This post builds on the research article “A Kidnapping in Basra: the Struggles and Precariousness of Life in Post-invasion Iraq,” which was published in the November 2012 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of number articles on violence, including Danny Hoffman’s ‘The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolinial African Cities' (2008), and Lori Allen’s ‘Getting By the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal During the Second Palestinian Intifada' (2008).
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on security, including a virtual issue on the subject which featured five essays; and numerous articles such as Linda Green's ‘Fear as a Way of Life’ (1994) and Daniel Jordan Smith’s ‘The Bakassi Boys: Vigilantism, Violence, and Political Imagination in Nigeria’ (2004).
Darren Byler: What drew you to Iraq to conduct this fieldwork?
Hayder Al-Mohammad: I was born in Iraq but my family left the country almost immediately after my birth to eventually live in West London. West London is full of Iraqis and my family raised me as an ‘Iraqi’; so, Iraq has always been something on my mind as I was growing up. That is, Iraq has never been merely a geopolitical or international relations problem. There is something very personal to me about what has been happening to that country throughout my lifetime. That, of course, is both a help and hindrance in my own work.
I had spent time in Cairo and Damascus during the early part of my Ph.D. I was waking up every morning desperate to check on what was happening in Iraq and calling friends and family in the country daily to find out how they were. In Cairo and Damascus I felt I was going through the motions, it would not be like that in Iraq.
Iraq also offered me freedom; there has never been a strong tradition of anthropological research in the country so there was nothing I particularly had to argue against or move beyond. The field of research was pretty much open (again, both a help and hindrance!). I thought I could contribute something to not only the discipline but to the wider academic community. What many journalists and academics were saying about Iraq just was not right. It was very easy to talk of a rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites and sound remarkably profound as if one had managed to really nail down the problems that overtook the country. Or, the more you bashed Bush and Blair, the greater the humanitarian you became. Doing long-term fieldwork still has a power, maybe more so today than in years gone by, because however many facebookers and tweeters there may have been in the country, those shards of information that make it across to our computers really do not tell us very much, even though we sometimes might not realize it.
I knew a different Iraq from the one being reported on the news media and by the then (in the mid-2000s) burgeoning Iraq publishing industry as I had spent time there before I began my doctoral research. At the beginning of my research I did not know how to challenge the picture of Iraq many had after the invasion of 2003. People outside the country did not know quite how tired and devastated the people in the country were after two destructive wars in 1991 and 2003, and the crippling sanctions between both wars. Where stories of an ‘Islamic Umma’ or a possible ‘Shia-stan’ emerging dominated the editorial pages of some of the major newspapers, I saw instead people struggling to feed their families, cope with little or no electricity, their wages barely able to keep up with inflation, and so on.
Where in Europe and North America the pictures that emerged from Abu Ghraib stunned large portions of the population, in Iraq Abu Ghraib was seen by many not as the epitome of evil itself; how could they? How does the destruction of the Gulf War in 1991, for instance, compare to those images? We were remarkably well shielded from the violence of those wars and the impact of the sanctions to think Abu Ghraib was a terrific disaster; it was not the failing of the chain of command which had hurt so many Iraqis. Thus, something needed to change and quickly about what was being said about Iraq. A different picture of the country needed to emerge, one not dominated by those easy labels the news media and many academics were far too quick to deploy: Islam; sectarianism; tribalism; etc.
I should say, and maybe this is the most important point, I love being in Iraq – particularly Basra. I met quite a few workers from all over the world in Iraq who had tens of security guards to protect them. I would take them out for a meal in Basra with no security and they loved the city too. I get emails still from several of them telling me how desperate they are to get back and have some grilled meat on the side of Shatt-al-Arab. Yes, things are tough and dangerous in Iraq; but there is another side to the country which we rarely hear of.
Byler: Do you think an intimate understanding of local lifeways was a necessary precursor to the intense, almost intuitive, closeness you felt toward the situation of Jabar’s kidnapping?
Al-Mohammad: It’s a question I am very keen to interrogate both ethnographically and much more conceptually – not that the two are opposed. My intuition is that things do not map as clearly or, layer or connect as easily as we might think in anthropology. Think here of how most ethnographies proceed: elaboration of historical and current context of the issue the anthropologist is investigating; the problem and the theoretical architecture adumbrated; fieldwork experiences and vignettes described and explored. Somehow, all these things, and others, come together magically in the text, even if the text elides certainty or closure.
