124 of 127 people found the following review helpful
Do you REALLY want to know what it's like in Iraq? Probably not - All the more reason to read this book. Rory or "Seyyed Rory" as he is called throughout most of the book has written a well-penned, deadpan account of his eleven months or so as an administrator: Governor, Deputy Governor etc., with the Brits in the South of Iraq. Early on in the book, he reflects:
"I had never believed that mankind, unless overawed by a strong government, would fall inevitably into violent chaos. Societies were orderly, I thought, because human cultures were orderly. Written laws and policy played only a minor role. But Maysan (the province to which he's assigned) made me reconsider." P.78
Thus, we have the quotes from Machiavelli at the beginning of each section bearing, in some way, on the Byzantine, disorderly, well, mess in which he finds himself in each particular situation, with Sheiks, militias, clerics, and divisions and sub-divisions and sub-sub-divisions of each.
Those with axes to grind on either side probably won't fancy this book. It doesn't have the headline grabbing title of "Fiasco" or "The End of Iraq" - Furthermore, he depicts good Brits and bad Brits, good Yanks and bad Yanks, good Iraqis and bad Iraqis, as well as some who are at some times courageous and kind and at others cowardly and corrupt.-In other words, the human condition, not some idealised vision of the (all too many) sides. - All the more reason for those with said axes to drop them and read this book.
Yes, I agree that this book does not have the emotional pull of The Places in Between, Rory's earlier book. But this lack goes pari passu with the situation he is in. He is not on an epic quest with a lovable dog he has adopted.-But, rather, trying to make sense of a political muddle.
I agree with the other reviewers that the droll, British understated humour is a saving grace here. - You will often find yourself laughing in spite of yourself, because this humour is based on not very pleasant facts, such as Rory's visit with the soi-disant "Prince of The Marshes" to a girls' high school refurbished by the CPA with Coalition funds, the contractor for which apparently has (as does almost everyone described herein) skimmed a bit of the funding for himself. The Prince turns to Rory and matter-of-factly says: "Now I need to find the contractor who did this work -tell me his name, and I will rip his tongue out."-End of chapter.
This is the first book I've seen on Iraq since the invasion that doesn't have some preconceived notion to pound into the reader's head. It is worth reading for that fact alone. As for what one should come away with from this book as far as notions about what to do or not do in Iraq, this book will be singularly (and delightfully) unhelpful. As the Oxford-educated student of history, Rory Stewart, puts it here:
"History has few unambiguous lessons." P.46
71 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2006
In August of 2003, Rory Stewart (known to the Arabs of southern Iraq as Seyyd Rory) "took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad to ask for a job from the Director of Operations". This was four months after the Coalition invasion. Shortly thereafter Stewart wound up as deputy governate coordinator of Maysan. He became, at age 30, the de-facto governor of a province of 850,000 in southern Iraq, in the immediate aftermath of the war. This is his story.
And an almost incredible story it is - engaging, compelling, and ultimately devastating.
Stewart refrains from analysis and simply tells it like it was, leaving it up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I can't escape the word; the result is, well, simply devastating.
The author navigates two opposing worlds - on the one hand the intricate web of medieval tribal and religious affiliations in the local populations, on the other, the hapless and naïve bureaucracy of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
The following description of the composition of the provisional council that Stewart negotiated into being conveys the flavor of the environment in the province: "I knew these people well. Most had killed others; all had lost close relatives. Some wanted a state modeled on seventh-century Arabia, some wanted something that resembled even older, pre-Islamic tribal systems. Some were funded by the Iranian secret service; others sold oil on the local black market, ran protection rackets, looted government property, and smuggled drugs. Most were linked to construction companies that made immense profits by cheating us. Two were first cousins and six were from a single tribe; some had tried to assassinate each other. This dubious gathering included and balanced, however, all the most powerful factions in the province, and I believed that if anyone could secure the province, they could".
And then there are the bureaucrats, dispensing pearls of misguided wisdom from their hardened position in the Green Zone. "An American Arabist governor who favored broad brimmed hats and was rumored to carry a pair of revolvers said `This is not just a military struggle. This is an ideological struggle. We need to engage with Islamicization and Arab socialism, otherwise we might just produce a well-furnished dictatorship'. Strategic Planning replied with a speech about `best practice gaps analysis and privatization'."
