Like many other people, I’ve been trying to make sense of the horrific attack in Nice on 14 July. I’ve delayed writing about it because so much remains unknown – though that has not stopped a cascade of malignant certainties spewing from those on the Right who see every event as an opportunity to foment fear, harness hatred and deepen division.

A Tunisian man with no known history of political activism or religious affirmation kills 84 people by deliberately driving a truck through crowds along the Promenade des Anglais who were celebrating Bastille Day; a man who lived on the margins with a record of petty crime and domestic abuse; somebody with precious few resources, yet able to rent a truck and acquire weapons; and a claim to have ‘inspired’ the attack from Islamic State, which then hailed him as a ‘soldier’.

No wonder that Peter Beaumont agonises over ‘a new kind of terror – one we can’t define‘, where the systematic recruitment, training and organisation of other terrorist attacks bleeds into the savage violence of the ‘lone wolf’ prowling undetected in the darkness.  The incorporation and adulation of individuals and small groups with no previous connection to IS or other jihadi groups reverses what he calls the standard ‘polarity of responsibility: encouraging acts of violence that it accepts as bloody tributes thrown at its feet.’

The link with petty crime is not surprising.  Scott Atran notes that

Serious jihadi involvement with petty criminal networks began after the September 11 attacks as an unintended consequence of the ability of the United States and allies to cut off the flow of funding to suspect groups, especially through Islamic charities. So al-Qaeda and others began looking for funding and arms in criminal networks instead. And in these networks there were large numbers of marginalized immigrant youth, especially in France.

Indeed, Joseph Micallef makes a plausible case for IS expanding its involvement in criminality as its territorial hold on Iraq and Syria comes under intensifying assault: ‘The smuggling networks that are used to bring in armaments and militants can be just as easily be used to traffic in drugs and illegal immigrants.’  His inclusion of ‘illegal immigrants’ should give us pause for thought; I have no idea if he intends this to include refugees from the turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Libya (it shouldn’t).  But to the extent that IS is involved in human trafficking then this is a double victimisation of its prey.

All of this may be granted; but a causal link between Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s murderous drive through crowds of innocent people and the designs of IS or any other radical version of political Islam is proving remarkably elusive.  There is a wider debate in France about whether the terrorism serially inflicted upon its people is at root about ‘the radicalization of Islam’ (Gilles Kepel – below left) or the ‘Islamicization of radicalism’ (Olivier Roy – below right) – there is a good summary here – but in this instance it is far from clear that either of them is relevant.

Gilles Keppel and Olivier Roy

Indeed, Farhad Khorokhavar, a sociologist at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, doubts that ‘radicalisation’ is the appropriate term at all:

“I don’t think he was radicalised at all… It’s a case of raw violence. He took a decision to kill in a moment of despair. My guess is that it’s much more like a mass shooting in the US than [Islamist] radicalisation.”

He speaks instead of ‘mimetic violence’, where previous attacks have furnished ‘a model that fragile people can imitate.’

So I don’t know whether the atrocity in Nice can be attributed to IS or not – but I have no doubt that the precipitate rush to do so has substantive consequences.

One place to start thinking critically about them is this photograph of a woman consumed by grief as she searches for her son after the attack:

Nice July 2016

The image serves to remind us that – if, to repeat, this does prove to be an attack whose trail can be traced back, however indirectly, to the dismal doors of Islamic State – the victims of such atrocities include people of many cultures and faiths.  Theirs is not a ‘war’ against a single, monolithic enemy; Nice is far from being a homogeneous city – like France, like the rest of Europe – and Alissa Rubin captures what she calls its ‘many-layered’ geography better than most:

There is the Nice of popular imagination, the old-world resort dotted with palm trees and cafes that look out on the Mediterranean Sea, suffused with an incandescent light prized for centuries by artists.

Then there is the other Nice, one that begins to show its face a few blocks inland from the seaside Promenade des Anglais, the majestic arc of a boulevard where 84 people were killed by a 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant at the wheel of a 19-ton truck. This Nice is home to many Muslim immigrants from North Africa, including a secular middle-class that has lived alongside non-Muslim French, and is also a place that local officials estimate has sent as many as 100 young people to fight in Syria with extremists.

