Louis Yako, Bullets in Envelopes: Iraqi Academics in Exile (Pluto Press, 2021).

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

Louis Yako (LY): This book was originally my doctorate dissertation while completing my PhD in cultural anthropology at Duke University. The multiple reasons for writing this book are precisely the reasons for why I believe it should be read, and by whom. The first is general and applies to any work I have written or will write in the future: the decolonial way of life is central to my writing, thinking, and living. In 1981, speaking at the annual meeting of the Ohio Arts Council, the late novelist Toni Morrison said: “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Morrison’s words capture the possibilities available to any writer who wants to contribute to knowledge production on their own terms, despite the colonial constraints that seek to impede, silence, or erase such works and stories.

As for why this topic and the specific population in this book, I wanted to select a segment of the Iraqi population that is uniquely positioned to tell the story of Iraq over the last few decades, not only because it possesses the critical tools to do so, but also because its work and its very existence is closely tied to power and the political. Through what I call “the genealogy of loss,” this book traces the losses of Iraq and its people through the eyes of academics, one of the country’s most educated demographics, to show the extent to which wars, sanctions, and the 2003 invasion have damaged Iraqi society. The invasion had an enormous impact on education and educators. It not only destroyed many of the achievements Iraqis had built for decades, but it also erased and forced out some of the country’s brightest minds, who had helped train Iraqis and shape the skills essential for running and preserving society. I wanted to research a population that is as close to politics and the centers of power as possible, yet also critically examines and interrogates power from multiple perspectives.

Having closely studied much of Western scholarship on Iraq and the Middle East, I saw that the stories of the region and its people had seldom been told through the lenses of its most educated populations. There are many important works that paint a picture of the region from the viewpoint of its refugees, gender issues, dissidents, and other important populations, but there are few works that examine the region through the eyes of its academics, who, since the beginning of the pan-Arabist project, have been key actors in building their societies. Thus, it is my hope that the testimonies in this book will not just be projected as sad stories from “that part of the world,” but rather considered as expert and experienced voices that can make cultural, political, and epistemic contributions to how we understand the region’s challenges and solutions.

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

LY: Divided into seven chapters, the book covers a whole range of topics that I consider timely not only for Iraq, but also for the region, especially in countries, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iran, where similarities with the Iraqi story can be seen replicated by imperial and colonial powers.

Chronologically, the chapters in Part I of the book cover the Baʿath era and provide a nuanced understanding of education, one of the country’s most important sectors, through people who experienced things first hand. These chapters capture the complexities of that era and the silences and erasures that exist in Western discourses of that period. Chapters in this part also examine the lives of currently exiled academics under the Baʿath system and its higher education institutions. Other topics include the impact of economic sanctions on Iraq, the thirteen years of which many academics perceive as a period in which their suffering and struggles were due as much to the imposition of sanctions as to the Baʿath party’s actions. Many viewed the sanctions as a method used by the West to force people to consent to the later occupation of Iraq.

Part II includes four chapters covering the post-occupation period and the lives of academics in exile and internal displacement. I examine how Iraqi higher education institutions were destroyed, dismantled, and reconfigured after 2003. The reconfiguration of the role of academics in post-occupation Iraq included assassinations and death threats; sectarian violence; and the notorious policies of “de-Baʿathification.” I look at how exiled academics went from being vital actors with relatively stable jobs in Iraq before 2003 to living what I call “lives under contract” in places like Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan. I examine the transition from public, state-funded, not-for-profit education into a more corporate, for-profit, private set of universities. The testimonies in this chapter show that the cases of these academics are inseparable from academics worldwide, experiencing the ongoing corporatization of higher education driven by neoliberalism.

I also explore the topic of language and power, or more precisely, language as a metonym for politics, in the case of Arabic and Kurdish for Iraqis internally displaced in the Kurdistan region. Given the historical, social, political, and cultural context of the Kurdish and Arabic languages in Iraq, internally displaced academics often struggle with the Kurdish language, which becomes a tool determining identity and belonging. Such conditions force academics to live in what I call a “plan B mode of existence,” where they constantly must make alternative plans in case their contracts and residency cards are terminated or revoked. I close with final reflections from selected interlocutors on home, exile, and the future. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LY: The paradox of writing, to me, is that each work is but a chapter from one and the same book when considering the big picture. However, the only way I can justify writing any new work is if that work exceeds in its contributions everything I have ever written before. In that sense, the book is connected to my overall passion in critically analyzing and decolonizing knowledge production, even though it is just one piece in that project. Given that decolonizing knowledge production touches on every aspect of our lives, I see this work as also deeply connected to my previous writings on exile, refugees, decolonizing knowledge production, poetry, colonialism, and imperialism, to name a few. 

