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Night Draws Near (thoughts)

April 6, 2007

Night Draws Near, published in 2005, is reporter Anthony Shadid’s story of the impact of the war on regular Iraqi citizens. Since he is Lebanonese-American and fluent in Arabic, he was able to become quite close to several Iraqis. The range of voices impressed me: Shadid talks to people of all social/economic classes, religions (and degrees of religious fervor), genders, education, and opinions regarding the US. Essentially, the book focuses on day-to-day life in Iraq; Shadid shies away from an intense analysis of the American politics and administration’s books. This makes the book a refreshingly clear look at Iraq’s living conditions.

The book begins a bit before the American invasion, when Hussein issued a general pardon for all prisoners (political or criminal). It then looks at Iraqis’ expectations of the results of the American invasion; interspliced with interviews and first-hand accounts, Shadid provides the historical background necessary to put everything in context. For example, the 70s were Iraq’s golden age: before Hussein declared war on Iran, Iraq experienced oil wealth and a relatively liberal society. Fast forward to 2003: despite the intervening decades, many Iraqis expected America to do nothing short of returning Iraq to that golden period. It seems that one of Shadid’s main themes is that such high expectations almost had to result in disillusionment. After this, Shadid fills in the reader with a brief history of Islam, including the Sunni and Shi’a split. Next, Shadid discusses life during the brief actual offensive, and he does a very good job of evoking the feelings of bombs going off next door, electricity going out randomly, and never knowing what’s coming next. By now, the reader is about a third of the way through.

During the rest of the book, Shadid focuses on the insurgency but on a deep level. He goes into the historical causes behind the rise of people like Sadr, as well as providing an account of how grassroots movements became so powerful. All in all, he provides a very convincing explanation for the insurgency without ever sounding polemical. I was impressed by the graciousness of all his subjects, by the very humanity that Shadid mangages to bring to life. He includes excerpts from a fourteen-year-old girl’s diary, which are quite powerful. Shadid strikes the perfect balance between filling in the picture but leaving the opinion-forming to the reader. This is my very favorite kind of book, one that assumes I am intelligent.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in contemporary Middle Eastern culture and politics, as well as anyone sick of the uber-partisan discussions about the Iraq war. Moreover, I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction about everyday people; this book has as much of an anthropology-sociology basis as a political one.

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