But that is in a book, it isn’t like that out there in the world. Practical know-how of living in Basra and Baghdad is important, it’s important anywhere you live. It’s also vital as an ethnographer. However, I do not think that know-how was necessary to getting close to Jabar or any other of my friends in Iraq.
Jabar and I became close to one another. I ate at his house. His wife became a good friend of mine. I was involved in their lives, they were involved in mine. They might be having dinner as a family and call me to say how much they wished I was with them enjoying the meal with them. I would calm Jabar down when he was angry, he would shout at me when I was being pig-headed, and so on. We shared our lives with each other. That is not a trick nor is it a methodology. I did not plan it. It happened with Jabar and others because I was not submitting my time to continually worrying about how the ‘fieldwork’ was going – I hope the funding boards and potential employers don’t read this! Events and situations take over. The ‘fieldwork’ collapses bit by bit every day, but something more interesting and important takes over.
But that only happens if you are prepared to expose yourself to others. We anthropologists tend to rely on others exposing themselves to us, their ways of being and their lives. However, where I was I needed the help of others to get through some difficult situations. I was exposed. Slowly, I let people into my life as they let me into theirs so that I was no longer an ‘I’ functioning in the lives of others. Empathy and understanding resides in that very slow entangling of lives with others, I think …
Byler: At the beginning of the article you make the distinction between precariousness as a theory (you say it’s not this for Judith Butler) and as a methodology which is attendant to the frailty and limits of human sensibilities. What are some of the issues at stake in making this distinction – particularly in terms of ethics?
Al-Mohammad: A theory of ‘precariousness’ would claim the term as one of, or the predicate by which to understand the ‘human subject’. Take the classical definition of human-being: the being with logos. All we would do in the theoretical picture is to swap the predicate ‘logos’ with ‘precariousness’ – though with some qualifications and fine-tuning. Fine. But plenty of people have done that in that history of ideas. Sticking with the Western traditions (yes, let us not forget they are multiple), you have figures such as Hamann and Herder in the Romantic tradition who claim that what it is to be a human is not a positive claim about its nature but precisely about what human-being is not – i.e. it’s biological under specialization. Then, of course, you have in Hegel’s naturalism a claim along the lines that life itself is inextricably bound up with what it lacks – that is, its identity is at one with its negation.
It is not as if we are short of such theorizing about the intimacy of ‘the human’ to its limits, frailty, negation, and so on. What we are short of is a way of attending to life without begging a metaphysics of what that life is, how it should be understood, delimited and distinguished from other phenomena. ‘Precariousness’ does not impose such a metaphysics, nor to my taste should it. It is also not a claim about what the bedrock of sociality is – in other words, no spades will be turning. It is, rather, a way into phenomena. That way in which one enters and decides to open up the world for anthropological engagement and reflection has quite a determining role on where you end up. Where I did not want to end up is a ‘theory’ or a ‘this is what the Basrans/Iraqis think’. Thinking and moving ‘precariously’ certainly made that eventuality or conclusion very unlikely.
In terms of ethics, the intellectual and ethical burden of anthropology is not only to push and develop the ways in which we think and talk of the world, but to push in ways responsive to the experiences and demands of the contexts we toil within. ‘Theory’, in a rather limited sense, is not great at that type of responsiveness as it can paint with too broad a stroke.
Elsewhere I put it that theory in that closed sense responds to or deals in ‘what’ questions: what is the constitution of the world/person/object/matter? ‘Precariousness’ is more about the ‘how’: how is a life lived? How does a life make its way in the world? The responses to ‘how’ questions have great import if one does not privilege the ‘what’ type of question, in the sense that no ‘what’ question precedes them – that is, there is no logic of life that comes before its living. More importantly, the ‘how’ questions – how should I live my life? how are lives lived? – seem to me eminently ethical in that the locus of our interest is not forms and structures, but on how people make their way in the world. That ‘how’ might be the closest thing we get to bedrock.
Byler: In Arthur Kleinman’s view there is often a violence inherent in how we speak or write about the suffering of others. He argues that by subjecting suffering to theorization we delegitimize the existential experience of suffering itself; instead he thinks ethnographers of suffering should describe “what is at stake for particular participants in particular situations” (1995: 98 in M. Jackson 2005:153). Does this approach to suffering resonate with your work?