“It is rare that these two worlds mix with each other except at the moment of festivities or of agreement, like the gatherings on Saturday,” said Feiza Ben Mohamed of the Muslims of the South, an organization that fights radicalization, referring to the public mourning for those killed in the truck attack.

“Yet the first victim was Muslim, and a good number of the victims were Muslims,” Ms. Mohamed added. “Just yesterday I was on the promenade reflecting on what had happened, and a journalist asked me if I was there to apologize in the name of Muslims. I said to him, ‘No, I came to weep for the dead like everyone else.’”

You can read another (short) essay by Farhad Khorokhavar on these divisions in France, ‘Jihad and the French exception’, here.  In Nice they have been intensified, not only by recruiters for the butchery in Syria – and there is no doubt of their success in Nice: Alpes-Maritimes was one of the first French départements to implement a counter-radicalisation strategy of sorts – but also by the advance of the far right National Front, and no doubt by memories of France’s colonial adventures in North Africa and the Levant and its deepening military involvement in Syria.

For now, France seems under repeated attack: the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015; the attacks on the Bataclan and other public places in Paris last November; and now the murder of more than 80 people in Nice.

Martin Rowson cartoon Guardian

Each of these mass murders is truly, wrenchingly shocking: but those of us who live in Europe or North America cannot afford to allow those shock-waves to be refracted by geography because this would erect the bloody partition that is one of IS’s central objectives.  Nihilism meets narcissism.

I made much the same point about Paris and Beirut last year.  Now we might twin Nice with Baghdad. Like Nice – like all cities worthy of the name – Baghdad is far from homogeneous, for all the ethno-sectarian ‘cleansing’ that occurred during the US occupation (see my account of ‘The Biopolitics of Baghdad’: DOWNLOADS tab), and those tensions continue to roil.  The truck bombing and subsequent fire that killed 300 people in the Karrada district as they broke their Ramadan fast at the end of the day on 3 July may have seemed like the ‘new normal’ to commentators watching the rising tide of violence in post-occupation Iraq; it too was claimed by IS.  So too many of us doubtless shrugged our shoulders.

Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq 2003-July 2016 (Iraq Body Count)

Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq 2003-July 2016 (Iraq Body Count)

And yet, as Walaa Chahine so movingly testified after another bombing there on 12 July, ‘We may be used to bombings in Baghdad, but Baghdad isn’t‘:

We are used to it, so we don’t make hashtags, change our profile pictures, or memorize their names. By taking away these rights away from them, and yes, they have become rights, as long as other victims are given them, we are taking away their connection to us as humans. We forget that we would probably never get used to having our hometowns bombed every day, that just like us, they are humans who don’t forget, can’t forget.

No, the eleven people killed today weren’t used to dying. The 292 killed last week were not used to it. Their families will never get used to it. No matter how long you spend in a war area, you never get used to it. Ask a soldier, ask a refugee, ask someone who experiences violence and pain on the daily if they ever truly get used to it. We might be able to tune out their screams, but we weren’t the ones screaming in the first place.

Iraqi woman grieving in Karrada July 2016

And so, as this contrapuntal geography shows, it bears repeating – until even the tone-deaf Donald Trump gets it – that most of the victims of Islamic State’s terrible violence are other, innocent Muslims.  And they live – and die – outside Europe and North America too.

City of Light, City of Darkness

I’ve long been interested in cities under military occupation, and in particular in the ways in which armies spatialise the city in order to securitise it.  I still have a detailed presentation on the French occupation of Cairo at the end of the eighteenth century – for Edward Said the formative and diagnostic moment in the formation of a distinctively modern Orientalsim – and the US occupation of Baghdad at the beginning of the twenty-first.  The parallels are as striking as the differences, and one of these days I know I have to find the time to convert the image-stream into a word-stream.

