Deborah Amos’s ‘Eclipse of the Sunnis’

Yesterday I went to a book talk that National Public Radio’s Deborah Amos gave about her new book Eclipse of the Sunnis; Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East. She’s an engaging person and a smart reporter who’s been working in the Middle East for many years now.
The talk was ways too short for my taste! In the course of of it, she explained that when she started the book, she had intended for it to be about Iraqi exiles, in general; but then it transmuted itself into a book that’s more about “the eclipse of the Sunnis.” She also noted that the title arouses very different reactions from western and Arabic audiences, with the latter being quite shocked by it while most westerners see nothing shocking in it at all.
Well, I’ve read a couple of chapters now, and I don’t really think the title is perfect. Not least because there is– as she had told us at the talk– one whole chapter there about the Christian Iraqis who make up roughly 15% of the exiles, though only 3 % of the national population.
The book seems to have been reported mainly from Syria and Jordan.
In her talk yesterday, Amos stressed that the exile from Iraq has been particularly harsh for many or most Iraqi exiles because back home they had mostly been people with good educations, and a fair or high degree of financial and professional standing. So the loss of that sense of security– and the fact that, for many of these families, they now find the children are getting far worse educations than their parents, or no education at all, and that so little help has been given them– has in any cases made the come-down particularly hard to bear.
These refugees do not, she said, fit most people’s stereotypical idea of what a ‘refugee’ looks like. And she added that this was really the first time this had ever happened to such a huge swathe of the middle- and upper-middle class of a country.
Actually, I’m not so sure about that latter point… It was also, after all, what happened to just about the whole of the middle- and upper-middle-class of Palestine during the nakba of 1947-49.
There’s another parallel in these two situations, too– though she gives this fact no acknowledgment. In the Introduction she writes,

    Iraqis are tied to their homeland through technology… There is no model for this middle-class exodus in the Arab world. In chat rooms and on cellphones, web cameras, and blogs, a larger Iraq exists. The community of exiles is in daily contact waiting for word from home that it is time to come back. The rest of the region is waiting, too.

Well, I’m not sure how many Palestinian homes Amos has been into recently. But the Palestinian diaspora is significantly more far-flung (and more populous) than the Iraqi diaspora… Moreover, at this point, every single Palestinian family, except for a few families that all have citizenship in Israel, has close family members distributed among five or six different countries or jurisdictions. And they all try to keep in good touch with each other, and with relatives back “home”, using Skype and blogs and every other electronic means at their disposal. Indeed, the distribution of this new(-ish) technology among Palestinian refugees has done more than just keep the sense of national belonging intact; I think it has also been working to create an entirely new kind of sense of national belonging. Maybe, even of a “virtual Palestine”, that is in no way removed from the concerns of the terrestrial one.
Just like the Iraqi refugees.
But I think that’s a quibble. As far as I can see, Amos has written a book that sensitively portrays the deep sadness of the exiles and the very many challenges they face. She also seems honest about the degree of responsibility our country must bear for their fate.
On p. xv she writes:

    This new exodus was not the narrative that the Bush administration wanted to project, or acknowledge, and remained invisible for much of the world. The U.S. security plan known as the surge was an American success story, but it was a sideshow for those forced out of hoes and neighborhoods in a power struggle that used displacement and exile as a weapon. More Iraqis left the country in 2007 than in 2006, the year that the surge got underway. The international Organization for Migration… was tracking widespread displacements in 2007; the movement inside the country had increased by a factor of 20. Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops, spread out across Baghdad, brought no return of the exiles… on the ground the Sunni-Shiite divide was still steeped in blood.

In her talk yesterday, which was hosted by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group here in DC, Amos said that her understanding is that most Iraqi exiles are watching the results of the recent elections carefully, and that if Allawi does well they will have more reason to consider returning home than if anyone else wins. His Iraqiyya bloc is the only one with any significant Sunni members in it.
She noted that candidates who’d earlier risen to prominence with the (U.S.-funded) Sunni “Awakening” groups were doing really badly.
(Also doing badly, according to Visser, has been Ali Faisal al-Lami, the executive director of the Debaathification commission. That should make many of the exiles happy!)
Anyway, though I disagree a little with some of the judgments Amos makes in her book, all-in-all I think it’s a really excellent and important volume. Everyone here in the U.S. who might want (and perhaps understandably so) to forget as much as they can about the Bush years and all the really terrible decisions Pres. Bush made– including the decision to invade Iraq– needs to remember that those decisions had far greater, and graver, consequences on the people of Iraq than they have had on our people. Deborah Amos does a great job of taking us into the lives, concerns, and essential humanity of some of the millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes as a result of our country’s invasion.


