In a publishing atmosphere saturated by instant Iraq experts, Rutgers University political scientist Davis presents a rare work of careful scholarship. Memories of State examines the intellectual tyranny of the Baath regime in Iraq, tracing its efforts to undo the cultural pluralism which once characterized Iraqi society.
Davis begins by describing how Ottoman reform, Iranian constitutionalism, and nascent Arab nationalism combined to shape an Iraqi intelligentsia. With time—and especially after independence—the Arab nationalist trend gained strength. Intellectual Iraq was not homogenous, though. While Shi‘i intellectual life was vibrant, it oriented itself more around the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and toward Iran than to the nascent state.
While it would be an exaggeration to call Iraqi political culture tolerant, its early years were marked by cultural pluralism. Not only Muslims but also Jews and Christians participated in state and society. This political culture began to fracture in the 1930s. By allying themselves with the military, which they saw as a force to impose reform, Iraqi progressives opened a Pandora's box of coups and instability. Pan-Arabists gained strength in the years prior to World War II, and cultural pluralism deteriorated. Nazi propaganda permeated society, and the Jewish community never recovered after the 1940 farhud (pogrom) in Baghdad.
While minority communities became detached from the Iraqi mainstream, there was still dynamic political debate. Davis traces the development of the war of ideas between Arab nationalists and communists. Using a wide variety of Arabic sources drawn from field research in Iraqi archives and libraries, Davis traces the newspapers and books that influenced society and politics. He reaches into the roots of intellectual life at the time, even detailing specific coffeehouses where writers would discuss and debate their ideas.
While the 1958 revolution sparked political and civic activity, the 1968 Baathist coup curtailed it. The intellectual chill was not instantaneous, though. Davis examines how the Baathist regime moved to co-opt Iraq's intelligentsia and brainwash its youth. He surveys books, newspapers, literary journals, and even graphic art to show how the Iraqi regime sought to promote Sunni Arab nationalism. A wide array of photographs of everything from models at Iraqi fashion shows to Saddam's monumental architecture help illustrate Davis's arguments.
The chapter on "Memories of State and the Arts of Resistance," is particularly strong. In it, Davis details the subtle academic censorship exerted by the Ministry of Culture. Baathist bureaucrats allowed the publication of lackluster theses on esoteric topics but refused to print award-winning anthropological studies of Iraqi tribes because these acknowledged a diversity that the Baath party did not wish to recognize. Iraq's once rich poetic tradition narrowed into a celebration of Arab nationalism. The survey of Iraqi newspaper content in the 1990s shows how stilted Iraq's once rich discourse had become.
While Memories of State will be of lasting value to academics and historians wishing to understand the evolution and deterioration of Iraq's intelligentsia, its dense academic prose undercuts its utility. Readers are saddled with long asides about contrasting theories of "historical memory," "Gramscian notions of hegemony," and other examples of unnecessary obfuscation.