Back from Baghdad

Three hours before the first U.S. fighter jets left central Saudi Arabia for Baghdad, Kiren Chaudhry sighed and told the 99th reporter of the week what she had just told me: that the sanctions against Iraq were working. She'd been in Iraq a week and a half before, tagging along with an eclectic contingent of U.S. peace activists, including Vietnam veterans and Grandmothers for Peace. When she'd left Baghdad, the stores were still full, but a sack of flour was selling for 260 dinars - twice a soldier's monthly wages. There was no bread.

"What that means," she tells the reporter with a trace of asperity, "is that Iraq can't hold out much longer. The sanctions are working.

"Just what the mainstream media doesn't want to hear," she says, hanging up the phone.

Chaudhry's been doing a lot of talking to the media, mainstream and otherwise, since Iraq invaded Kuwait last year. In the last six months she has been on the CBS Morning News, the NBC Nightly News, National Public Radio, and in the New York Times. Heady stuff for a new professor and, Chaudhry says, completely unexpected. As a graduate student, she had a hard time finding anyone interested in reading her papers. Now she gets several calls a day, saying, "Oh, I'd love to see your paper on Iraqi economic reforms."

The daughter of a Pakistani father and a Swedish-American mother, Chaudhry grew up in a Punjabi village in Pakistan. She speaks Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and Arabic. Her background, she says, makes for good media fodder, but she resents being looked at as "a queer cultural artifact." The 31-year-old Chaudhry got her Ph.D. from Harvard last March and landed at the University of California at Berkeley as an assistant professor of political science in September. A former Fulbright scholar, she's a specialist in the political economy of the Middle East and has spent the last five years conducting research in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. In the fall of 1989, she lived in Iraq, doing fieldwork on Iraq's economic reform and privatization program.

Her Berkeley office is white, neat, and subdued, decorated with posters from Eastern Europe and color snapshots from Iraq: a marketplace scene, a smiling, dark-eyed girl peeking out from the shelter of her sister's chador. Chaudhry herself is a small, compact woman with neat dark hair and cool, wary eyes. She is tense today and rarely smiles. When she does, it's a rueful, crooked smile that vanishes in a flash.

When I first arrive, Chaudhry shows me several Iranian and Iraqi propaganda posters from her last visit. In one, three giant black bats hang upside down against a crimson sky; in another, what looks like a swirling river of blood and light encircles and threatens to engulf the holy Ka'ba at Mecca. She is thinking of putting them up but doesn't want anyone to misconstrue their meaning and think she supports Hussein or Khomeini. She doesn't. What appeals to her about the posters is how clearly they depict the almost primeval forces at work in the Gulf - the rage, the intense xenophobia, the religious and nationalist ferocity. It is this fury more than anything else that Chaudhry has tried to illuminate in her critique of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf and it is this fury that the gray-suited men in the nation's capital have once again failed to comprehend. Chaudhry has no doubt that the United States can win a military victory against Iraq, but she fears the fruit of that victory will be more bitter than we can begin to imagine.

You were in Iraq ten days before the U.S. attack. What was the mood of the people in Baghdad when you were there?

I think the first and most striking thing was the fear, and along with that, a sense of disbelief - a sense that the Americans couldn't possibly attack Baghdad itself. I think this comes out of the fact that, even though Iraqis have gone through this period of xenophobia and anti-Western, anti-American propaganda for a long time, they still admire a great deal about the United States and they still somehow feel - perhaps because of the repression of their own regime - that the United States has something to offer them in terms of an abstract political alternative, in terms of helping them get out of their current situation. But I don't think they ever imagined or ever wanted the United States to try to do this through war.

Are you saying that a significant portion of the Iraqi population does not support Saddam Hussein? That's something you simply wouldn't get from the mainstream American media, which makes the Iraqi people seem like one vast mob chanting "Saddam, Saddam!"

To give you an idea of how one gleans these things in a police state that's so repressive, where saying something directly to a Westerner could result in not just your death, but the death of your whole family or your whole clan, let me describe two different experiences I had at a very famous and very old Baghdadi restaurant. When I was in Iraq at the end of 1989, I went there several times. The restaurant regularly features singers who, interspersed with other songs, sing eulogies to Saddam which are manufactured by the government on a daily basis. Now, last year when I was there, when these would come on, people would go out of their way to demonstrate how much they were enjoying it. They would clap, get up on the tables sometimes, dance, sing along. This time, after these songs would end, there was no applause at all. While we were in this restaurant, two different fistfights broke out among large groups of people (it's an enormous place).

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