Seeing the Iraqi Diaspora through US Empire

Iraqis in London constitute what Nadine Naber calls a “diaspora of empire”: the history of their displacement sheds light on the entangled history of Iraq and the United States in the region (Naber 2012). As a less explored issue by anthropologists of diaspora, Iraqi diaspora is a strong proof of how US interventions in Iraq, particularly since the early 1960s, have culminated in Iraqi’s “long-distance nationalism” with their country.    

With the exception of the expulsion of Jews from Iraq in 1950, Iraqis did not leave Iraq in large numbers. A few thousands of people from minorities—such as Chaldeans, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, and Turkomans—left the country in the first half of the twentieth century, and formed Iraqi enclaves in the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia. However, it was not until the late 1970s that London saw the emergence of an Iraqi community. This history of displacement is closely linked to the history of US intervention in Iraq, which spans US support of the Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), the imposition of sanctions on Iraq from 1990–2003 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War of 1991 and the decision to keep Hussein in power for fear of the establishment of an Islamist government in Iraq, and different instances of bombardment of Iraq throughout the 1990s, and finally the occupation of Iraq in 2003. Iraqis have fled their home country to escape authoritarianism, wars, economic sanctions, imperial interventions, and violence.

Iraq and the United States are no longer separate entities, but are both entangled in an unequal power relation that has reconfigured the lives of Iraqis.
As the US occupation of Iraq proceeded and the death toll of the spiraling violence rose drastically, Iraqi casualties were reduced to statistics, which warranted little attention from Western audiences. Given that it was not possible to do fieldwork in Iraq in 2006, I decided to work with Iraqis in London. Fieldwork with an Iraqi diasporic community provided me with a venue to humanize Iraqis, and shed light on their hopes, disappointments, losses, and lives. As I listened to Iraqis, I realized that their narratives of displacement, as well as their general life trajectories, were deeply enmeshed in the US intervention in Iraq since the early 1960s. Iraqis in London, like those in Iraq, are “imperial subjects” whose lives are inseparable from the histories of United States in the region. These imperial trajectories also became dynamic terrains in which political, gendered, religious, and class differences were inscribed, invoked, and reconfigured in Iraq.

A transnational approach to Iraqi exile de-centers the nation-state as the only lens through which to understand political events and histories of displacement. Instead, it emphasizes global connections at two levels. One the one hand, Iraq and the United States are no longer separate entities, but are both entangled in an unequal power relation that has reconfigured the lives of Iraqis. The United States has had a direct impact on political developments in Iraq and the lives of Iraqis through its policies supporting regime changes and perpetuation of wars, while Iraq has been essential to US economic interests through export of oil and import of arms. On the other hand, despite decades of exile, Iraqis in London formed diasporic connections with Iraq. While the national space of Iraq was closed to Iraqis in London prior to 2003, due to the inability to visit Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s reign, these Iraqis were tied to Iraq through their thoughts, family, friendships, cultural productions about Iraq, idealistic reminiscences of “good old days,” and news from Iraq. More importantly, the Iraqi diasporic community in London played an important role in shaping post-Saddam Iraq through their agitation for regime change in Iraq with different US.administrations, and their endorsement of a sectarian discourse that reorganized the political landscape in Iraq after the fall of Hussein according a sectarian quota system.

Haunted by the destruction of their countries, Iraqis in London grappled with notions of selfhood, the construction of home, and the imagination of the past.
The US invasion of Iraq consolidated transnational networks, although it also undermined possibilities for a prosperous Iraq. For example, regime change opened new channels of communication for the Iraqi community in London, through the establishment of new Iraqi satellite television station that reached diasporic communities, as well as online newspapers and websites that became forums of exchange between Iraqis in Iraq and the diaspora. Moreover, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime provided Iraqis in London with opportunities to visit Iraq for the first time in decades. However, the US invasion also foreclosed possibilities, most prominently by undermining the imagination of Iraq as a progressive, prosperous country. Iraqis watched the spiraling sectarian violence and felt a sense of disappointment and bewilderment, realizing that the utopian past they yearned for no longer existed. Visits to Iraq only furthered this sense of disenchantment and internal alienation. In addition, the violence brought about the US invasion, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, meant that Iraqis in London had to financially support their relatives in Iraq, furthering the transnational networks between a diasporic community and its homeland.

Iraqis in London, haunted by the destruction of their countries, grappled with notions of selfhood, the construction of home, and the imagination of the past. They developed discourses about their lives in Iraq that aimed to undermine the stereotypic perception about Iraq in Western media as a place inhabited by Sunni, Shi‘is, and Kurds who could not outgrow their primordial hatred of each other. They reminisced about anti-colonial struggles in the 1940s and 1950s, vibrant political and social spaces defined by demands for equality and women’s liberation, radical social reforms, and dreams for a prosperous future for everyone. They also narrated stories about death and horror during the CIA-backed first Ba‘th coup, nostalgia for the past, and radical political transformations with the rise of the one-party regime in Iraq following the second Ba‘th coup in 1968. These narratives of nostalgia and anguish were accompanied by stories about flight and expulsion from Iraq, deaths of family members and close friends, life in exile, yearnings to see Iraq again, and efforts to build homes in diaspora and define Iraqi subjectivities. Through these narratives and reminiscences, they aimed to keep alive a notion of Iraq that critiqued the status quo.

Zainab Saleh is an assistant professor of anthropology at Haverford College. Her research focuses on empire,memory, nostalgia, belonging, war, and violence in Iraq and the Iraqi Diaspora. She is currently finishing on a book manuscript titled, Exiles of Empire: Violence, Subjectivity, and the Iraqi Diaspora.

If you are interested in submitting news, please contact contributing editors, Nazlı Özkan ([email protected]) and Beth Derderian ([email protected]).

Cite as: Saleh, Zainab. 2019. “Seeing the Iraqi Diaspora through US Empire.” Anthropology News website, July 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1200

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