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

LY: Thank you for asking this question. Since I started writing my dissertation, which resulted in this book, I often said to myself and those who were part of my journey that while academics are the protagonists of this book, it is most certainly not only for or about academics. With everything the book explores, it is a book for anyone who cares about standing up against wars, imperialism, and plundering other countries; exile and refugees; the military-industrial-complex; the future of the world’s education and institutions; and the role of the state (or lack thereof) in making/breaking societies. I also hope also that journalists, media analysts, politicians, and activists read and engage deeply with the book’s content.

I certainly wish for the book to be read and engaged with by other academics worldwide, especially since what is being done to Iraqi academics, while a violent case, is happening also in other parts of the world. The effects of neoliberalism in destroying education, disabling and disenfranchising academics from playing their vital roles in creating better societies, putting significant constraints on knowledge production, and speaking truth to power, are certainly not just happening to Iraqi academics.

In brief, the best answer for this question is captured in the book’s last few lines: “The book is over, but I hope that the stories of my interlocutors will start a new dialogue, a new language, and a new way of looking at things. I hope this work will make many other works possible. So, now that this work is finished, I hope that its life shall begin.” Ending the book with the word “begin” was intentional. I have always believed that the life of a good book truly begins right when it ends.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LY: I am currently working slowly but steadily on three different and seemingly unrelated projects. The first one stems from a recent discovery I made, which is that I have published more than a book’s length worth of articles at different public venues. I do not plan to republish or even recycle them into a book, but I did notice a strong thread connecting each of them, in that they can all be read as writings of exile. They all capture the experience, senses, and bewilderment of life in exile. I am interested in turning that thread into a new book project.

On the scholarly front, I am carefully reading the work and philosophy of two influential Arab philosophers from the twentieth century through decolonial lenses. These two thinkers had a profound impact on education, nationalism, decolonization, and knowledge production in the entire Arab region. Yet they are often dismissed in both Western and many Arab writings as no more than zealous nationalists. A careful reading of their work reveals that their works not only are timelier than ever, but also should be included in the depository of essential decolonial writings. I would like to write a book or a long article to bring all that to light.

Finally, I have been recently very interested and troubled by how neoliberalism is damaging youth, all in the name of youth. This project was most importantly inspired by a qualitative research project I conduced for an NGO last year, which made me take seriously how so many INGOs, institutions, and other political and governmental entities claim to do this or that project to support the youth, while actually nurturing young people to be uncritical of what is going on around the world, well-adjusted to injustice and the ugly realities of neoliberalism, and impoverished of the critical tools and skills they need most to even realize (let alone resist) what is being done to them. I think the future of the world highly depends on young people who are more aware of, more critical of, and less distracted about what is going on.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, “The Occupation: Paving the Road to Exile and Displacement”, pp. 73-78)

Restructuring State and Society through Cultural and Academic Cleansing

In Part I, we were introduced to Hiba S., one of the pioneer Iraqi women academics and authors in the field of media and journalism, currently exiled in Amman. During a visit to her office in summer 2014, Hiba shared that the early days of the occupation in 2003 were the most difficult she had ever experienced. She recollected:

I was sitting in my garden smoking when I suddenly saw a huge American tank driving through the street. I saw a Black soldier on the top of the tank. He looked at me and did the victory sign with his fingers. Had I had a pistol in my hand, I would have immediately shot myself in the head right then and there. The pain I felt upon seeing that image is indescribable. I felt as though all the years we had spent building our country, educating our students to make them better humans were gone with the wind.

Hiba’s description carries strong feelings of loss, defeat, and humiliation. Also significant in her narrative is that the first American soldier she encountered in post-invasion Iraq was a Black soldier making the victory sign. This is perhaps one of the most ironic and paradoxical images of the occupation. A Black soldier from a historically and consistently oppressed group in American society, who, one might imagine had no choice but to join the military, coming to Iraq and making the victory sign to a humiliated Iraqi academic whose country was ravaged by war. In a way, this image is worthy of a long pause. It is an encounter of two oppressed and defeated groups of people—Iraqis and African Americans meeting as enemies in a warzone. But, if one digs deeper, are these people really “enemies” or allies struggling against the same oppressors? Do the real enemies ever come to the battlefield? Or do they hide behind closed doors planning wars and invasions while sending other “oppressed” and “diverse” faces to the battlefield to fight wars on their behalf?

