A Conversation with Zainab Saleh
The assistant professor of anthropology shares the stories of the Iraqi community in London in her new book.
In her new book, Return to Ruin: Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Zainab Saleh examines the impact of the United States’ occupation of Iraq on the Iraqi community in London. The book—a culmination of 14 years of fieldwork and inspired by Saleh’s own experiences as an Iraqi exile—chronicles how the community endures the consequences of violence and destruction in Iraq while creating a new sense of belonging and imagining the future in the U.K.
How did you start working on this project?
Zainab Saleh: I arrived in the United States in the summer of 2002, just six months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, the pro-war and anti-war camps had heated debates about freedom and democracy versus colonialism, sovereignty versus imperialism, and human rights versus oil. Iraqis, who have borne the brunt of Western governments’ support of Hussein (and their falling out with his regime), and who were going to bear the brunt of another war, were marginal and faceless in these struggles and debates. The erasure of Iraqi individuals from discussions and news about the U.S. occupation prompted me to focus my research on them.
For this book you did fieldwork on the Iraqi community in the UK for over 14 years, what was that experience like?
ZS: It is a heartbreaking experience. Iraqis in London have been haunted by events in Iraq and by concerns for loved ones in the country. The fact that the situation in Iraq keeps deteriorating means that most feel they cannot find closure. Iraqis in London not only grappled with the fact that their country had been thrust into violence and that citizens in Iraq lived in danger and without access to basic services, they also continued to mourn friends and relatives lost over the decades.
You spoke a bit about the importance of storytelling in your work, specifically, you said it was a way of reclamation for the people you worked with, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that?
ZS: My Iraqi interlocutors in London eloquently told stories about their lives and experiences in Iraq and about their efforts to define home and selfhood. In doing so, they were trying to make sense of the present and reflect on the past. Storytelling, to them, became a way to reconnect to their homeland, to guard against the erasure of their past, and to carve out an Iraqi subjectivity against fragmentation and wars. For them, the efforts to carve out an Iraqi subjectivity rooted in historical events and structures of power were meant to resist the politics of erasure that rendered them as faceless statistics and the mainstream portrayal of them as sectarian subjects.
What was one of the most interesting things you learned as you wrote this book?
ZS: One of the things I learned is that the histories of Iraq and the United States are deeply intertwined. I employ the concept of imperial encounter to shed light on how the United States and Iraq, countries usually seen to occupy different worlds, are entangled. This concept of the encounter decenters the nation state and emphasizes global connections. The framework of the encounter demonstrates that Iraq and the United States are entangled in an unequal power relation that has reconfigured the lives of Iraqis. Scholars have advised against approaching the United States as an entity confined to its territorial boundaries; rather, we must examine the relationship between U.S. imperialism and other countries, and U.S. efforts to produce subjects beyond its national boundaries through neoliberal policies, military interventions, and cultural hegemony.