This sense of strategic disconnect, initially just eerie, approaches the level of black comedy as the action unfolds.
Through it all Stewart shows himself to be an elegant writer and a very keen observer. This is from his description of a meeting with a young Sadrist cleric: "The beard, which grew over his white starched collar, had tight curls as soft as adolescent down. His feet were half out of his clogs, revealing the hair around his pallid ankles. He was younger than me, and his high black turban seemed over-large. Not glancing at me but instead letting his large dark eyes drift over the cement floor, he talked quietly and slowly, as if he were contemplating not the words but deeper ideas, to which the words could only point".
Highly recommended reading for those seeking understanding as to what went wrong in Iraq.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2006
In his story of his 11 months as Governor of an Iraqi provence, Rory Stewart has managed to capture the spirit of the time and place, the many faceted culture of Iraq, and give us a clear and unadorned picture of what it was like to be there - trying to put the pieces of a broken society back together.
The tale is told in the first person by a skillful writer who judiciously levens historical background into his story to aid in our understanding of the events and to put them into a broader perspective without slowing down the narrative or burying us with details of ancient kingdoms.
The Sumerian proverb I used as a title is an example of the interesting and appropriate sayings that adorn the begining of each chapter. From Virgil to Machiavelli to T.E. Lawrence, the author enriches his canvas with a deft touch of the wisdom of the ages.
Most of the time, Seyyed Rory (as he was repectfully addressed by the Iraqis - when they weren't shooting at him ;-) presents his story in an even handed, matter of fact way. He seems to be the epitome of the unflappable British civil servant of a century or two earlier (when most of us would be running around screaming in fear or banging our heads against the wall in frustration - keep a stiff upper lip chaps, what ever happens ;-)
And frustrations are many, from lack of water and electricity, to no staff and no actual cash to meet the varied and almost impossible task of helping to govern after the old system was so completely destroyed.
Speaking of frustrations, his monthly meeting in the capital with the CPA administrators are a spectacular example ;-)
I was not impressed with the perforamce of the Coalition Provisional Authority, but it was this quote from a speech given at the monthly governors meeting in the Green Zone that takes the cake: a colonel from Strategic Planning gets up and says "What we are hoping to do is lay out some philosophical underpinnings of a plan.....to begin a journey of discovery for building a more cohesive implementation of plans and policies across the five core areas.."
When one encounters such mindless buzz-word speak at high level meetings, one knows that we're in deep doo-doo.
But this book is not much about the budgets and death rates and the number of schools that have been re-furbished - it is a story about the people the author meets. And they are a varied and fascinating bunch. The Prince of the Marshes (theoretical ruler of the once powerful Marsh Arabs)being one of the most interesting. The jostling for power between the Prince and the various factions; tribal, political, religious makes the authors attempt to reach concensus a Herculean task. He first meets with some success but as the overall security situation deteriorates, everything seem to fall apart.
The hand over ceremony to the locals at the ancient Ziggurat of Ur has particular irony considering the history of tragic events that it has seen.
Throughout the book, the tragedy of the situation is understated, the author has no axe to grind, no political program to advance. He presents no pre-digested interpretations - we are left to form our own conclusions.
When he leaves one of the local leaders comes over to say they wished he could stay. "You are our hero" he declares.
"What are you talking about Asad - why were you firing mortars and trying to kill me 5 weeks ago" replies the author
"Ah, Seyyed Rory," he replied with a grin, "that was nothing personal"
No matter what your political pursuasions are you should read this book to find out what it's REALLY all about in Iraq.
43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
This book was first published by Picador in London in June this year, with the title "Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq". It has now been published in the USA by Harcourt with a new title: "The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq".
