Middle East

What’s this with Iraq

It was 2003. My first visit to Iraq. Finally, dictator Saddam Hussein was gone. I saw a country in shambles. Yet it immediately dug its hooks into me. Never to let go again.

‘The country was abuzz with promise: everything was going to be better now. It started with the satellite dishes, which would finally reveal the world outside Iraq that Saddam had tried to hide from his people. It introduced the perception that things were better elsewhere, as well as the promise that Iraq could have those things too.

I realized what those promises were up against when I saw the van piled high with cheap furniture. The family of a man who had worked for Saddam’s hated secret service was fleeing to Jordan, away from the hatred of their neighbours and the people now in power who had once been persecuted by the organization for which he had faithfully executed his assignments. Some months later, the army and the civil service were purged of ex-Baathists, and everyone with close ties to Saddam’s party lost their jobs.

All of which provided fertile ground in which the seeds of future violence could take root. Feeling victimized, frustrated and discriminated against, many Iraqis were ready to join in the violent resistance against the American occupier. Loss, hate, fear and frustration, combined with the absence of the long strong arm of the dictator, were the factors that fed into the first spiral of violence in 2003.

And it would not be the last, not by any means. Because so many people had lost loved ones, homes and income in Iraq, the ingredients for the next conflict were already there, plain for all to see. When a cycle of violence comes to an–albeit brief–close, and the promise of peace and progress is in the air, it is often accompanied, too, by a sense of relief and cautious hope. But time after time, hope has simply disappeared. The circles join together to form endless spirals.


Statistics from the United Nations and the World Bank prove me right: Roughly half of the countries that emerge from a conflict fall back into it within five years. Only two years after ISIS was beaten in Iraq, youths took to the streets en masse in their tuk-tuk revolution to force drastic change. The heavy-handed response from the police and militias has only served to strengthen their resolve and feed into new violence. As a colleague said to me years ago: Life in the Middle East consists of the fear of war, fleeing from war, recovering from war and praying there will be no new war. It is an exhausting cycle, and one that has been ongoing generation after generation.

After living in Iraq for ten years and reporting on it for fifteen, I no longer wanted to be part of that cycle. The country with which I had developed a love-hate relationship was destroying me. After the initial years of reconstruction, I had seen and heard too many horrific things from too close up. The glistening sunshine I had become addicted to lost the battle to my depression: I had to leave.”

The passage above is from the prologue of Violence Recycled, the book I wrote about my years of reporting in Iraq. It somehow shows the love-hate relationship I have with the country.

Love and hate

What I love is the resilience of the Iraqis, who always seem to bounce back. What I hate is that there is always something destroying their lives that they need to bounce back from. One of my dearest Iraqi friends, Akram, did it multiple times. Under Saddam he fled from Mosul to Kuwait, then years later from Saddam’s invasion in Kuwait to Baghdad for as an Iraqi he was not welcome anywhere anymore, then during the civil war in Baghdad he had to flee to the Kurdistan Region. Every time he had to restart his life, and readjust to new rules and habits.

What I love about Iraq is the way I felt always welcome; being from the Netherlands of course is in that sense easier than being for instance from Britain or the US: the former colonizer and the former occupier. What I hate at the same time is that what you see is not what you get: hardly anyone will really speak their mind. The Dutch saying that one should not hang out one’s dirty laundry fits Iraqis as a glove.

The Baghdadi gold salesman had coffee brought in for us

I don’t like shopping, but I do like the cosy little shops of Iraq, like the one of the Baghdadi gold salesman in the picture who had coffee brought in for my translator and me. But I hate how difficult it can be to understand what the price of an item should be and how to reach there by haggling. And I still feel uncomfortable when people do it for me, as for a foreigner the price would always be higher than for a local.

What I love is that Iraqis love their country; what I hate is how they neglect it. The Jewish past is now mostly wiped out, even though when the Jews left in the fifties a city like Baghdad was thriving because of its large Jewish community. Cultural heritage is mostly neglected and in shambles, even famous sites like the ancient city or Ur (where Abraham lived) and Babylon. But I love how they share their love for their country with foreigners; when I took a couple of Jewish rabbis around the sites in Kurdistan, they got hugged all the time as the Kurds’ best friends.

While I absolutely hate the Iraqi bureaucracy – and Kurdistan is no better – I love the way the locals always will try to find their way around it. They often succeed. And taught me how to too. I love the way people want to share – the food, the fun, the mood, but hate how difficult it is to say ‘no’ without being impolite.


I love the Iraqi light, and got addicted to it. But I hate the violence, that can raise its nasty head at any time. A man threatening another with a gun. Peaceful demonstrators being bashed for simply raising their voices. And the dark ways of people who use religion to attract followers. Most of all I hate the terror group ISIS and its followers who thought religion gave them the right to kidnap, rape and kill. And plunged our world from sunny and secure suddenly into the darkness of ancient times.

Yet love and hate, good and evil, the stories of Iraq, they are my inspiration.

Iraq got under my skin. And into my novels. I doubt if that will ever change.