So this explains why a new book on Paris under German occupation in the Second World War caught my eye.

DRAKE Paris at warDavid Drake‘s Paris at War, 1939-1945 from Harvard/Belknap was published last month:

Paris at War chronicles the lives of ordinary Parisians during World War II, from September 1939 when France went to war with Nazi Germany to liberation in August 1944. Readers will relive the fearful exodus from the city as the German army neared the capital, the relief and disgust felt when the armistice was signed, and the hardships and deprivations under Occupation. David Drake contrasts the plight of working-class Parisians with the comparative comfort of the rich, exposes the activities of collaborationists, and traces the growth of the Resistance from producing leaflets to gunning down German soldiers. He details the intrigues and brutality of the occupying forces, and life in the notorious transit camp at nearby Drancy, along with three other less well known Jewish work camps within the city.

The book gains its vitality from the diaries and reminiscences of people who endured these tumultuous years. Drake’s cast of characters comes from all walks of life and represents a diversity of political views and social attitudes. We hear from a retired schoolteacher, a celebrated economist, a Catholic teenager who wears a yellow star in solidarity with Parisian Jews, as well as Resistance fighters, collaborators, and many other witnesses.

Drake enriches his account with details from police records, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and newsreels. From his chronology emerge the broad rhythms and shifting moods of the city. Above all, he explores the contingent lives of the people of Paris, who, unlike us, could not know how the story would end.

Here is the Contents list:

Introduction: The Road to War: September 1938–September 1939
1. The Phoney War: September 3, 1939–May 10, 1940
2. Blitzkrieg and Exodus: May 10, 1940–June 14, 1940
3. Parisians and Germans, Germans and Parisians
4. Paris, German Capital of France
5. Unemployment, Rationing, Vichy against Jews, Montoire
6. From Mass Street Protest to the “Führer’s Generous Gesture”
7. Protests, Pillaging, “V” for Victory, the First Roundup of Jews
8. Resistance and Repression
9. Resistance, Punishment, Allied Bombs, and Deportation
10. SS Seizure of Security, the Yellow Star, the Vél’d’hiv’ Roundup, La Relève
11. Denunciations, Distractions, Deprivations
12. Labour Conscription, Resistance, the French Gestapo
13. Anti-Bolshevism, Black Market, More Bombs, Drancy
14. A Serial Killer on the Run, Pétain in Paris, the Milice on the Rampage, the Allies on Their Way
15. The Liberation of Paris

For a principled contemporary account, incidentally, and one that reverberates with the power of the literary sensibility that was so repugnant to the Nazis, it’s hard to beat Jean Guéhenno‘s Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris.

Baghdad is still burning

One of the very best blogs to be written out of Baghdad while the city was under US military occupation was Baghdad Burning.  Written by a young Iraqi woman who called herself “Riverbend“, it documented everyday life in a city being torn apart by military and paramilitary violence and provided a spirited series of commentaries on US and Iraqi politics.

In September 2007 Riverbend and her family finally left Baghdad:

Baghdad Burning.002

They crossed the border into Syria and took refuge in Damascus.  ‘Syria is a beautiful country,’ Riverbend wrote in her last post on 22 October 2007:

‘… at least I think it is. I say “I think” because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war – bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets seemingly always full of shoppers…’

And she described a newly strange sense of being at home:

‘Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. [You can find some extraordinary photographs by Gabriela Bulisova of Iraqi refugees in Damascus here and a revealing guide to being an Iraqi refugee in the city here].  Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children….

‘We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house – across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask – this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too… Welcome to the building.”

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.’

After that – silence.

The blog was transformed into two books, both published by the Feminist Press at CUNY with the same title, and inspired several stage plays and a BBC radio adaptation in 2007.