The Prince of the Marshes is a tribal leader named Abdul Karim al Muhammadawi, who led a group of Shia men who opposed Saddam Hussein's reign over the marshy territory. This tribe fought with Saddam Hussein's army in the 1990s and until the fall of Saddam's regime. The marshes were drained by Saddam's army as a collective punishment to the tribe, to deprive the tribesmen of their source of food and trade. Writing about the marshes, Rory quotes Azzam Alwash, manager of the Iraq Foundation's New Eden project: "In a few short years, Saddam drained them to allow access for his tanks to establish control in the area. After they were dried, the marshes were burned and villages were destroyed."
The Prince is also known as Abu Hatim, "father of Hatim", even though he never had a son called Hatim.
After the invasion of Iraq by the coalition army, Rory Stewart, seeking employment, sent his resume to the occupying British army, but received no reply. Writes the author: "I had resigned from the Foreign Office, but when the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, I sent in my CV(Curriculum Vitae',resume). No one replied. So in August I took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad to ask for a job from the director of operations. A month later, the Foreign Office asked me to be the deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan, which lies in the marshes just north of the Garden of Eden."
This is how he describes Iraq as he saw it upon his arrival: "But the province on election day looks a little like a police state. There are armed men at checkpoints every few kilometres up the highway; policemen with vehicle-mounted machine-guns are checking IDs on almost every street corner; no civilian vehicles are allowed to move on the streets. This may be part of the reason `security has improved.' Yet despite the checkpoints, which are in place every day, there are still daily car-jackings and roadside bombs, and towards the Iranian border there's drug smuggling, looting, and kidnapping of children."
As in "Places in Between", the author's much acclaimed book, there are quite a few humorous passages in this book also. Writing about a reporter named James Astill, a reporter for the Economist, interviewing an Iraqi: "Astill's longest conversation with an Iraqi in Fallujah was with a man urinating against a wall with a suitcase on his head, and thus unable to move for twenty seconds." Here is an example of the author's wicked sense of humor: In a lounge the author decides to dance with an attractive woman to while away time, and talks with her in Bosnian as he dances. "But I must have bored her with my bad Bosnian, because she turned her back on me and went to join a group of women who, from their build, looked as though they were in the army".
If you wish to know one of the reasons why the invasion of Iraq has turned into a fiasco, you can gleam it from this minor episode. The military officers of the occupying army know very little about the Iraqi people and their culture, and even less about how to deal with and talk to the Iraqi men. They have only contempt for the Iraqi men. Soon after Rory's arrival in Iraq, this is what a British military officer says to a small group of new recruits at the airport, in case they are taken hostage by Arabs: "Since you will be taken hostage by Arabs, it is likely that they will male-rape you." Also, he says something so outrageous that it's quite unprintable in a decent website. Shocking, isn't it, that this is what the British military officers think of Arabs? And now you know why they failed so miserably in Iraq.
To place this book in context, however, I think it is appropriate to say a few words about the author's previous book, which I liked very much. In fact, I quite marveled at it. In the year 2001, the author walked across Afghanistan and wrote an extraordinary travelogue and memoir titled "The Places in Between". It received much acclaim and well-deserved rave reviews. This book, however, didn't grip me the way his "Places in Between" did. There are mainly two reasons for this, I think. Reason number one is that there is no Babur in this book. Babur was an affectionate, orphan mutt that Rory Stewart adopted as a traveling companion - a retired, burly, courageous fighting mastiff, unloved and much abused, earless and tailless, and as big as a "small pony", whose loyalty, affection and bravery gave the book an emotional depth. Babur is sorely missed. Reason number two is that Rory walked across Afghanistan like a pilgrim, visiting remote, barely accessible villages, and met many poor but kind and generous and proud and interesting people. In this book, however, the pilgrim has turned into a bureaucrat working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the change in his status reflects very clearly in his prose. (The generals expect Rory to show the Iraqis who is the real boss, and he is told: Do not promise them anything, deny their requests, and use authoritative voice.)And unlike in Afghanistan where he chose to walk, he now travels by taxis and military vehicles to meet corrupt politicians, crooked warlords, stupid generals, prejudiced and insensitive military officers, and tribal leaders and men with selfish motives.
On the whole, however, "The Prince of the Marshes" is written well. And even though it lacks the sheer dazzle of "The places in Between", it still manages to impress on the reader's mind.
