Pacific Rim Review of Books

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High Tea in Mosul

reviewed by Michael Platzer

High Tea in Mosul: Two English Women in War-torn Iraq. Lynne O'Donnell. The Mercury Press. 2007.

To get people, particularly in the UK and USA, to appreciate the folly, chaos, and daily horror of the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces, tell it through the eyes of two ordinary Englishwomen who had lived for 30 years in Mosul and had their lives turned upside down.

Lynne O’Donnell, an Australian journalist, who is currently based in Hong Kong, has written a poignant tale of two middle-aged women from the North of England who married Iraqis in 1970s and became integrated into life in the city of Mosul during the regime of Saddam Hussein. The observations of life as expatriates, mothers of several children, and wives of professional people are told through direct quotations and private conversations with the author. They describe the happy times as well as the hardships they had to endure during the period of sanctions. The two women relate how they slowly build their homes in a strange land and were gradually accepted by their in-laws and neighbors. They tell of the terror of the bombing by the coalition forces, the nearby explosions, and the massive cracks ripping their houses. The unchecked looting, the kidnapping of relatives, and the dangerous rides on roads are vividly described in a way that makes your heart thump with fear.

One of the women writes in her diary on March 27, 2003: “Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.” She later tells O’Donnell, “Everyone in Iraq knew it would end up like this, with people coming from abroad to exploit the chaos, and people here fighting each other.” Paul Bremer, is singled out for making the biggest blunder – dismantling the civil service, along with the police and military and sacking all members of the Ba’ath Party. But even the media popular General Petraeus gets failing marks, for as long as the electricity, water, and telecommunications failed to work and there were no jobs, the American pacification program could not succeed. The hapless Americans were ignorant of the competing ethnic, religious, tribal interests, and the old scores to be settled and were too ready to listen to the opportunists. “The Americans were naïve and too easily manipulated when it came to doling out power to local interests,” said the other woman, whose husband had wanted to cooperate with the Americans but was fired instead.

On the other hand, the women had great sympathy for the frightened young American soldiers who were no longer treated as liberators but being shot at by a variety of hidden enemies. The GIs had just broken down the door to her house and she “found the soldiers scared, exhausted, confused and angry. They didn’t know why they were in a country that they had expected to welcome them unconditionally. But where, it seemed, everyone hated them and wanted them dead.” The Americans using sweeping tactics, often based on intelligence that was flimsy or just wrong, turned more and more people against them, and strengthened the support of the insurgents. In the end it became difficult to distinguish ordinary criminals from Islamists who kidnapped or robbed to finance their cause.

As the violence spread out of control and the beheading of Westerners increased, the women had to remain inside their houses for fear of their lives. “If anyone were to ask me do you want Saddam back, I’d say bring him back. At least I could go outside. I didn’t have to be afraid of having my head chopped off, ” the Lancashire lass lamented. In the end, she and her husband flee to the relative security and prosperity of Kurdistan, after their son is threatened with kidnapping. The other couple return to England to restart their lives with two suitcases and very alienated children.

The author concludes her book: “Iraq’s civil war will find its own end…. It is impossible to predict how long this process will take. Nor is it likely that it can be foreshortened from outside. It must reach its conclusion, through predestined violence and death.” The horrible effects on ordinary people, with whom we can easily identify, are due to the intellectual arrogance and self-righteousness of the coalition leaders. “They possessed little understanding of the reality of tyranny, and seemed to genuinely believe that the Iraqi people could just discard the straitjacket of dictatorship and slip immediately into a modern democratic, peaceful and tolerant state.”

Lynne O’Donnell has not only written an excellent analytical book about Iraq but has managed to convey the tragedy of the war in a powerful humane manner. She represents one of the best examples of “peace journalism,” which seeks to give war a human face.

Michael Platzer writes from Vienna. He was originally hired at the UN by U Thant, and he continues to work in the field of international diplomacy.