Al-Mohammad: A suspicion of theorizing is intrinsic to good, interesting, insightful theory. But, I think one should go further and really try to think of whether the telos of anthropology, good and important anthropology, should necessarily be ‘theory’. It’s a big business theory so one can too easily lose the phenomena one is investigating by submitting it to the machinery of theorizing. But, descriptions and getting what is at stake for sufferers … hmmmm … We tried all this, haven’t we? Thicker descriptions, longer descriptions, more intimate, more focused descriptions … the tighter we locked into an experience the more we lost the thing we tried to describe.
It is not clear, and it never will be, I am sure of that, what the boundaries of suffering are. Hence, to whom does the fidelity lie when looking at suffering? Suffering creates these very strange gatherings and dispersals of sociality and affect. It is maybe inappropriate to pin ‘suffering’ on a ‘suffering subject’, or to attempt to get past the atomism, one pins it on a ‘community of suffering’ as if that has resolved anything. It might seem an easy case of my fidelities lying simply with Jabar in the article, and of course they did. But I had fidelities to many others involved in trying to get Jabar back alive. But, to take that short quote you cite, “what is at stake for particular participants in particular situations”, when it comes to suffering who is it that is clear about what is ‘at stake’? Part of what comes with suffering, or many forms of it anyway, is not just brutal violence and pain, but a sense of one not knowing where to place such experiences within the ‘space of reasons’, and knowing what futures, if any, are possible.
I think the framing of an ‘event’ or ‘moment’ helps here. The locus of attention is not on one person, but how an event takes in the lives of others, but also how others still cannot be brought into this gathering or collection.
Byler: How do you wrestle with issues surrounding personal sensitivity and whose experience to prioritize?
Al-Mohammad: It is a tough and horrible issue. It would be wonderful to just have a readymade answer to dismiss it. But one cannot; indeed, one should not. My short answer on this, and there is a longer one which would be many pages long, is that I could not write about these types of experiences if they were not my own, in some sense. Jabar does not have the copyright or trademark on his ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’; it was ours: Jabar’s, his friends and family. We are back to that problem of the boundaries of pain and suffering.
Writing about experiences does not mean one has ‘prioritized’ them. How many times have we all been to conferences or met anthropologists who tell you of what they really want to write about, but do not, or cannot. Also, doing life-histories, or focusing on an event implicitly draws in years of experiences one has not written about but which constitute the background against which these stories and events can become intelligible and meaningful.
But personal sensitivity is a big question. You have to wrestle and wrestle with it, and you should never really be at peace with what you have produced. However, although having a stake in the suffering you write and think about does not give you the ‘authority’ to do what you please, it does stop one from thinking of people as ‘victims’ or exemplars of wider systems or processes of violence and suffering.
Byler: In his recent book The Soul at Work Franco ‘Bifo’ Birardi has identified a social class in late- capitalism as ‘the precariat.’ I’m wondering how the phenomenon of precariousness which you identified in Iraq articulates with a politics of distribution. Is the kind of exposure you saw in Iraq unique to the Global South, to warscapes, or is it something that we can track in various forms across class, race and gender divides?
Al-Mohammad: That phrase ‘Global South’, it grates on me every time I read it or hear it. A dear friend said to me: it’s meant to. It didn’t help very much.
Back to this question: this is why I say that ‘precariousness’ is not a theory; it’s not the new thing we should all be citing and running around trying to find in PNG or wherever. Of course there are people out there saying that precariousness, of some form or another, is the new thing. For someone like Zizek it’s the poverty and uncertainty of the Favelas or the poor of the new mega-cities who constitute the new proletariat. Along similar lines to Berardi, economist Guy Standing talks of ‘the precariat’, a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, limited access to education and training, and limited prospects for the future.
That would be the positive identification of ‘precariousness’ as the key predicate of new subjectivities, or our contemporary historical moment.
However, ‘precariousness’ as a mode of comporting to phenomena is about engaging with the social and life itself as a much more fraught affair which people are continually having to deal with and respond to. It shows how enigmatic the social is to the very people we turn to to get answers about what the social is: how it is; its ethics, politics, and systems of organization; death, its meanings and practices … Hegel has a wonderful attitude about this, and I think it shows some of the virtues of thinking and comporting to precariousness - the original quote is too long, so I will slightly butcher it for brevity –: ‘the mystery of the Ancients Egyptians was a mystery unto the Ancients themselves’. That is, do not make the mistake of thinking there is somewhere in the social where the enigma of the social itself can be, code like, cracked.
Further Reading from Al-Mohammad
2010a "Relying on one's tribe: A snippet of life in Basra since the 2003 invasion." Anthropology Today, 26(6):23-6.
