Books Review


By: Edwin Black, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2004, pp. 471. ISBN: 0-471-67186-X Reviewed by: Afroz Alam

While reviewing Edwin Black’s Banking on Baghdad, I found myself disagreeing with several of his arguments, but I learnt a great deal from each one of them. In this valuable and provocative volume, Black engages himself to explore a question of wide relevance: How did Iraq, once known as the cradle of civilization, become so victimized and so victimizing, so oppressed and so oppressive, so impervious to its own potential and so entangled with the rest of the world? In order to unravel the complexity of this question, he critically investigates Iraq’s history from the rise of civilization, to the conquest of Islam, to the destruction by the Mongols, to the neglect of the Ottomans, and finally to the discovery by the West that Iraq was the indispensable key to its commercial success. It is worth noting that the author does not confine himself only to Iraq, but also delves into the tumultuous inside stories of colonial, political, religious, and commercial upheaval that led to action and reaction in that country.

In the first chapter ‘Have a Nice Day’, Edwin Black buries himself in glorifying the tactical maneuverings of Lt. Col. Chris Hughes in securing Najaf and obtaining a fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani ordering all Shi’as not to interfere with American forces on April 3,2003.

Edwin Black’s second to fifth chapter explores Iraq in a historical backdrop mainly from ancient past to late nineteenth century. Disagreeing with many, he treats the ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as the “cradle of civilization and commerce” conspicuously on the ground of invigorated persistence of economic life and commerce, which began five millennia ago in Mesopotamia. But by the Common Era, “the cradle had been expropriated, subjugated, rehabilitated, and liberated so many times that Mesopotamia’s history had become an endless catalog of conflict between its competing conquerors”(p.26).

Though the author does focus on pre-Arabian invasions, but draws an exceptional attention to the Arab Moslems’ conquest of Mesopotamia and its subsequent transformation into a province of Islamic caliphate. He says that the division of Islam into two hostile camps explicitly known as Shi’a and Sunni brought an unending river of conquests, revolts, sieges, carnage, and civil wars to this ancient land out of the rivalry between the factions and allies, and between neighboring empires.
The author seemingly unsympathetic with Sunni Muslim’s rules and their attitude towards the West, Christians and Jews, conceives the Mongols as the real spoiler of Moslem Empire. Unlike other invaders, the brutality of Mongols led Baghdad and Mesopotamia to destruction. Mesopotamia dwindled in wealth, value, and geographic significance to little more than a frontier character under Mongol thumb. Here, Black brings to our notice that the Mongols deliberately eschewed the Christian churches and shi’a strong holds at Basra and Najaf to hammer home the message of Islam. He observes that Mesopotamia that “flowered greatly into a majestic and vibrant empire where unstoppable knowledge, passionate thought, urban sophistication, and noblest aspirations of mankind coexisted with violence, the inhumanity, and the bloodlust of all-corrupting theocratic power”(p.48).

Decades latter after the collapse of Mongol Empire, Turkish Ottomans uprooted the Safavids Shi’as rule in Mesopotamia and annexed the three Mesopotamian regions, namely Mosul, Baghdad, and the Basra as official provinces of Ottoman Empire in 1535 and controlled the region until the British took hold of Baghdad during World War I. Black presents a very diligent but uni-dimensional account of the rise, conquests, organization, administration, commercial and cultural life, and fall of the Ottoman Empire. While being critical of Ottoman Empire he argues that the “Turks ensured that all the foreign domination, material exploitation, irrelevant government authority, economic stagnation, ethnic strife, and cultural alienation of the previous five centuries would become a seemingly immutable legacy” (p.55). Under the Ottomans Mesopotamia inhabited the neglected frontier, and was of no importance except as a “Sunni buffer against the still-viable Shi’a threat residing Safavid Persia”(p.60).

The author points out, the English commercial interests had been allies of the Shiites against the Sunnis for more than a century in Mesopotamia, but deliberately avoids giving any details about the British shrewd mentality that exploited the ethnic conflicts of the region. Initially the three provinces Mesopotamia was mainly of interest to Britain for its geographical imperative as the midpoint to India. With the discovery of the vast reservoir of oil at the dusk of nineteenth century, Turkish Mesopotamia and indeed the entire Middle East suddenly catapulted in importance for the world. Every mighty European power coveted the chance to monopolize their vast petroleum resources. But who was the legal owner of Mesopotamia’s petroleum resources? Did German, Britain, French, Russian, Turkish, or Americans own it? Was it government owned, corporate owned, or privately owned? These are the questions, which have stirred the mind of the author throughout the Part II and III of his volume. In this context, he provides a scrupulous detail of major contenders (i.e. Standard Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Turkish Petroleum Company, D’Arcy, Compagnie Francaise des Pe’troles etc.) embroiled in an oligarchic competition to monopolize the unexploited oil fields of Mesopotamia. It is in this backdrop, Black reveals a very dominant but intransigent character namely Calouste Sarkis Gulbankian, whom he referred as the legendry Mr. Five Percent. The mightiest oil conglomerates and the world’s greatest nations would bow to his demands, not by virtue of any monopoly, but by virtue of his tenacious personality. After three decades of combative claims, negotiations, and manipulations of the contending parties, the monopoly question was virtually settled in favor of Turkish Petroleum Company, which worked as Iraq Petroleum Company in the remarkable Red Line Agreement of 1928.