Read it, please.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2006
Rory Stewart's second book, "The Prince of the Marshes", is a superbly written chronicle of his year as a provincial administrator for the Coalition Authority in Iraq during 2003 and 2004. Along with his first book, "The Places In Between", recounting his walking journey, alone, across Afghanistan, it establishes him as possibly the most uniquely talented writer alive today. A multilingual Scotsman, born and raised in Asia, educated at Oxford, a scholar, soldier, diplomat, foreign service administrator, writer, and adventurer extraordinaire. And he is only 33.
After his Afghan trek, Stewart volunteers his services and finds a job as a provincial administrator in the marshlands of Southern Iraq several months after the U.S. takeover. As in his first book, Stewart demonstrates a remarkable ability to interact with a vast array of assorted individuals, sheiks, mullahs, farmers, police, shopowners, etc. His understanding of the culture and mores of these people, allow us to gain insights that other books on Iraq or Afghanistan have been unable to provide. Stewart's descriptions of people and situations are brillantly concise, sometimes taking only a couple of paragraphs to convey what is important. Rarely judgemental, he prefers to describe, letting us draw our own conclusions. He is deeply compassionate and sympathetic towards the people he deals with, but he does not let his humanity override common sense.
I would warn anyone who has read and loved "The Places In Between" to not expect a similar book. His first book is a solo adventure tale that becomes an extremely emotional journey. I think it is a classic. "The Prince of the Marshes" is an enthralling book of politics and culture clashes, with a cast of characters, sieges, gunfights, along with many hilarious situations. By any measure, this book should be read.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2006
Rory Stewart's "The Prince of the Marshes" is a refreshing change from the spate of simplistic Bush-bashing books about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath which have appeared over the past few years. This is not to say that the Bush administration is not deserving of severe criticism over its invasion of Iraq and subsequent failure (so far at least) to bring about a successful "democratic regime change" in that country. But I will say that the vast majority of the books published thus far that I have read about the whole pitiful situation appear so obviously partisan and politically motivated that their objectivity can be seriously questioned. This is not the case with Stewart's book; it is, rather, a "journal" of his experiences during his time in Iraq as an administrator in the Coalition Provisional Authority. It is to his credit that he refrains from explicit Bush-bashing and partisanship and confines himself to a telling of the events of the occupation of Iraq as he perceived them on the ground, upfront and personal, particularly in the southern areas where he was stationed.
The author does not deal with the decision to invade Iraq, nor with the motivations, justifications and other issues leading up to that decision. Furthermore, he does not discuss the strategies or tactics used during the initial military assault. He confines himself to a narrative of events as he encountered them; summarily, he is simply providing us with an experiential panorama of the occupation of Iraq and its problems from his own perspective. So those readers looking for an anti-American or anti-coalition diatribe or the now all-too-common denunciation of "Yankee imperialism" will have to look elsewhere. Stewart does not pass definitive judgment on the Iraq adventure, although astute readers may certainly draw some conclusions regarding the efficacy of the enterprise from many of the stories he relates.
I have to confess to some degree of admiration for Mr. Stewart. He was a civilian administrator in what was basically a "war zone." He was at times "under fire" and yet he steadfastly stood by his post and, if we are to believe him -- and why not? -- performed his duties in a manner reminiscent of the most accomplished diplomat. Back in the very early 1980s, I was entering San Jose, Costa Rica, when all the lights went out -- all over that large capital city. My taxi driver thought that the country was being invaded by Nicaraguan rebels, who had been threatening an invasion. My hotel was locked down and dark and my taxi driver had to bang on the door to gain admittance for me. I recall how scared I was, an American in a foreign country. Later, I landed at the airport in Guatemala City, Guatemala, only to find it surrounded by the army and under martial law. I experienced the same pangs of fear. In neither case was I ever "under fire." Stewart's experiences in being threatened by armed attacks far outweigh my little misadventures. And he was a mere thirty years old at the time; on the other hand, I was an experienced traveler (and political scientist) in my forties!
