Thursday, October 06, 2005

Iraq book review

A number of recent books have been published about the history and culture of Iraq, in large part a response to the 2003 invasion and current military situation there.

Here's the link to my review in the Nov/Dec 2005 Archaeology Magazine.

I had limited space so was unable to give more props to perhaps my favorite of the books, American Hostage. (You can buy the book from Amazon here.) It's the story of Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carlton, two journalists writing about archaeological looting in Iraq. Garen and his translator are kidnapped in Iraq and Carlton and her network of grad school and journalist friends does everything in their power to affect the outcome.

The tale itself is gripping, romantic and a thriller (with a happy ending--obvious from the book's authorship), but what I really enjoyed was how the cutlural confusion between Americans and Iraqis comes up all the time. On the one hand, yes, the Iraqis are good family people, incredibley warm and friendly (arguably friendlier than the average American), but Garen does not shy away from pointing out how different they are as well. Most of the time this works to his advantage, as when his translator "reveals" facts about them that Garen would rather keep quiet--the kidnappers eventually find out the truth as the translator knows, and being honest from the start is, in hindsight, the right thing to do.

Another telling episode happens later in the book when Garen is forced to make his second videotaped "confession." He worries about how he should read the words, where to cast his gaze, how to convey a message to his anxious family. When the video airs on CNN, Carlton's Iraqi American friend is immediately overjoyed--she has recognized that the backdrop has curtains, a sign that Garen is a guest in a home and will therefore be treated well. This is the kind of subtlety that cannot easily be taught. Even fluent Arabic speakers without the cultural background would not understand this. (Although it's possible that well-travelled individuals who don't have the language facility would.)

American Hostage is extremely readable and even explains the looting situation at Iraqi archaeological sites. On a personal note, I love that the "MacGuffin" that drives the plot is a security measure requisitioned by my friend and teacher John Russell.

UPDATE: Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carlton were interviewed on WBUR's Here and Now. Listen here.

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