Hiba then recalled the early months of the occupation at the University of Baghdad where she taught. She noted that the first thing the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) tried to do was to change the curriculum Iraqi academics had designed, taught, and improved over the decades. While the Americans succeeded in doing this at the primary and high school levels, Hiba believed that they did not succeed as much at the university level. Iraqi professors knew better than to allow the “Americanization of the curriculum” to take place. “We knew the materials we were teaching were excellent even compared to international standards,” she said. “They [the occupiers] tried to immediately inject subjects like ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ as if we Iraqis didn’t know what these concepts meant.” It is clear from Hiba’s testimony, also articulated by several other interviewees, that the Iraqi education system was one of the occupying forces’ earliest targets in their desire to reshape and restructure Iraqi society and peoples’ collective consciousness.

This harkens back to Hazim’s comment, mentioned earlier, about “reconstituting Iraqi consciousness.” When I asked Hazim to elaborate further, he said that, in the education sector, changing curricula was aimed at getting rid of the “unwanted” and “inconvenient” academic voices who were opposed to the occupiers’ agenda in Iraq. He added that spreading “fear and confusion” among Iraqis through the plethora of “supposedly local media” that mushroomed following the first few months of the occupation can also be understood through “cognitive dissonance theory.” The post-occupation media, he noted, was funded by internal and external actors whose objective was to “spread more and more confusion in a war-torn society.” Hazim, who holds advanced degrees in education and education technology from Iraq and the UK, felt strongly about how the occupiers and their supporters in the “new Iraq” sought to “re-educate, if not to say miseducate” Iraqi society after 2003, not least by stoking “sectarian violence.” In post-occupation Iraq, people were too confused to understand the long-term effects of what was being done to them, he remarked, adding that this could “easily happen in every war-torn place.” For him, Iraqis were not only confused, but were also caught in a vicious circle. “They always come back to square one,” he said. These two post-occupation testimonies provide a glimpse into how currently exiled and internally displaced academics understand the post-occupation reality, both of Iraqi society in general and of academia in particular. Part II of this book examines the different but intertwined realities of Iraq under occupation through the eyes of its exiled academics. This chapter focuses on how former Iraqi institutions were dismantled, “cleansed,” and restructured. The experiences of academics captured here show that this was done primarily through three “cleansing methods”: first, through direct death threats and assassinations of academics and professionals who were no longer wanted in post-occupation Iraq; second, by igniting sectarian violence that significantly contributed to turning Iraq from a unified, central state with strong institutions in place, into divided zones run by militias and militant groups practicing “necropolitics,” that is, who gets to live and who gets to die, who is saved by the powers-that-be and who is abandoned (Mbembe 2003)—in the case of academics in this work, the determination was who gets to stay in Iraq and who gets forced into exile; and third, many academics were removed/cleansed through the notorious and controversial policy of “de-Baʿathification.”

Most interlocutors I met in London, Amman, and Iraqi Kurdistan had either received death threats, survived assassination attempts, or had members of their families kidnapped, threatened, or assassinated. As we saw earlier, a classic means of threatening academics and inciting them to leave their academic positions (and the country) was by sending them a bullet in an envelope, oftentimes with a note threatening them with death if they did not leave. Those who did not act swiftly were indeed subject to assassination attempts, not all of them successful. The IraqSolidaridad group, part of the Spanish Campaign against the occupation for the sovereignty of Iraq, reported that as of November 7, 2013, a total of 324 Iraqi academics from different disciplines had been assassinated in the country. Many of these murdered academics were prominent figures in their fields. The group, in collaboration with the BRussells Tribunal, provides the names of and other information on each assassinated academic (CEOSI 2013).

Of the 63 academics I interviewed for this book, 20 were directly subjected to death threats, mostly by the bullet in an envelope method. Others were told by some “informants” on campuses where they taught that their names had been put on “death lists” and were advised to leave as soon as possible. Seven interlocutors had spouses and other family members threatened, kidnapped and released upon paying huge ransoms, or killed. Four interlocutors survived assassination attempts. A few had their houses searched and their academic work and documents confiscated by the US military and/or different militia groups that mushroomed in Iraq after 2003. At least one (Badir, previously introduced) was imprisoned because of his anti-occupation PhD dissertation in the field of political science. Most interlocutors kept the threatening letters and the bullets in envelopes they had received as evidence. Most were able to present them to me to corroborate their stories. Since the notes and envelopes included their first and last names, I chose not to include images of them in order to protect their privacy and lives. Many of the threatened academics were able to reach places like Jordan and the UK thanks to organizations such as Scholars at Risk (SAR), Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), and Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA). Those who could not leave the country had no choice but to become internally displaced in places like Iraqi Kurdistan, as one of the few relatively “safe havens” available for them.