Part III of the book places Mesopotamia within the time framework of World War I to the close of World War II. While dealing with Arab nationalism during World War I with great denigration, the author points out that Mesopotamia was completely marginalized despite the agitation for Islamic independence burning throughout the Mideast. The British tactical agreement with Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, and several defections in favor of Britain finally resulted in the British conquest of Baghdad in 1917. Within a weak of overrunning Basra, the British inaugurated a civil administration on the pattern of India. The author eulogizes that “the British model of reconstruction and development plans abounded to restore the golden era of Mesopotamia and bring its long-neglected provinces into the twentieth century”(p.202). No doubt oil was the chief motivating factor that guided the allied powers to consciously deprive Iraqi’s right to self-determination after the dismantling of Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. But what really empowered their avarice? What make it palatable and more than justifiable for them to deprive Turkey of her provinces? The author points out that the West’s ingrained hatred of the Ottoman Empire out of their systematically engineered exterminations against the innocent Christians and Jews throughout the realm inflamed the Westerners to justify all they did in Mesopotamia. Black also deals with the Zionist movement to establish Jewish homeland in Palestine and its British strategic support throughout the length. He mentions three developments being responsible in galvanizing the Arab consciousness to unite for virtually the next century, namely, the infidel European Allies, the infidel Zionist, and the black substance the West craved for. These events unleashed an armed uprising all over Iraq that latter converted into Jihad after the formal declaration by religious leaders in August 1920. The author ostensibly tries to rationalize the massive British attack and its consequent success in quelling the upsurge in Iraq. The British now finally anointed the sharif of Mecca, Faisal, who fought alongside Thomas Edward Lawrence, as the ‘King of Iraq’ in August 1921. King Faisal ensured all the commercial interests of the British—shipping, railroading, oil exploitation, and pipelines, and they were being protected against Iraq itself.

Chapters sixteen and seventeen revolve round the question of oil, the Jewish case for Palestine and Arab’s resistance, and finally the alliance of the leaders of Arab nationalism with the Nazis during World War II. The legacy of Nazi doctrine and Muhammad Amin al-Husseini’s hatred of Jews had pervaded the Iraqi national psyche, which reflected in a maniacal pogrom against Jews and their forced ejection from Iraq. Black remarks, ‘The Iraqis were driven more by their obsession with Jewish Palestine and perpetuating Nazi precepts and anti-Jewish programs than by a desire to rebuild their country or strengthen their democracy’ (p.344).

The concluding chapter, entitled “The Three Gulfs” assesses the second half of Iraq’s turbulent twentieth century that abounds with a cascade of coups and revolutions, religious strife between Shi’as and Sunnis, resentments over the issue of foreign oil exploitation, anti-Zionism, and churning nationalism. Commenting over Kuwait, Black dismisses Iraq’s claim, and points out that it has never been a part of the nation of Iraq. But he does not provide any detail about the gulf wars except elaborating the point that it was all about a war of liberation from Saddam’s tyranny and a war for oil exploitation. The post-gulf II upheaval in Iraq is termed by the author as Gulf III.

After investigating 7000 years of Iraq’s history, the author avails himself of the opportunity to attest that Iraq once the cradle of civilization became “a mere cradle fit for robbery and abuse by the greatest forces in history: by the most murderous barbarians, by the most powerful nations, by the greatest corporations, by the onslaught of progress that sprang from its midst and took root elsewhere, continents away, and by the ravages of cultural self wounding that ensured Iraq would remain a prisoner of its own heritage” (p. 10).

The one outstanding trait in the author, as it emerges from the book, is his commitment to champion the cause of Jews, Christians and the Western interests in the Middle East and more particularly in Iraq. Ironically, Black has given extra emphasis on exploring the Moslem’s repressive and suppressive behavior against the Jews, Christians, and everything about West. But he escapes from the providing any reference, which might go against the latter. One can easily see that this exclusion was out of sheer bias, rather than plain ignorance about the obverse evil designs in this region. Overall, the volume Banking on Baghdad is an important intellectual exercise to understand the obfuscated petropolitics of Iraq from antiquity to continuity.

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