2010b Towards an Ethics of Being-With: Intertwinements of Life in Post-Invasion Basra. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 75(4):425 - 46.
2011 "Less methodology, more epistemology please: the body, metaphysics and 'certainty'." Critique of Anthropology, 31(3):121-38.
Forthcoming. "Ravelling/Unravelling: being-in-the-world and falling-out-of-the-world," in T. Ingold and G. Palsson (eds.), Biosocial Becomings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Al-Ali, N. S. and Pratt, N. C. 2009. What kind of liberation?: women and the occupation of Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Allawi, A. A. 2007. The occupation of Iraq: winning the war, losing the peace. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Barakat, Sultan 2005 "Post-Saddam Iraq: Deconstructing a Regime, Reconstructing a Nation." Third World Quarterly 26(4/5):571–591.
Benson, P. and O'neill, K. L. 2007. "Facing Risk: Levinas, Ethnography, and Ethics." Anthropology of Consciousness, 18(2):29-55.
Boyle, Michael J. 2009 "Bargaining, Fear, and Denial: Explaining Violence against Civilians in Iraq 2004–2007." Terrorism and Political Violence 21(2):261—287.
Butler, J. 2004. Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso.
Butler, J. 2005. Giving an account of oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.
Butler, J. 2009. Frames of war: when is life grievable? London: Verso.
Crossley, Nick 1995 "Body Techniques, Agency and Intercorporeality: On Goffman’s Relations in Public." Sociology 29(1):133–149.
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Das, V. 2007. Life and words: violence and the descent into the ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Davis, E. 2005. Memories of state: politics, history, and collective identity in modern Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Desjarlais, R. 1994. "Struggling Along: The Possibilities for Experience Among the Homeless Mentally Ill." American Anthropologist, 96(4):886-901.
Dodge, Toby 2005 "Chapter One: Order and Violence in Post-Saddam Iraq." The Adelphi Papers 45(372):9–23.
Faris, Amer 2009 Red Flags: Memoir of an Iraqi Conscript Trapped between Enemy Lines in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.
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Foucault, Michel 1991 "Questions of Method." In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality—with Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault. G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller, eds. Pp. 73–86. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
Freud, Sigmund 1987  "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death." In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol 14. J. Strachey, ed. Pp. 273–303. London: Penguin.
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Han, C. 2012. Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Human Rights Watch 2009 “They Want Us Exterminated”: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq: Human Rights Watch.
Ismael, T. Y. and Fuller, M. 2009. "The disintegration of Iraq: the manufacturing and politicization of sectarianism." International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, 2(3):443-73.
Ismael, T. Y. and Ismael, J. S. 2010. "The sectarian state in Iraq and the new political class." International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, 4(3):339-56.
Jackson, M. 2005. Existential Anthropology: Events, Exigencies, and Events. New York & Oxford: Berghahn.
Jackson, M. D. 2012. Between One and One Another. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lévinas, E. 1988. Existence and existents. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Lévinas, E. 1990. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Lubkemann, S. C. 2008. Culture in chaos: an anthropology of the social condition in war.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lubkemann, Stephen, and Danny Hoffman 2005 "Warscape Ethnography in West Africa and the Anthropology of 'Events'." Anthropological Quarterly 78(2):315–327.
McGovern, M. 2011. Making War in Cote d'Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mulhall, S. 2009. The wounded animal: J. M. Coetzee and the difficulty of reality in literature and philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm 1968 The Will to Power.R.J. Hollingdale and W.A. Kaufmann, transl. New York: Vintage Books.
Pellet, Peter 2000 "Sanctions: Killing a Country and a People." In Iraq under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War. A. Arnove and A. Abunimah, eds. Pp. 185–204. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.
Rapport, N. 2003. I am dynamite: an alternative anthropology of power. London: Routledge.
Robben, A. C. G. M. (ed.) 2010. Iraq at a distance: what anthropologists can teach us about the war. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Scarry, Elaine 1985 The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1992. Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil.Berkeley: University of California Press.
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1995. "The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology." Current Anthropology, 36(3):409-40.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 2008 "A Talent for Life: Reflections on Human Vulnerability and Resilience." Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 73(1):25—56.
Stewart, Kathleen 2007 Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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Turner, Victor Witter 1996  Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life. Oxford and Washington, D.C.: Berg.
Wehrey, Frederic M. 2010 The Iraq Effect: The Middle East after the Iraq War. Santa Monica: RAND.
Weiss, Gail 1999 Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. New York: Routledge.