Zainab Saleh, Return to Ruin: Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Zainab Saleh (ZS): In the summer of 2002, I started my doctoral degree at Columbia University in New York City. The atmosphere was charged with war talk. Everyone was discussing the Bush administration’s preparations to invade Iraq. The antiwar camp was strong on Columbia’s campus. Students and professors demonstrated against the war, organizing sit-ins and lectures to warn of its consequences and expose the hypocrisy of the US government. The pro-war camp, especially outside academia, was more powerful. It agitated about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s oppression of Iraqis, and the alleged links between Hussein and al-Qaeda. The camps shouted at each other, and among themselves, about freedom and democracy versus colonialism, sovereignty versus imperialism, and human rights versus oil. Iraqis, who have borne the brunt of Western governments’ support of Hussein (and their falling out with his regime), and who were going to bear the brunt of another war, were marginal and faceless in these struggles and debates. As the invasion of Iraq proceeded in 2003, the Orientalist discourse about Iraq, which perceived the country as riddled with primordial sentiments, further silenced the voices of Iraqis. The erasure of Iraqi individuals from discussions and news about the US occupation prompted me to focus my research on them. As a privileged Iraqi who now lives abroad, I owe it to Iraqis to offer a more nuanced version of their stories, their hopes, their disappointments, and their losses. Since it was almost impossible to do research in Iraq given the deteriorating situation there, I chose London, home to the largest Iraqi diasporic community in Europe at the time.

The history of US imperial entanglement means that Iraqis have constantly lived in the shadow of wars, authoritarian brutalities, and imperial violence. Through military interventions, the prolonging of wars, and the support of Saddam Hussein, the United States has created conditions of dispossession and death for Iraqis inside Iraq and in diaspora. As an empire, the United States has resorted to practices and policies that unequally distribute life and death; it has exercised the power to kill populations outside its national territories. In these instances, it was not only an illiberal state that was killing its own citizens, but also a liberal state eliminating the lives of imperial subjects in the name of national security, democracy and freedom, and the protection of global peace. I wrote this book to show this history and its impact on Iraqis.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ZS: This book focuses on the interrelationships between empire, subjectivity, and exile. As I listened to Iraqis during my fieldwork (2006 to 2019), I realized that their narratives of displacement, as well as their general life trajectories, were deeply enmeshed in imperial interventions in Iraq that have taken place since the early twentieth century and continue to the present. Iraqis in London, like those in Iraq, are “imperial subjects,” whose lives are inseparable from the histories of Britain and the United States in the region, particularly the latter’s efforts to safeguard US oil companies’ access to Iraqi oil, to deter Iraq from embracing communism during the Cold War, and to support regimes that would guarantee what the United States perceived as regional stability. These imperial trajectories also became dynamic terrains in which political, gendered, religious, and class differences were inscribed, invoked, and reconfigured in diaspora. This book focuses on how Iraqi political subjectivity in diaspora has been shaped by British colonial rule, US imperial intervention, resource extraction, histories of exile, local and international struggles, and other structures of power. It also explores how Iraqis have responded to these events in culturally specific ways. Moreover, it examines the impact of the US occupation on the diasporic experiences of the Iraqi community in London, as well as the transnational connections it opened and the possibilities it foreclosed.

The story of Iraqi exile and dispossession is closely enmeshed in a genealogy of imperialism. Through its support of authoritarian regimes since the 1960s and the fueling of ongoing wars for the past four decades in Iraq, the United States has inscribed itself on the lives of Iraqis. This imperial violence has led to the exile of thousands of Iraqis and to the formation of diasporic communities abroad. The effects of the US interventions in Iraq have not been contained within the borders of Iraq, but touched Iraqis in diaspora as well. It prolonged their exile, prevented them from enjoying a safe Iraq when they visited after 2003, and caused them anxiety over the fates of relatives and friends and over the possible disintegration of the country. In other words, Iraqis have inhabited an imperial past and present. Scholars have described empire as a “way of life” as far as the United States’ foreign policy is concerned, inscribed in its very institutions and practices. But this is also true for Iraqis, who have lived and experienced empire for decades.

