Un­pick­ing the com­plex knot of Iraq’s down­fall

The Rope is a bloody tale of the down­fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein but also fore­tells of the dark­ness that fol­lowed, Mal­colm Forbes writes

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A cou­ple of pages into The Rope, Kanan Makiya’s pow­er­ful novel about Iraq dur­ing the first four years of Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion, it be­comes clear that the rope of the ti­tle is the one that hanged Sad­dam Hus­sein.

Makiya, him­self an Iraqi dis­si­dent and au­thor of best-sell­ing books crit­i­cal of Sad­dam, re­peat­edly raised his voice in favour of the US in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003 that brought about the end of his regime.

Now some­what con­tro­ver­sially de­pict­ing re­cent events, Makiya draws us in by tak­ing us back: “the Tyrant” is dragged out of his hole – “Caught like a rat,” ac­cord­ing to a US gen­eral – and taken into cus­tody; later he is de­fi­ant in court and stoic on the plat­form above the trap­door. Af­ter wit­ness­ing the hang­ing, the book’s name­less nar­ra­tor tells his friend and com­rade in arms Haider that “what hap­pened to­day in that ex­e­cu­tion hall is not an end­ing; it is a dread­ful be­gin­ning”.

How­ever, the fo­cus of Makiya’s book is the bloody may­hem that erupted not af­ter Sad­dam’s death in 2006 but af­ter his down­fall in 2003.

Hav­ing left his mark with his strik­ing open­ing, Makiya rewinds to the day US forces took Bagh­dad. In his home­town of Na­jaf, the nar­ra­tor comes across a corpse in an al­ley. His un­cle, who has helped to raise him since his father dis­ap­peared in 1991, tells him the dead man is an Amer­i­can agent. “They are ev­ery­where,” his un­cle says. “We must be vig­i­lant.” Soon he has per­suaded his im­pres­sion­able nephew to join the ranks of the Shi­ite Army of the Awaited One and fight “the Oc­cu­pier”.

Makiya’s young nar­ra­tor is thrust into a world of lies, be­tray­als and de­struc­tion. As sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence plays out on the streets he ad­mits that: “A part of me was un­der­go­ing burial while an­other was as­sim­i­lat­ing into the chaos all around.”

In 2004, he and Haider take up arms as snipers and ex­pe­ri­ence “a sav­age joy” at shoot­ing US sol­diers. He swaps Na­jaf, a place his mother calls the “City of the Dead”, for Bagh­dad, in his eyes “a city of ghosts”. But as the bru­tal­ity in­ten­si­fies – “The Sunni knife was pit­ted against the Shi‘a drill” – he be­comes ap­palled by the “jus­tice” meted out by his mili­tia and Haider’s psy­cho­pathic ruth­less­ness.

At the end of the book our nar­ra­tor is a some­what changed man – not be­cause he has seen the blood on his hands and the er­ror of his ways, but be­cause he has dis­cov­ered the star­tling truth about his miss­ing father. Mer­ci­fully, Makiya re­sists serv­ing up a tidily con­ve­nient con­ver­sion: en­light­en­ment comes as a con­vul­sive shock rather than a con­trived epiphany.

By keep­ing his cre­ation torn and an­guished as he di­gests un­palat­able facts, Makiya forces us to sym­pa­thise, to see his char­ac­ter as a hu­man as well as a sol­dier, a lost boy gulled into be­liev­ing any­thing and duped into do­ing the dirty work of oth­ers. As might be ex­pected from a fic­tion­alised ac­count of a time of an­ar­chy and car­nage, The Rope is no cheery read. A flick through its chap­ter ti­tles gives more than a hint of what lies ahead: “Car Bomb”, “Minarets and Kalash­nikovs”, “An In­ti­mate Killing”.

But the blood­shed doesn’t pre­vent it from be­ing ed­i­fy­ing and en­gag­ing. Na­jaf and Bagh­dad, two be­lea­guered cities of check­points, ru­ins, sui­cide bomb­ings and pil­fered elec­tric­ity, are vividly ren­dered.

There is acute tragedy in the form of young, in­no­cent men cor­rupted into venge­ful foot sol­diers or sadis­tic prison guards (each one a “changeling fa­thered by the coun­try’s demons”), and even more in the suf­fer­ing of their vic­tims. And the nar­ra­tor’s in­tense face-off with the Tyrant be­fore his ex­e­cu­tion makes for a thrilling de­noue­ment.

If the book’s main weak­ness is its oc­ca­sional dense, ex­po­si­tion-heavy pas­sages clogged with the make-up and vary­ing doc­tri­nal dif­fer­ences of ri­val mili­tias, political fac­tions and cler­i­cal Houses, its con­sid­er­able strength is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the nar­ra­tor and his cun­ning un­cle.

It is this men­tor and provider “and in the end com­man­der” who tells him that his father was a dreamer for be­liev­ing in tol­er­ance to­wards all coun­tries and cul­tures – “a far big­ger fan­tasy than the Tyrant’s pan-Arab na­tion”. In­stead his nephew should hate “the one who is not you, the in­fi­del or the for­eigner”.

Cap­ping the novel is a 20-page per­sonal note in which Makiya writes that “Iraq was the dress re­hearsal for what be­fell an en­tire re­gion”.

With this in mind, The Rope be­comes more than the sum of its parts, for it not only casts an iso­lated shadow, it fore­bodes a far wider dark­ness.

Mal­colm Forbes is a free­lance re­viewer based in Ed­in­burgh.

Barry Chin / Bos­ton Globe / Getty Im­ages

Iraqi au­thor Kanan Makiya, who is also a pro­fes­sor at Bran­deis Univer­sity, Mas­sachusetts.

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