Return to Ruin
Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia
Zainab Saleh


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Empire and Subjectivity
chapter abstract

The introduction delineates how Iraqi exiles' 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. Aiming to debunk Orientalist discourses on Iraq that perceive sectarian violence and the wars under Saddam Hussein's reign as symptoms of primordial affiliations or signs of despotism, the introduction offers a historical and theoretical reading of Western interventions, particularly the role the United States played in shaping the political sphere in Iraq since the early 1960s. The U.S. intervention also produced Iraqis as diasporic, melancholic subjects who struggled with the ongoing destruction of their homeland and who developed nostalgic feelings for the idealized past. These imperial trajectories became dynamic terrains in which political, gendered, religious, and class differences were inscribed, invoked, and reconfigured in diaspora.

One: Emancipation and Revolution
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on a communist woman's reminiscences about the past. Her narrative reflects how different players—the state, the family, and colonial and imperial powers—have shaped notions of selfhood, and have been entangled in debates about modernity, gender, and class. The anticolonial sentiments that swept the Iraqi street in the first half of the twentieth-century produced Iraqis as revolutionary subjects who thought of themselves as agents of history bringing about political independence, social justice, and gender reforms through their activism. Revolutionary Iraqis thought of time as unfolding in a progressive, linear way, whereby the traditional past would give way to the revolutionary present, and the present would finally yield the utopian future. Rather than spaces of social control and disciplinary technologies as imagined by Iraqi educators, the school and families emerged as an important arena for fueling radical political consciousness and debates on reforms among the youth.

Two: Revisionist Politics
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the life story of an Iraqi politician who was a communist in the past but came to define himself as a social democrat after 1990. To him, political realities were mired in contradictions and erasures, and political activism always necessitated a reckoning with the inconsistencies between ideals and practices in order for it to forge a path toward stability and prosperity. In this framework, political activism was no longer limited to anticolonial struggle in the past; rather, it became an ongoing, reflective career that evolved over time. Moreover, this chapter shows how the opposition to Saddam Hussein among exiles reshaped the political landscape in Iraq after 2003 through agitating for regime change with different U.S. administrations and through the endorsement of a sectarian discourse. It finally explores an alternative Iraqi political trend in London, which revolved around the notions of civil state, secularism, and democracy.

Three: Religious Paths, Secular Pasts
chapter abstract

This chapter revolves around a young Iraqi man whose life story draws attention to debates on piety, the role of religion in politics, and national belonging. His notion of pious subjectivity, based on his observation of religious practices in London, was intertwined with a sense of nationalism. Rather than divisive politics, the pious subject could champion national inclusion through the endorsement of secularism. Following the failure of Iraqi religious politicians to promote a unifying national discourse and to provide basic services after 2003, my interlocutor saw that religion should be relegated to the private sphere and should define the relationship between God and the individual only. The communist project emerges as an alternative vision of what Iraq could look like if principled subjects were to take charge of nation building after the U.S. occupation. The nostalgic subject here found a utopia in the past, rather than the future.

Four: Itineraries of Homecomings
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on an Iraqi woman whose narrative reveals generational shifts in the understanding of home and subjectivity. The construction of home and subjectivity was an ongoing process informed by familial memories of Iraq, religious faith, experiences of marginalization and exclusion in exile, and British multiculturalism. Her story speaks to the experiences of Iraqis who were not politically inclined but who still suffered persecution under Saddam Hussein's regime. The fashioning of an Iraqi self was rooted in everyday practices, sharing tales of direct persecution, and having religious experiences. Moreover, this narrative indicates the multiple ways in which a religious subjectivity is constituted. Through constant travel and a personal understanding of religion, in pursuit of answers to challenges she faced in exile, the woman constructed a notion of selfhood based on acceptance, inclusion, and integrity.

Five: Dispossession and Authenticity
chapter abstract

This chapter is about a young Iraqi woman whose life trajectory—her socioeconomic background, her life in Iraq throughout Hussein's reign and the early years of U.S. occupation, and her experience with legal precarity in Britain—draws attention to how imperial intervention in Iraq has engendered chronic conditions of dispossession for Iraqis since the early 1960s. The Iraqi community in diaspora came to see those who left Iraq after 2003 as enduring subjects. Endurance, here, was not only about remaining and persevering in conditions of inequality and marginalization, but also about producing an alternative idea of authentic Iraqiness. This notion of authentic citizenship was gendered: the community perceived the resilient Iraqi embodied in the women of the lower classes who held the family together through difficult times and remained unwavering in the face of uncertainty.

Conclusion: Enduring Legacies
chapter abstract

The conclusion explores how U.S. imperial violence in Iraq has produced Iraqis as disposable human beings, whose death and suffering are insignificant. It delineates the three main discourses on the self that Iraqis in London developed in response to the conditions of exile and dispossession—namely, the predominant discourse of the older Iraqis who had lived through the anticolonial tide in the 1950s and envisioned true Iraqis as modern and progressive; the religious discourse that revolved around the notion of a pious self and perceived Iraq as a holy place; and the discourse of endurance, which valorized the experience of Iraqis who had lived under Saddam Hussein and the U.S. occupation. While these narratives of the self speak of the different gendered, classed, political, and religious differences among Iraqis, they also reflect the different understandings of the past vis-à-vis the present, and the shifting contexts of nostalgic feelings.