J: Why did you choose to employ empire as a framework for this book?

ZS: This book sheds light on how Britain’s and the United States’ interventions in Iraq have shaped Iraqis’ life trajectories and experiences of exile. While British colonial rule in Iraq has received wide scholarly attention, the role the United States has played in the country since the early 1960s has been mainly limited to studies of the occupation in 2003. Therefore, the book aims to write Iraqis back into the imperial history of particularly the United States. The histories of Iraq and the United States are deeply intertwined. I employ the concept of imperial encounter to shed light on how the United States and Iraq, countries usually seen to occupy different worlds, are entangled. This concept of the encounter decenters the nation state and emphasizes global connections. A mere focus on the nation state to understand histories of violence and displacement conceals the role of Western imperial powers in shaping affairs in Third World countries. The framework of the encounter demonstrates that Iraq and the United States are no longer separate entities, but are entangled in an unequal power relation that has reconfigured the lives of Iraqis. Scholars have advised against approaching the United States as an entity confined to its territorial boundaries; rather, we must examine the relationship between US imperialism and other countries, and US efforts to produce subjects beyond its national boundaries through neoliberal policies.

I found Ann Stoler’s concept of disassemblage very helpful in thinking about US empire, and the connections between different imperial formations. In terms of US imperial interventions in the world, Iraq is not an exceptional case. Scholars have begun to historicize the debate on US imperialism and to situate the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan within the imperial legacy of the Unites States. Thus, the War on Terror after 9/11 can be seen as part and parcel of a long history of US expansion and global domination. Wars and military occupation were foundational to the United States in that genocidal violence was central to its establishment as a settler-colonial state, as well as to its political and economic hegemony. A permanent state of war, as far as the United States is concerned, thus represents a historical continuum of conquest, cleansing of new frontiers, and control of territories abroad. This approach to empire emphasizes connections between settler colonialism, racism, economic hegemony, and political interventions. Thus, the decades-long intervention of the United States in Iraq can be seen as part of a continuum of different imperial formations throughout the world. US empire can no longer be seen as a singular event or a relic of the past. Rather, it has persisted throughout the centuries, brought various peoples into its orbit, and left individual lives in ruins.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ZS: I hope that this book reaches both academic and general audience, particularly those who are interested in US imperial formations throughout the world, displacement, and subjectivity. To me, the story of Iraqi exile is part of a larger narrative about empire and exile, which is not limited to Iraq or the Middle East.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

ZS: Currently, I am working on a book, titled Uprooted Memories: Citizenship, Denaturalization, and Deportation in Iraq. This book project examines the citizenship laws and legal practices enacted by different Iraqi governments that led to the denaturalization and deportation of Iraqi Jews, Iraqi communists, and the so-called Iraqis of Iranian origin throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as well as the mechanisms that Iraqis devised to challenge state definitions of citizenship and to assert belonging to their homeland. Since its establishment in 1921, the Iraqi state—whether under monarchical, republican, or military regimes—has been responsible for the displacement and expulsion of different segments of the Iraqi population. These forced migrations from Iraq have been closely tied to projects of state-making and efforts to assert sovereignty, govern a diverse country, control and discipline groups that are seen as a threat, and silence oppositional political movements. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research, this project shows how this long history of persecution and migration led to the emergence of Iraqi communities in diaspora and to heated debates about belonging that continue today—and provide insight into forms of citizenship that emerge outside of state recognition, with different groups resorting to political mobilization and the creation of networks in order to assert belonging to Iraq.