Baghdad Burning.001

It has also been the subject of a stream of academic commentaries that shows no sign of slackening: see, for example, Wayne Hunt here, Amira Jamarkan here, Francesca Maioloi here, Nadine Sinno (Chapter 9 of Feminism and war here), plus these subscriber-only essays: Wes Attewell, ‘ “Every Iraqi’s Nightmare: blogging peace in occupied Baghdad’ [Antipode 44 (3) (2012)]; Wisam Khalid Abdul Jabbar, ‘Riverbend’s blogosphere: mockery and menace in colonial discourse’ [Critical discourse studies 10 (3) (2013); and Tess Pierce, ‘Singing at the digital well’ [Feminist formations 22 (3) 2010].

But on 9 April 2013, ten years since the fall of Baghdad to U.S. troops, Riverbend returned – to the blogosphere at least.  In her post, she lists the lessons of the war and the occupation, ‘probably’, she writes, ‘for the last time’:

‘We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair – it takes the good people. Even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a ‘normal’ death… A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces. Their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red. 
We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands. 
We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age. Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.’

Riverbend hasn’t returned to Baghdad, where violence (which never went away) has intensified over the last six months and headlines – now tucked away on the inside pages of European and American newspapers – are once again recording ‘another day of slaughter‘.  You can find contrasting reports on conditions in Baghdad now here (“Everyone has his own map of familiar, reassuring, “stabilised” places, and other areas where they dare not return”), here (‘“Before we at least had the security to go anywhere,” Salbi said. “We go out like normal, but we don’t have the security of knowing we will come back. If someone is running even a half an hour late, you start worrying about bombs”‘), here (“… the sprawling, less well-to-do neighbourhoods, such as Ghazaliya, Dora and Saidiya still feel angry and tense. The concrete walls and armed checkpoints, put up during the American occupation at the height of the sectarian violence, remain in place. They still function to control the population, limiting access in some neighbourhoods to a couple of exits that can be easily sealed off”), and here (“Baghdad looked like a city scarred by death and despair. The sense of fear among ordinary Iraqis, exhausted and traumatized by the foreign occupation and years of fratricide, is overwhelming. Across the capital lie abandoned houses”).

Snapshots of a tangled mosaic.  You can find an overview, with graphs and maps, here and a backgrounder to that article here.  Below I’ve reproduced a map from the Institute for the Study of War; despite the military language (SIGACTS are ‘significant acts’), the map was compiled by ISW ‘from available open-source news reporting from Iraqi and western media. Where possible, the attacks were cross-referenced with other sources.’ In consequence the map does ‘not provide an exhaustive account of security incidents in Iraq during the period in question’ but indicates ‘concentrations of violence.’  But the continuity of military language – and military cartographic conventions which I discussed in “Seeing Red” (DOWNLOADS tab) – is about more than the neo-conservative ideology of the ISW: it also speaks to the resurgence of violence noted in many of those recent press reports:

Baghdad Belts SIGACTS July-August 2012

Casualty figures in Iraq are now at their highest level since June 2008.  Iraq Body Count is still maintaining its grim but necessary tabulations – though some critics insist that these gravely underestimate the true figures – and in its most recent report notes:

The US/UK-led invasion of March 2003 has brought a decade of high and low intensity armed conflict to Iraq. But this conflict is not yet history. It remains entrenched and pervasive, with a clear beginning but no foreseeable end, and very much a part of the present in Iraq. In major regions of the country armed violence continues to exact a remorseless toll on human life, young and old, male and female, across society.

The US/UK-led invasion of March 2003 has brought a decade of high and low intensity armed conflict to Iraq. But this conflict is not yet history. It remains entrenched and pervasive, with a clear beginning but no foreseeable end, and very much a part of the present in Iraq. In major regions of the country armed violence continues to exact a remorseless toll on human life, young and old, male and female, across society.

Riverbend is no longer in Damascus either, where violence has also intensified during the civil war, especially since last spring (see this sequence of maps compiled by the New York Times here):

Damascus violence March-May 2012

 Damascus violence June-August 2012

Damascus violence September-November 2012

Many Iraqis have been forced out of Damascus by the fighting and returned to Baghdad, shaken by the reappearance of sectarian violence, but Riverbend explains:

‘I moved before the heavy fighting, before it got ugly. That’s how fortunate I was. I moved to another country nearby, stayed almost a year, and then made another move to a third Arab country with the hope that, this time, it’ll stick until… Until when? Even the pessimists aren’t sure anymore. When will things improve? When will be able to live normally? How long will it take?’

