It is a bad sign when a reviewer misquotes the fifth word of a book. In the case of Laura Miller's review of my book "The New Iraq," this seemingly inadvertent error typifies a larger failure of the reviewer to engage the text at hand.
Miller quotes the dedication of "The New Iraq" as "to Danny Pearl, of beloved memory" (sic), and proceeds to suggest I am fostering "false impressions" that I knew Pearl. On the contrary, had Miller read the book's final words, she would have found the following: "I would like to acknowledge the living memory of journalist Daniel Pearl. Although we never met, both of us are musicians and both have maternal roots in Baghdad. I know somehow he would have enjoyed hearing about a new Iraq, and count myself among the legions of young people who regard the infamous circumstances of his death as further motivation to struggle for a better world." Perhaps she did read this clear statement but nevertheless fostered her own false impression by the "artful omission" of the fact that she learned I had not met Pearl from the pages of the book itself.
In any case, the actual text of the dedication is "of blessed memory," a traditional Jewish phrase (with roots as far back as ancient Babylon) used when remembering the deceased.
Miller's ignorance of this cultural reference is understandable, but speaks to a larger point that when people approach unfamiliar contexts, they can easily misread what is going on if they impose their own biases. This is particularly relevant as Americans face a project of engagement in the reconstruction of Iraq after Saddam.
Laura Miller presents my book as narrowly focused on business and bent on exploiting Iraq. She refers to me as a "hustler," a "carpetbagger" and the practitioner of a "racket." If she has really read the book, she has utterly misunderstood it. And her personal slur on me is reckless. She wrote a nasty personal attack on a first-time author whom she did not even attempt to interview by phone.
How ironic for Salon magazine, which focuses on the intersection between culture, politics, media and the arts, to dismiss whole chapters in my book on Iraqi media, cinema and theater, music and culture -- subjects that have received little attention from the American press -- as "barely relevant digressions." I felt that a discussion of the renewal and rebuilding of Iraq should include creative persons and professionals in the field of arts and ideas as well as diplomats and soldiers. Salon is premised on the idea that these are all vital elements for understanding society. Laura Miller does not demonstrate an understanding of that.
Miller summarily dismisses my background as "bogus expertise." Yet I have spent years studying Arabic and Islamic history and living in the region, and am fluent in Arabic, Persian and Hebrew. I am one of the few people born and raised in the United States who interviews live in Arabic and Persian on some of the region's radio programs. I have much to learn, but there are many people who call themselves experts who have less expertise than I do.
I have the impression that Laura Miller made up her mind about my book without giving it serious consideration, based on attitudes she has about the present war that have nothing to do with me or my ideas. I began writing this book months ago when it appeared that the U.S. would invade Iraq, sanctions would be lifted, or Saddam would somehow be deposed through an internal process. The book is not a case for war and was envisioned partly to be a guide to temper the negative effects of a war that seemed likely.
If there's any "moral haziness" here (to use Miller's term), it is the reviewer's implicit position that individual Americans should not engage the Iraqi people on any level -- as creative partners, as entrepreneurs, or otherwise. What alternative Miller envisions is never explained. She has instead stereotyped me and my book rather than engage the nuanced arguments and points that I raise.
Stereotyping, incidentally, is why I, as the son of a Jewish person who fled difficult times in Baghdad, was unable to set foot in Iraq while researching the book. I've lived in the Gulf, Iran and Jordan, and in the course of my time there have interviewed hundreds of Iraqi refugees in border areas and in camps. (At the Iraqi embassy in Jordan in September, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, Iraq's information minister who was then visiting the city, personally tore up the visa that had been issued for me.)
Which brings us back to Daniel Pearl. The stark and scary reality is that the descendants of Iraqi Jews, who in the early 1950s were forced to flee their homeland of 2,700 years and stripped of their citizenship, have not even been able to come back for a visit. And those among us who have frequented Arab countries have sometimes had to be circumspect about our identity. All this is of course only a minor tragedy compared to the suffering of all Iraqis under Saddam. But among my many hopes for a new Iraq is that even Jews may some day be able to return and play a role in a vibrant, multiethnic and tolerant society.
Daniel Pearl, who went out in the field and reported in difficult situations, should also be an example to Laura Miller. With her sharp pen and critical gaze, Miller is exactly the kind of journalist that can help foster a vibrant and pluralistic press in a new Iraq -- exactly what I call for in my chapter "The Editorial We." The problem is, judging from Miller's review, she would rather bash those of us who are ready to roll up our sleeves and help.
-- Joseph Braude