Excerpt from the book (from Introduction: “Empire and Subjectivity,” pp. 19-24)

Just as Iraqi history has been entangled in national and imperial events, my London-based interlocutors’ efforts to carve out an Iraqi subjectivity have been historically contingent processes that involved different colonial and imperial powers, disciplinary national institutions, and personal circumstances and experiences. Different social and political constellations—including the state, family and community, colonial and imperial realities, and market logics—constitute the individual as a subject through social control. However, governmentality is not the only venue through which a subject is produced. Through inhabiting different political and social spaces, which also intersect with class and gender, subjects have the opportunity to reflect on their circumstances and fashion a self based on their experiences. Just as historically contingent settings constitute individuals as subjects, people themselves can carve a sense of selfhood through their narratives and attempts to make sense of their positions in the present and imagined future.

Colonial and imperial relations have played a major role in defining Iraqis’ sense of selfhood, whether in the past or in the present. For older Iraqis who came of age under British colonial rule in Iraq, the solution to end colonial realities and to do away with the pro-British and feudal Iraqi government was through anticolonial struggle. By organizing in the underground Iraqi Communist Party and participating in protests against treaties that the British officials imposed on Iraq and against social inequality, young Iraqis at the time saw themselves as revolutionaries who were engaged in a struggle to bring about radical transformations in Iraq that would constitute a total rupture with the status quo. As such, the British presence in Iraq shaped consciousness of oneself as a revolutionary subject inhabiting a historical moment that swept Third World countries with anticolonial spirit.

Unlike in Egypt and India, the British in Iraq did not aim to produce Iraqi subjects through regulation of the individual body or techniques of social control. Rather, they resorted to aerial bombardment, servitude, and corporal punishment as means to control and discipline the population. They also engaged in heated debates with Iraqi officials and educators over reforming the educational system, the family, and the citizenship law. The British thought of development as the ability to access Iraq’s natural resources, especially oil, and to develop the country according to native lines. British officials in Iraq were against the expansion of the public school system, fearing that over-education would produce subjects engaged in political agitation and unwilling to do manual labor. Iraqi nationalists, by contrast, saw the school and the family as arenas of social reform and economic development, which aimed to produce new Iraqi subjects worthy of sovereignty. They particularly saw that educating young women would produce modern mothers who were capable of raising healthy citizens. However, the family and the school did not become sites to produce docile and governable subjects. Rather, they emerged as hubs for revolutionary action and imagination. Older Iraqis spoke of progressive and nationalist parents and brothers who from a young age made them aware of social inequality in the Iraqi society and of anticolonial struggle worldwide. Once they went to secondary schools, they were further exposed to communist and nationalist trends that advocated for political freedom, women’s liberation, and social justice, all of which fueled their political and social activism.

In addition to colonial relations, class, gender, and religious sensibilities also played a role in shaping how my interlocutors perceived themselves and other Iraqis. When older Iraqis reminisced about the “good old days” as a time of political mobilization, social vibrancy, and cultural renaissance, they often spoke about the experience of middle-class Baghdadis whose families could afford to send both their sons and daughters to school and college and who had the means to participate in the intellectual and artistic scene in the capital. This imagination of the vibrant past sidelined the experiences of the majority of Iraqis, who lived in abject poverty under the monarchy. When the poor figured into these narratives, they were presented as people in need of social intervention—through education and medical care—to refashion them as healthy citizens who could leave behind their backward traditions and participate in the development of the country. As such, the revolutionary project that aimed to produce modern subjects dedicated to national liberation and progress was also disciplinary in its outlook toward the poor. These notions of the self were rooted in debates on modernity, tradition, and religion. Iraqis who participated in the anticolonial struggle and endorsed communist ideals saw themselves as modern and progressive subjects who were doing away with tradition—such as the subordination of women and outmoded religious practices—and imagining a utopian future of sovereignty and equality. Moreover, this construction of the self as a revolutionary subject was gendered to a great extent in that the status of women became the marker of the modernity of the nation and the self. The debate over women’s access to legal and political rights became a heated issue over national liberation and the role of women in contributing to the building of a modern state in Iraq.

