A call to rebuild Iraq from its soul on up

Times Staff Writer

The water's slowly coming back on in Baghdad, oil is flowing again and political exiles are returning to jockey for roles in a new Iraqi government. But rebuilding the country will mean more than simply repaving roads, reopening hospitals or even holding elections, Joseph Braude argues in his just-published book, a sort of blueprint for Iraq's reconstruction. It is a herculean enterprise that will require the services not only of engineers and economists but of artists, journalists, filmmakers and other creative entrepreneurs.

These contributions, Braude believes, must -- and will -- come not only from within the country of 24 million but from the 4 million Iraqis living in exile, mainly in Iran and Jordan but also throughout Europe and the United States, and from a variety of nongovernmental organizations. Though less urgent than restoring electricity or building bridges, Iraq's cultural resurrection can't be delayed for long if the country is to recover and someday prosper, he maintains.

One way to accomplish that, he thinks, is to enable Iraqis to examine and articulate the extraordinary experiences they've endured in recent years -- a natural project in a culture famous for its tale-spinners, including the legendary Scheherazade.

"I think that opening up and telling the stories of what this country has been through is very important, ranging from oral history projects that can be done under the aegis of universities to films that tell stories," says Braude, speaking by phone from his home in Cambridge, Mass. "I think that narrative-building is a big part of state-building."

Taking in the recent scenes of Baghdad's looted museums and libraries, Braude knew that the destruction would add another layer of difficulty to Iraq's rehabilitation, which he outlines in "The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World" (Basic Books). As a fluent speaker of Arabic, Persian and Hebrew, the 28-year-old Iraqi American author also knew how the Arab media were spinning the story of Iraq's cultural ravishment.

"There was a program on Al Jazeera recently, last week, that started to float the idea that this was an American Zionist plot to erase Iraqi history in order to begin to revise it as part of a radical cultural engineering project," Braude says. "And the comparison was made with the Mongols, where there was a famous story about how all the libraries of Baghdad, their books were thrown into the Tigris and the river became colored blue [from the ink]. No matter what, the people who want to make these arguments are going to find images and find things to allege."

An Ivy League-educated business and government consultant, Braude has both a strong personal and professional interest in Iraq's future. Born and raised in New England but descended from a prominent line of Baghdadi Jewish merchants and scholars, he hopes eventually to return to his ancestral homeland and contribute in some way to its postwar rebirth. Though he has never visited Iraq, he has traveled extensively in the Middle East, and in researching his book he conducted hundreds of interviews with Iraqi refugees.

As a specialist in Middle Eastern languages and cultures, Braude also is increasingly in demand for his regional expertise. Asked if returning exiles might be regarded by other Iraqis as carpetbaggers or opportunists, he offers a soft-spoken but confident reply. "Well," he says, "a carpetbagger is someone who goes to a foreign place to try to make money off it. I'm actually talking about people who, in this case, would come to an impoverished country and the cities of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul with their own funding. It's very clear that Iraqis distinguish between people who are coming as guests and people who are coming as occupiers. It's part of the rhetoric even. They keep saying, 'He came on the back of a tank.' "

One possibility Braude is considering: Starting up an independent newspaper in Baghdad. He envisions a bilingual publication, in Arabic and English.

With the very first sentence of "The New Iraq" -- "This book is not about Saddam Hussein" -- Braude telegraphs one of his central themes: that while Iraq has been crippled and creatively stifled by decades of brutal dictatorship, compounded by a decade of economic sanctions, the country has a wealth of resources that will help it emerge from Hussein's shadow. The book is partially aimed at broadening the perspective of Americans who may know very little about Iraq apart from Hussein.

"I find that especially since Sept. 11 they have begun to read a lot more about the Middle East," Braude says. "But yes, there are certainly stereotypes that Americans have that are based on current events and are focused on conflict. So they might, for example, think that Iraqis are desert nomads, primitive, anti-American, militant, terrorists. When in fact the Iraqis are resilient, creative, primarily urban -- it's a country 70% urban. My view is that most Iraqis are also not anti-American."

If Americans are paying more attention to Iraq, most Iraqis have long been sealed off from the rest of the planet, Braude says. "It's kind of ironic that the traditional backwaters of Iraq are more globalized than its traditional centers of cosmopolitan life. The Kurdish north has satellite dishes and Internet cafes, whereas the south and center, you [would] go to jail for five years if you [owned] a satellite dish. And unlike Iran, which has a similar law on the books, they actually [enforced] it in Iraq."

Today, he continues, a generation gap separates middle-aged and older Iraqis, who are likely to be more "well-traveled, well-read and multilingual," from their children who grew up under Hussein.

But even in culturally parched times such as these, Braude suggests, Iraqis can draw strength from a venerable tradition, a storytelling genre known as al-Faraj Ba'd al-Shidda, which means "joy after distress." These stories are sometimes lurid, with graphic violence, and "they all have a very dark element to them," Braude says. "But there is this sort of deus ex machina at the end of each story that kind of demonstrates that bad people can get their just deserts, that you can have a little bit of luck or a turn of fate that can lead you in the right direction."

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