The Iraqi people have developed a bit of a routine...

December 8, 2006

... "The first thing they do is put on the radio and wait until a bomb goesoff," he says. "They then wait another half hour to see if there is another bomb and then go out, steering clear of crowded areas"

Mandy Garner meets an Iraqi academic who after years in exile is returning to the region, despite the risks, to assess the state of social science

There is more freedom, but more risk. More books, but more ignorance," says Faleh Jabar, describing post-Saddam Iraq. And he should know. He is a leading Iraqi sociologist and chair of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), a group of Iraqis and Iraq experts who have been trying to organise seminars about the sociology of the country. The group, which has been working in exile and having to negotiate brutal state censorship, has had very little access to first-hand information. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq, however, members have been able to travel to the country to begin a widespread survey of the state of social sciences, despite the inherent dangers of bombs and assassinations.

Jabar, who has lived in exile since 1978, says that the Iraqi people are getting used to the daily perils of life, especially in Baghdad, where most of the attacks are concentrated. They have even developed a bit of a routine. "The first thing they do is put on the radio and wait until a bomb goes off," he says. "They then wait another half hour to see if there is another bomb and then go out, steering clear of crowded areas and recruitment areas."

With concerns about attacks on academics rising - the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics held a meeting in the UK last week comparing the killings of academics in Iraq to the Nazi era - Jabar says there are many reasons they are targeted, such as because they are ex-members of the Baath party, because of ideological differences and out of revenge because they have upset a colleague or a student. He adds that campuses in Baghdad are controlled by militia who guard the gates. This is particularly bad news for women academics, although they are fighting back, arguing against strictly religious interpretations of the law.

Three women are involved in the research being carried out by the IIST, which covers the south of Iraq - including Basra; Baghdad; and the north - including Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The main reason for choosing these cities is that they have universities with social sciences departments. Jabar says they would like to include Mosul, in the north, but the security situation makes this impossible. The survey will cover social science research in universities - how many hours are devoted to methodology, what kind of fieldwork is being done, what literature is available, the student-to-tutor ratio, the dissertation topics being chosen and the state of academic freedom. It is expected to be completed by summer.

To lessen the risks of conducting the survey, the IIST has commissioned research assistants on the ground, local people who know the area and the security implications.

The IIST was established in London in 1993 by Iraqi exiles living in Europe and the US. It has held seminars and conferences on Iraq and the wider Middle East, with the support of the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birkbeck, University of London, where Jabar taught and studied. Middle East scholars, including Fred Halliday, have also been involved in events.

After the war, the group held conferences and seminars inside Iraq.

Jabar is author of a plethora of books on everything from Arab nationalism in Iraq to tribes and post-Marxism in the Middle East. It was because of his membership of the Iraqi Communist Party that he had to flee the country in October 1978. The Iranian revolution was under way and the party's newspaper, for which Jabar wrote editorials and essays, predicted the end of the single-party system in the Middle East. "I was told by the Communist Party that I had to leave the country within 48 hours. They then shortened that to 24 hours. The party had moles in the security forces. I had to say goodbye to my wife and three children and tell them to go and stay with family so they would be safe. I didn't sleep for three months until they got out safely." He adds that the security forces used to take families hostage in such cases. "If they had done so, I would have returned."

Instead, the family moved to Beirut and, once Jabar had got his travel documents, he was able to travel to Prague, where he studied philosophy.

From there, he moved to London. He has had an interest in the UK since studying English literature in Iraq and has written poems in English.

Eventually he registered at Birkbeck, University of London, and found some teaching work, but last year he moved back to Beirut. From there he can travel to Iraq and do the kind of first-hand research that has been so lacking in Iraq over the past decades.

Not that he was ever deterred from attempting first-hand research. In the early 1980s, he managed to smuggle himself into the Kurdish area of Iraq.

Just after the first Gulf War he went back, crossing the mountains along Iraq's northern border. He commissioned researchers to carry out projects, had to bribe officials to gain access to important figures and met tribal leaders. He has recently been in Erbil, Basra and Baghdad compiling more first-hand data on class, tribes, nationalism and religious groupings. He has spoken to US and British military officers as well as Iraqi military people, political leaders, religious scholars, members of militia and the mafia. He plays down the element of danger in such encounters. "When you are Iraqi and visit people overnight and share bread and salt with them you become like a brother in arms for a week. So you take that week and get what you can and then abscond before they kill you."

He says that the need for new research is pressing. "Tribes, for instance, have mutated beyond recognition from previous research at the turn of the century and oral histories taken in the 1960s and 1970s," he says. He cites urbanisation as one example.

"Iraq is highly mediatised and very understudied," he adds. "Because of the US-led war the US needs information, and several thousand instant experts have sprung up but they know nothing about Iraq now. Most of what they know is from the archives, some of which are not very good. They lack the nuances. It is not because the researchers are not good or have not been in Iraq, but a lot of those who do go stay in their hotels and talk to commanders who get their information from soldiers - they get a series of secondary sources and you end up with something that is almost dead."

He is not much more complimentary about US commanders. "They sit in the Green Zone and mock the Iraqis and write about the US view. Their work lacks the narrative of the other side." He adds that some very good academics have worked with the US Forces as advisers, but they have been "restricted in the time and space" they can devote to their subject. He recalls the work of British commanders such as Stephen Longrigg on Iraq in the early 20th century. "They were magnificent works. Of course, they reflected the British psyche and the need to demonise the enemy to some extent, but perhaps because of the code of honour they believed in, I found the writing to be more truthful than that written today by the US."

Jabar was against the war and says he no longer wishes revenge on Saddam.

"Saddam is an old clown. He should be left in prison. I am fed up with the circle of violence and victory."

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