Most Western readers of "The Prince of the Marshes" will probably be surprised by the complexities of the Iraqi cultural and political arena as described by the author. I suspect that much of the US-coalition's failure in Iraq thus far is due to a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the intricacies of a society that is so diverse and traditionally different from that known in the Western tradition. Stewart does his best to acquaint us with these differences and he is no neophyte regarding these matters. He was born in Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia, spent time as an infantry officer in the armed forces, served in the British embassies in Indonesia and Yugoslavia, and in 2002 decided to walk (yes, on foot!) across Afghanistan. How many of us would contemplate doing that today?
We in the Western world are somewhat grandiose about "theories" regarding "what" sociopolitical principles, institutions, and policies "ought" to be in place in the development of the world's nations. We apparently want to "force" our concepts of democracy onto other "less enlightened" peoples without considering their historical experiences and cultural traditions and, moreover, we want to do that "now." This form of hubris, in my opinion, is not only ill-advised but self-defeating. Stewart, I think, hints at this problem when he states: "Ten years in the Islamic world and in other places that had recently emerged from conflict had left me suspicious of theories produced in seminars in Western capitals and of foreigners in a hurry." Did the Bush administration really "know" what it was doing when it decided to invade Iraq in order to bring "democracy" to the Iraqi people? I suspect not. And much evidence of that is apparent in Stewart's book, even if he doesn't explicitly acknowledge it.
"The Prince of the Marshes" is not a "scholarly" book and it is obviously not written by a Western academician or self-professed "intellectual." That is probably its most important feature. Through the eyes of someone who was there, who appears to have no particular political agenda and who is telling it like he saw it, the reader gets an intimate glimpse into a contemporary conflict where the stakes are high and the outcome is yet to be determined. I can only ask: "Why aren't people such as Rory Stewart, for example, with his range of expertise and experience in the Middle East region, consulted by the leaders of the world's most powerful nations BEFORE a decision is made to interfere in another country's future or, more importantly, to invade a country for reasons which later might be termed "dubious."
This book is must reading for all those interested in current events. It is very readable and surprisingly entertaining at times. Stewart is to be congratulated for bringing his personal experiences to the attention of all of us. Highly, very highly, recommended.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
If the Iraq war interests you in any way, even if you are a partisan of the pro-war or anti-war persuasion, read this book.
Rory Stewart was a member of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority. He functioned as governor of Amara province in Southern Iraq - a semi-swampland where the Tigras and Euphrates come together. His tale is a tale of success, failure, friendship, war, violence, trust and betrayal. In other words, his is a story of real people in a very difficult situation with the compounded challenges of religious, language and cultural barriers.
Here's what you learn from this book:
-Success in Iraq is best measured on a relative scale and will ultimately have to be determined by the Iraqis themselves - on their terms with their leaders.
-Iran is definitely active in Iraq, as current news from the Bush administration suggests. If Rory Stewart says Iran was involved in his province's politics, I believe him.
-Lots of money was wasted in Iraq, buts lots of projects were completed.
-The Italian armed forces perform under fire according to their international reputation (not worth much since the fall of Rome in 476 AD), as do the Brits (professional).
-The CPA did not seem to have a great game plan going in, which is a real disappointment to me since the war was planned well in advance. The CPA upper echelons seemed pretty well removed from the realities of day to day operations, even to the point of denying that Stewart and his officials were being shelled when he called his superiors to ask for help. It reminded me of some of the insanity of some of the early episodes of M*A*S*H.
-There was no clear command structure between the CPA military and the CPA civilian leadership.
I give this one a grade of "A"
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Rory Stewart's book is a welcome addition to the increasing oeuvre on the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the efforts by that country of establishing a functioning stable democracy. The most useful aspect of Stewart's work is that it is based on his administrative work in the Shi'ite southern part of Iraq (e.g., assistant governor in Amara in Maysan Province and an administrator later in Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province). Many of the better works on Iraq have focused more on Baghdad, the Green Zone, and headquarters activities (e.g., The Assassin's Gate; Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Hubris, Blind into Baghdad, Fiasco, and State of Denial). This work shows that the situation was at least as dismal outside of the capital city.
