Western media the social butterfly that it is, once action in Iraq deflated from large-scale military offensive to scattered bombings and shootings, it fluttered elsewhere in search of human drama. A blank space left in Western awareness of the embattled country, had Iraq been completely destroyed? Were the people reduced to nothing—poverty, starvation, homelessness? Does the US military continue to dominate the streets? What is true public perception of the fall of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of a Western-friendly (most would say puppet) government? A lot of questions remain.
Lured by the offer yet wary of the inherent risk (kidnapping insurance was involved), in 2012 Marcel Al Madanat moved to Baghdad for a two-year contract supporting a mobile phone provider. His time there both a life motivating and changing experience, in 2015 he decided to write a book, The Expat: Mission Iraq.
Doing a good job of filling the blank space in Western awareness of contemporary Iraq, Al Madanat provides the insider’s view of the reality of being a foreigner in Baghdad a decade since the coalition forces’ offensive. Of mixed Jordanian and European blood and speaking Arabic, he straddles the cultural divide. An outsider by appearance yet privy to many details by privilege of cultural heritage and language, certain doors are open to him the average European or North American would find closed. Taking advantage, he is able to occasionally get beyond Baghdad’s secure ‘green zone’ and into what qualified for everyday Iraqi life—at least what it is left as—as well as converse with people the typical American or British tourist could not.
Its citizens filled with an uncertain yet stolid determination to carry on as normal as possible, Al Madanat describes a Baghdad wherein random violence still occurs regularly but its people live on regardless. Religious sects, gangs, urban militias, rival political allegiances, avengers—all continue to imbue daily life with injury and death. So much so, in fact, it seemed every Iraqi acquaintance Al Madanat made was touched in some way, whether it be a bomb at their nephew’s wedding or assassinated uncles. And yet the Iraqis bravely push ahead. Despite the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants electrical systems and varied availability of bathing and drinking water, the people maintain a social presence. Everyone has at least two mobile phones (in case one provider goes down) and still go out on the streets to restaurants and markets, despite the mortal risk in every step taken. Al Madanat’s occasions in public are kept few and far between by his overseers (and perhaps common sense?) but what he sees remains fascinating for the colors of everyday life in the face of random death and violence.*
A professional account as well, The Expat covers Al Madanat’s work while in country. Leader of an incident management team working for a mobile phone provider, he dealt with incidents unseen in most other countries. Terrorism and explosive violence causing many unplanned network outages, Al Manadat had his work cut out for him keeping the patchwork infrastructure humming. From team response to getting reliable information in the field—a field likewise dealing with the chaos of post-invasion Iraq—he depends on building sensitive relationships to accomplish goals: the character descriptions of those he works with and meets are foundation stones of the account.
For those concerned about the potential politics of The Expat, Al Andanat provides a balanced view. Knowledgable of Middle Eastern culture as much as Western culture, he respects those who are interested in rebuilding Iraq rather than continuing to tear it down. There is some commentary on the larger socio-political situation (e.g. Saddam is given credit where credit is due, but taken to task for decisions and statements made), but as a whole the book remains a constructive rather than destructive effort.
It’s fair to say, however, the lion’s share of The Expat is a liberation—a sharing, motivational experience. Al Madanat achieving numerous personal victories throughout the process of deciding to work in Baghdad to arriving there, living in the volatile city to working with cultural standards both familiar and foreign, he achieves a degree of positivity and satisfaction—a finding of “peace in a land of misery”—that rubs off on the reader. Interested to explore Iraq, meet the people, and make something of himself while there, he achieves his goals—the last of which one must consider the writing of The Expat.
*I cannot help but inject a bit of meta-commentary about one aspect of Iraqi life Al Madanat observed: the availability, source, and price of goods. While one would expect high demand-low supply in a country still dealing with the tremors of war, Al Madanat reports that not only are goods readily available, pricing is more than reasonable—his mobile phone cheaper in Iraq than Europe. Morevover, more than overwhelming majority of the producst for sale do not originate in Iraq. Where, I ask, is the influx of goods coming from, and who is profiting?