On page 79 of Ashley Gilbertson’s stunning photo essay Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War, there’s a photo of an Iraqi boy leaning warily out of a blood-spattered doorway. He’s wearing a knit sweater embossed with an “R” and the word “BASEBALL” beneath, clearly not the logo of any stateside team. Gilbertson has positioned himself low, angling up at the boy as he stares past the camera and down the street. It’s an altogether questioning and disturbed look, as confused as it is angry and expectant. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is too right.
That same expression could grace the faces of most Americans when they consider the life of the average Iraqi. While the volume of books on the U.S. involvement in Iraq—on strategy, tactics, reasons we shouldn’t have invaded, reasons we should have, demands to exit now, and pleas to remain—piles ever higher, among them exists a small and growing number on day-to-day life. Most of these are written by Westerners, and in this they are similar to the boy’s sweater in Gilbertson’s photograph: less genuine artifacts of a culture then a foreigner’s simulacra of same.
Australian journalist Lynne O’Donnell seems to have an interesting story to tell in High Tea in Mosul: The True Story of Two Englishwomen in War-Torn Iraq. Margaret and Pauline emigrated from England with their Iraqi husbands in the late 1970s, just as Iraq was descending into three decades of near non-stop war and privation. But O’Donnell’s method is maladroit, aimlessly interweaving uncaptioned photos, poorly formatted tables, segments from diaries, passages of reportage, and history. Moreover, her protagonists’ circumstances are poorly illuminated by jarring prose.
O’Donnell’s challenge, one she never masters, is that High Tea contains too many stories, each worth a book—Pauline and Margaret’s motivations for choosing a life far from their northern English roots, the separate cultures their respective Iraqi husbands represent (one is Kurdish and the other Arab), and the chronicle of Iraq during the last decades of the 20th century. On occasion O’Donnell captures Iraq’s present dilemma in daily Mosul life: “Each morning and evening, [Saleh] would do as elderly men in Mosul have been doing since time immemorial—he would sit out on his front step sharing gossip and tea with his old neighbors. Until he was told not to. The message was passed on by someone he didn’t know, who offered no reason, just an implied consequence for non-compliance. Saleh no longer sits on his step to sip chai….He stays indoors, frightened of what and of whom he isn’t sure.”
Ian Klaus offers a more polished viewpoint—from Arbil, the capital of Kurdistan—in Elvis is Titanic: Classroom Tales from the Other Iraq. Describing a semester teaching at Salahaddin University in 2005, Klaus offers incongruities not unlike Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. An acute example is the prospects of Klaus’ students: “…in the post-Second World War Middle East the more combustible segment of society has proved to be an educated middle class with limited professional opportunity….My history class knew only too well the narrowness of their prospects as degree holders.”
Klaus’ greatest achievement is his very narrow escape from paternalism. At the age of 26, Klaus works carefully not to appear triumphant in the face of his students’ lack of optimism and their parallel fascination with the United States. Until Iraqi accounts of this period surface, we too can contemplate these matters, considering how the Iraqis themselves might characterize their own predicament.