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