TH: In your essay, which is featured in Granta 116: Ten Years Later, you take us back to a time when Baghdad College was still a place of cultural exchange for students from across the Middle East within an American-run institution. What part do you think 9/11 and the events that followed have had to play in causing the American and Arab worlds, to borrow a phrasefrom your essay, to view each other as the ‘clichéd enemy in a straight-to-DVD action movie’?
Perhaps it isn’t so much specifically 9/11 but rather something that has been underway for a good while longer. I think there has been a gradual loss of American credibility for some time now, or rather a growing awareness of America’s role in the region. There are so many factors that went into this but, strikingly, when you look at those yearbooks from Baghdad College before World War II, there’s almost an innocence that informed the relationship between the United States and Iraq. Of course it changed as the years went on, but even into the 1950s and 60s, at a time when the United States was taking on a much more aggressive, assertive, even imperial role in the region, it still didn’t have that kind of toxicity that I saw at least when I was first there as a reporter in 1998.
In the essay, the conflict between the American and Arab (or Iraqi) worlds now appears to be played out primarily through language. From the Arabized American slang to the graffiti that shrouds the walls of the college:would you say that language is a battlefield itself?
I wonder if it is a battlefield or more the detritus of an imperial experience. When I say ‘imperial experience’ I don’t mean that as a cliché but as the reality of what the United States represented a decade or so ago or what Britain did before that. Iraqi Arabic, I think, is kind of remarkable in that it was already endowed with lot of English, even before the Americans arrived as the occupying power in Iraq. We’d have things like ‘wrong side’ for instance, when you talk about going the wrong way down a street, ‘Jerry can’ was another word you would hear in Iraqi Arabic. A lot of it came from the British presence in Iraq, influencing even the vocabulary of everyday life. What struck me again is that so much of it stuck, this detritus, these artifacts or remnants. In Arabic the word is athar. It was no different with the American experience. I wrote in one story of it as the whispers of the American occupation and the country is still riddled with them. One distinction that strikes you, between the American and British athar, is the martial inflection to the words that the Americans left behind. Of course they’re in part about pop culture, and the reach of American commercialism, but there’s a distinctly militaristic American vocabulary that remains embedded in the Iraqi vocabulary.