While the idea of Iraqis as revolutionaries became a prevailing discourse in diaspora, it began to be challenged by another discourse of the self, namely the construction of Iraqis as pious selves. With the rise of religiosity in diaspora since the 1990s, some of the younger Iraqis in London began to identify themselves as modern pious Muslims, whose idea of selfhood combined notions of religiosity, nationhood, and modernity. Rather than a hub for revolutionary ideas, Iraq emerges as a land of holy cities and Shi‘i religious history that dates back to the seventh century. However, this discourse of the self constituted a rupture with religious practices of the past. Young religious Iraqis in London saw themselves as different from their parents, who practiced religion out of habit, rather than a true understanding based on the reading of religious texts. They saw this form of religiosity as modern in its outlook in that it aimed to break away from a traditional approach that entailed the blind following of religious scholars. This modern, pious self was combined with a strong sense of attachment to Iraq as a nation-state because families had instilled nationalistic feelings in the youth through recurrent reminiscences of Iraq as a place of prosperity and social vibrancy. While this was a class-based discourse in its yearning for “the golden age of Iraq,” it was also gendered in that historical religious women emerged as figures to emulate in facing a life defined by exile and diaspora. Religious women who played a major role in historical events in the past and had formidable religious knowledge—especially Prophet Mohammed’s daughter and granddaughter—became role models for young religious women, who could not relate to communist women with their negative attitude toward religion.

The imagination of oneself as a revolutionary or a pious Muslim took place against the backdrop of exile and displacement, as well as the fragmentation of Iraq brought about by the U.S. intervention in Iraq for decades. The chronic conditions of dispossession under which Iraqis in Iraq and diaspora lived prompted questions of what is politically possible and what matters most in the making and unmaking of the self. After decades of exile and viewing from afar the wars and violence raging in their homeland, Iraqis in London grappled with what it means to be an Iraqi. The response of Iraqis to this status quo no longer consisted in anti-imperial struggle against the United States. The failure of the postcolonial project of freedom and prosperity and the inability to imagine alternative futures after decades of authoritarianism and war prompted Iraqis in London to perceive Iraqis who arrived in London after 2003 through a narrative of endurance. The Iraqi subject after 2003 was no longer a revolutionary who dreamed of a radical break with the realities of colonialism and inequality through anticolonial struggle, nor was this subject the pious Muslim who believed that a religious project could be the solution to the situation in Iraq. Rather, U.S. imperialism had produced Iraqis as enduring subjects who persisted under conditions of dispossession. To Iraqis who had arrived in London in the late 1970s and early 1990s, it was the Iraqis who had stayed in Iraq throughout Saddam Hussein’s reign and who had been displaced after the U.S. occupation, who had persisted and suffered through decades of wars and sanctions that emerged as the authentic Iraqis. It was the ability to endure and linger under precarious conditions of imperial and national violence, economic deprivation, and legal uncertainty that engendered a new sensibility of what it means to be an Iraqi. Providing an account of oneself became a survival technique that aimed to combat the politics of erasure. Whereas the U.S. imperial project was embedded in the denial of Iraqis’ humanity, Iraqis found different ways to form themselves as subjects in order to survive and give meaning to their lives.

Throughout the span of my fieldwork in London (2006–2019), I was struck by the efforts of Iraqis to carve out political subjectivities and to provide an alternative account of events in Iraq. These debates took place against the backdrop of the desire to show that Iraqis were true nationalists who felt a strong attachment to Iraq and that the salience of sectarian affiliations after 2003 marked a shift in the political landscape in Iraq and forms of self-making. As such, these narratives speak to the fact that subject formation was shaped by colonial rule; imperial interventions; anticolonial struggle; familial and state practices; and gendered, classed, and religious sensibilities. Moreover, the efforts to construct an Iraqi self took place in the context of a diasporic existence brought about by the U.S. interventions in Iraq since the late 1950s until the present.