Stewart began as an assistant governor in Maysan province. His tale, wryly told, demonstrates the crazy quilt political context. The Prince of the Marshes (an autocrat from the old Marsh region of southern Iraq), Iranian loyal Shi'ites, and Sadrists (followers of Muqtada al-Sadr) competed with one another for power. In addition, Sheikhs loyal to their own tribes intruded themselves into the process. The end result: A plurality of interests and power centers, sometimes allying with one another and sometimes competing with one another.
Stewart straightforwardly describes his arrival in Maysan province and his efforts to try to develop a functioning provincial governance structure. Simple tasks like selecting police leadership often led to fierce debate across the various factions, with threats routinely made. This, in the context, as Stewart puts it (page 28) with "Iraqis suspicious of our motives, disappointed by our performance, and often contemptuous." Stewart observes that one had to create the image of having power to get things done, so he very soon had to (page 34) "claim authority and bluff people into falling in step." Stewart notes clearly that he was placed into an uncertain position and had to make decisions not fully understanding who the players were and the dynamics among them. But he had to create an air of competence and certainty in order to get things done. It is no coincidence that most of his chapters begin with an appropriate quotation from Machiavelli.
Poignant are his comments about the cluelessness from Coalition leaders in Baghdad and the difficulty of getting support for infrastructure development and the like. Also poignant are his observations about the Shi'ite south becoming more "fundamental" in applying Shi'ite doctrine to everyday life, including killing a female university student because she chose to wear jeans (page 396). The book portrays a long arc into increasing chaos and a strengthening of religious domination in people's everyday lives, as theocracy begin to develop.
An important book, once more illustrating the folly of the American, British, et al. incursion into a country without a full understanding of the situation "on the ground."
40 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2006
Harcourt should be ashamed of the slipshod job they did in presenting this book to a public eager to read more of Rory Stewart following the superb The Places In Between. I am appalled at the number of typos, grammatical errors, characters and towns whose names differ from page to page, and other signs of editorial shoddiness that make this read like a draft manuscript rather than the polished piece it should have been. Stewart put his life on the line to serve a cause he believed in. The least his publisher could have done is shown a similar commitment to high standards.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Scottish author Rory Stewart is barely in his thirties, yet his risk-taking experiences in the Middle East have made for enthralling books that bring palpable immediacy to this war-torn region without the burden of a specific political agenda. His first book, "The Places in Between", which I just read this past summer, is an impressive travel journal that provides a humanistic portrayal of the Afghanis. This one explores the complexities of the Iraqi cultural and political arena during his turbulent year with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as deputy governor of the southern Iraqi provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar from September 2003 until the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to the Iraqis at the end of June 2004.
His mission was to introduce democratic processes shortly after coalition forces entered Iraq, obviously no small feat and one that forced him to develop creative strategies hinging precariously on a network of local officials to carry out his plans. Dealing with the idiosyncrasies of an impenetrable sociopolitical landscape was an ongoing and seemingly insurmountable challenge, but Stewart realized he had to find allies among those he feared the most, the militant clerics and Iranian secret police who were wielding an influence on the local political parties. In fact, the book's title identifies one particular warlord, a leader of a tribe of Marsh Arabs. The prince was indicative of the ever-shifting loyalties that Stewart faced because maintaining personal power was the absolute priority even if deep-seeded anti-Saddam sentiments would lead the author to think perhaps naively that mutual trust could be built.
The political battleground in Iraq is a maze of mythic proportions. Not only did the author face the basic discord between the Shiites and Sunnis, but he was held accountable to build a functional government in an area with fifty-four different political parties, twenty local tribes and a number of influential figures that could mobilize any part of those groups at any given time. Stewart also represented the CPA, a body which the suspicious Iraqis kept their distance. He remains bracingly honest about his various failures to make headway in removing the renegade tribes in charge, yet his go-for-broke approach did result in Dhi Qar coming under the control of Iraqi forces. Even more impressively in the book, he does not use his experiences as an opportunity to malign the Bush administration for their myopic decisions or the U.S. military for their misguided assaults. Much like his first book, Stewart remains strictly in the first person, and from his comprehensive account, we get a vivid picture of the faltering CPA and the chances for long-term democracy in Iraq. This is another strongly recommended book from Stewart.