Bullets in Envelopes: Iraqi Academics in Exile
Louis Yako introduces the subject of Iraqi academics in exile with the term “genealogy of loss” to describe the ramifications of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, against a backdrop of the earlier US intervention and the years of the Ba’ath regime.
Moving away from the mainstream narrative of Iraq, which is cloistered within the realm of humanitarianism – the aftermath of any violent foreign intervention, Yako presents an analysis through the eyes and experiences of Iraqi academics, based upon the premise that “academia cannot be understood separately from politics.”
Through in-depth interviews with exiled academics who saw education institutions destroyed after the 2003 US military occupation of Iraq, Yako notes that academics a segment of the population which is “as close to politics and the centres of power as possible, yet also one that can critically examine and interrogate power from multiple perspectives.”
"For Iraqi academics, the loss of Iraq speaks like a permanent wound, while exile is both a lived and delayed experience"
The book touches upon three main themes: the relationship between academics and different regimes of power, exile and displacement, and academics as citizens and their positionality in post-invasion Iraq.
Yako notes that Iraqis lived through several wars since the Ba’ath regime came into power. The author himself was threatened while working as a translator with the occupying forces. In terms of academia, Yako writes of how the anti-colonial Ba’ath regime sought to strengthen academia in the late 1960s, which gave academics the opportunity to negotiate with the party.
This is not to say, however, that academics were not targeted. Affiliation to parties other than the Ba’ath regime could result in transfers, and anti-Ba’ath activity from members of the communist party were targeted by the government. Party allegiance was required by the government in nuclear energy research, for example. Differentiation between politically neutral academics and those involved in politics was applied.
Yet Yako elicits comparisons and complicity with the West in terms of oppression. “Even Saddam was allowed to murder in the middle of London when his government was following policies friendly to the West,” he writes, thus drawing attention to the question of how oppression is defined.
Many of the displaced and exiled Iraqi academics draw attention to the fact that the crippling sanctions imposed by the UN from 1990 to 2003 were damaging to the entire country and paving the way for the US military occupation. The general consensus by academics is that the profession was vilified both by the UN and the Ba’ath regime.
With many academics facing sectarian violence and low wages, exile is considered the result of the international intervention in Iraq. Yako writes, “the Iraqi education system was one of the occupying forces’ earliest targets in their desire to reshape and restructure Iraqi society and people’s collective consciousness.”
"The “unwanted” – victims of political violence, be it sectarian or neoliberal – have been forced into different conceptualisations of Iraq and how to relate to the homeland"
Attacking academia ultimately meant the erasure of Iraqi identity and the imposition of the occupier’s narrative. In this context, Yako’s succinct description of occupation in the first chapter can be applied. “Neo-colonial agendas hide skilfully behind a million masks and justifications to ensure that so-called Third World countries remain in that category – that the “developing “ world remains in a state of never really developing.”
Contrary to the West’s humanitarian narrative, Yako illustrates the humanitarian ramifications as a result of political violence. For Iraqi exiles, the neoliberal academic environment posed immense challenges, particularly the silencing of voices in for-profit universities. Exile also brought instability in terms of work contracts for Iraqi academics, resulting in additional disempowerment.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, Iraqi academics related to exile in different ways. For those exiled in Jordan, for example, the exile experience was described as “long-distance nationalism.” In Kurdistan, exiled Iraqi academics grappled with the concept of language in exile and how it also formed a component of exclusion, even as English is described as becoming “the language of the colonised” for academics seeking to lessen the possibilities of confrontation in their place of exile.
In exile, identity becomes more complicated. For Iraqi academics, the loss of Iraq speaks like a permanent wound, while exile is both a lived and delayed experience. The book states, “understanding exile cannot be separated or resolved without understanding everything that produced it.”
The book’s nuanced approach – one that diverts away from the colonial and imperialist narrative – provides ample space for reflection. However, the closing remarks by academics interviewed for the book testify to the multitude of exile experiences and how individuals relate to the political and personal. The “unwanted” – victims of political violence, be it sectarian or neoliberal – have been forced into different conceptualisations of Iraq and how to relate to the homeland. Exile is frightening, one academic states.
Distance and alienation from one’s homeland are also produced by exile, for where does one belong after belonging is ripped away? The answer, for one academic at least, is searing. “Exile is what is left after that loss.”
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.