I hope she isn’t in Cairo.

War tourism


I spent part of the week-end at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, which is currently hosting Safar/Voyage: contemporary works by Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists (until 15 September).  I’d written an essay for the accompanying catalogue – “Middle of What?  East of Where?”, which you can find under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I was at MOA on Saturday afternoon for a lively and appropriately wide-ranging public conversation (billed as a”Global Dialogue”) on “Nomadic aesthetics and the importance of place” with Jian Ghomeshi, artist Jayce Salloum and curator Jill Baird.

destinationx1While I was at MOA I spent some time with the artworks on display and in the company of a brilliant app that provides all sorts of information and context; for such a compact exhibition they are thrillingly diverse, speaking to one another in a multiplicity of ways, and disrupting common stereotypes of the region as somehow homogeneous.  Two exhibits are likely to be of particular interest to readers of this blog.  The first, artfully parked outside the second, is Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki‘s Destination X (originally 2010, but recreated for MOA in 2013):

Destination X is an old car piled high with the hastily gathered belongings of a refugee family: luggage, everyday objects, and colourful cloth bundles tied to the roof. During the Lebanese civil war these floral fabrics, regional and postcolonial at the same time, replaced fabrics embroidered with local peasant motifs, mirroring the lost agricultural “paradise.” The overloaded car suggests movement and absence, urgency and wandering. The letter X symbolizes forced flight into exile to places unknown. Distance is swallowed in an aimless journey, when time and duration become vague. The journey and its hardships, the risk of leaving home, the difficulty of resettling.

You can find images of earlier versions here, where the artist explains that, while the work had its origins in the Lebanese civil war, it speaks to many other situations and peoples: “Other nationalities can sympathise…Many of the elder generations, it echoes with them…either from Bosnia or from World War II.”

ATinstallThe second is Adel Abidin‘s mixed-media installation, Abidin’s Travels (2006), set up as a travel agent’s office, complete with posters, brochures and video, and its nemesis (a website: how many travel agents are there these days?)

I came up with the idea when I visited Iraq in 2004 and was greeted at a checkpoint by an American soldier, who said, “Welcome to Baghdad!” I realized I was being welcomed by an occupier of my own city. This experience made me think about cities in war and their messy transformations.

After the occupation and gentrification of a city in a conflict zone, you would need a guide, even if you grew up there. This is what I saw happening in Baghdad. So I created a travel agency, using “holiday travel” as a point of departure and Iraq as a destination, to explore the idea of tourism and consumerism in general, and how these generic models break down when applied to a country ripped apart by war. I created this work to draw attention to the new Iraq, “the democratic Iraq,” a mythical place where, in reality, possibility and opportunity barely exist.

You can find a short, interesting commentary by Laura Marks here.


Baghdad has obviously changed in the last six or seven years, but in case you think tourism has been ‘normalised’ check out Wikitravel‘s current guide, which reads as though it was written by the artist (“The easiest way to stay safe in Baghdad is not to go there in the first place”).  Still more revealing, look at the hotel reviews (yes) on Trip Advisor here.  Like all reviews on the site, they tell you as much about the reviewer as they do the place – I was particularly taken by this review of one hotel, which was never far from the headlines during the invasion and occupation, and which displays what I hope is a rare sensitivity to the lot of ordinary people in Baghdad:

The problems start with the lack of amenities. The pool wasn’t fit to swim in, the hotel doesn’t have a bar, there isn’t a gym, nothing. The service was appalling. The food was always cold & generally dreadful, the bathrooms are fitted out with full bottles of head and shoulders, Colgate, dove soap, bic razors and gilette shaving foam. There is no room service, no laundry service and all that for $300 a night….One plus. It’s safe, which is saying something for Baghdad…

Not much global dialogue there then.