, hulking state will need to tamp down, if only to assert its own authority. In the next ten years, when Iraq’s security threat will have diminished ( please say inshallah), will the new state be able to offer as great an amount of opportunities for its citizens through legal channels as the region is willing to provide for the reckless, devil-may care sector of brash entrepreneurs in Iraq?
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diala aljabri - 9/17/2004
the smell of narinj, and the way everyone waters their gardens just around sunset so they can sit outside...and the taste of clotted cream from Kirkuk with date palm syrup....and of cardamon in tea....and the songs of Nadhim Ghazali.....and paintings of Dajleh and the architecture of Iraqi houses by the river....the exquisite workmanship of Iraqi silver and gold earrings from the souq al safafeer on shari'al nahr (river st.)...and to our American readers, i am not even Iraqi by birth....the Arabs long for the return of the Arab world....
Hala Fattah - 9/16/2004
What a brilliant, sad but brilliant prose poem. Your hope for a reborn Iraq is shared by all decent people everywhere.
Do you remember the smell of "narinj" on the trees?
diala aljabri - 9/16/2004
it is a fervent hope that the Iraqi identity will somehow weather this killing field...one dreams of Iraq as it was in the late 70s with rivers spanning as far as the eye could see, chocolate brown agricultural soil heavy with the fruit on orange trees, rich with history and pride, rich with the talents and dynamism of its people, and of course, oil, Arab oil for the Arabs and for Arab development that old dream so sadly gone...Inshallah, inshallah, inshallah Iraq will prevail and return to its people and as a strength for the region better than before when it all went so tragically long and was driven and depleted so far downhill by such a combination of covetous eyes and the utter depravation and corruption of leadership that so sadly knew the right rhetoric to capture the spirits of the downfallen outside Iraq, while breaking the back of the real Iraq with such criminal misgovernment and now the current ordered chaos...designed or happening to provide the finishing blow, not just to Iraq but to the region as we knew it......Inshallah the security threat will be defused by some higher wisdom...we all still have so much to lose...