Well, I’ve read a couple of chapters now, and I don’t really think the title is perfect. Not least because there is– as she had told us at the talk– one whole chapter there about the Christian Iraqis who make up roughly 15% of the exiles, though only 3 % of the national population.
The book seems to have been reported mainly from Syria and Jordan.
In her talk yesterday, Amos stressed that the exile from Iraq has been particularly harsh for many or most Iraqi exiles because back home they had mostly been people with good educations, and a fair or high degree of financial and professional standing. So the loss of that sense of security– and the fact that, for many of these families, they now find the children are getting far worse educations than their parents, or no education at all, and that so little help has been given them– has in any cases made the come-down particularly hard to bear.
These refugees do not, she said, fit most people’s stereotypical idea of what a ‘refugee’ looks like. And she added that this was really the first time this had ever happened to such a huge swathe of the middle- and upper-middle class of a country.
Actually, I’m not so sure about that latter point… It was also, after all, what happened to just about the whole of the middle- and upper-middle-class of Palestine during the nakba of 1947-49.
There’s another parallel in these two situations, too– though she gives this fact no acknowledgment. In the Introduction she writes,

    Iraqis are tied to their homeland through technology… There is no model for this middle-class exodus in the Arab world. In chat rooms and on cellphones, web cameras, and blogs, a larger Iraq exists. The community of exiles is in daily contact waiting for word from home that it is time to come back. The rest of the region is waiting, too.

Well, I’m not sure how many Palestinian homes Amos has been into recently. But the Palestinian diaspora is significantly more far-flung (and more populous) than the Iraqi diaspora… Moreover, at this point, every single Palestinian family, except for a few families that all have citizenship in Israel, has close family members distributed among five or six different countries or jurisdictions. And they all try to keep in good touch with each other, and with relatives back “home”, using Skype and blogs and every other electronic means at their disposal. Indeed, the distribution of this new(-ish) technology among Palestinian refugees has done more than just keep the sense of national belonging intact; I think it has also been working to create an entirely new kind of sense of national belonging. Maybe, even of a “virtual Palestine”, that is in no way removed from the concerns of the terrestrial one.
Just like the Iraqi refugees.
But I think that’s a quibble. As far as I can see, Amos has written a book that sensitively portrays the deep sadness of the exiles and the very many challenges they face. She also seems honest about the degree of responsibility our country must bear for their fate.
On p. xv she writes:

    This new exodus was not the narrative that the Bush administration wanted to project, or acknowledge, and remained invisible for much of the world. The U.S. security plan known as the surge was an American success story, but it was a sideshow for those forced out of hoes and neighborhoods in a power struggle that used displacement and exile as a weapon. More Iraqis left the country in 2007 than in 2006, the year that the surge got underway. The international Organization for Migration… was tracking widespread displacements in 2007; the movement inside the country had increased by a factor of 20. Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops, spread out across Baghdad, brought no return of the exiles… on the ground the Sunni-Shiite divide was still steeped in blood.

In her talk yesterday, which was hosted by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group here in DC, Amos said that her understanding is that most Iraqi exiles are watching the results of the recent elections carefully, and that if Allawi does well they will have more reason to consider returning home than if anyone else wins. His Iraqiyya bloc is the only one with any significant Sunni members in it.
She noted that candidates who’d earlier risen to prominence with the (U.S.-funded) Sunni “Awakening” groups were doing really badly.
(Also doing badly, according to Visser, has been Ali Faisal al-Lami, the executive director of the Debaathification commission. That should make many of the exiles happy!)
Anyway, though I disagree a little with some of the judgments Amos makes in her book, all-in-all I think it’s a really excellent and important volume. Everyone here in the U.S. who might want (and perhaps understandably so) to forget as much as they can about the Bush years and all the really terrible decisions Pres. Bush made– including the decision to invade Iraq– needs to remember that those decisions had far greater, and graver, consequences on the people of Iraq than they have had on our people. Deborah Amos does a great job of taking us into the lives, concerns, and essential humanity of some of the millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes as a result of our country’s invasion.

7 thoughts on “Deborah Amos’s ‘Eclipse of the Sunnis’

  1. Matthew Murrey - Mytwords

    The question is how can someone like Deborah Amos justify working for NPR? Their coverage/noncoverage of the Iraq refugee crisis, has been unconscionable. Amos did have one decent report on NPR about this topic, but in general her reporting on the Iraq War and the Middle East on NPR falls squarely in with NPR’s alignment with the US State Department polices (e.g. this Amos piece).
    I don’t mean to sound harsh, and I generally appreciate your humane and open-minded attitude.

  2. Alexno

    Sounds like the title was a pretty poor choice, and distinctly misleading. The book, as you say, is about the refugees, who are not only Sunni.
    From what you say, and the pages available on Amazon, there’s little about the decline of the position of the Sunnis within Iraq.

  3. epppie

    Omg, do you totally not hear yourself, Helena? This is one of the most disgustingly classist pieces I have ever read, revealing more clearly than usual the ugly classism underlying the mentalities of most liberals. You and Amos don’t quite say, but come close to saying, and appear to think, that upper and middle class refugees are not only better human beings, more worthy of our sympathy, but also suffer more!!!!!!!!!!!!
    This is ugly stuff. Liberals need to take long, hard looks in the mirror. If the Demon on the back of the GOP is racism, the Demon on the back of the Democratic Party, on the back of Liberals in general, is classism.
    Gee, I guess it’s hard to sympathize with oppressed people who are poor. After all, they are oppressed WHEREVER THEY ARE!! They probably like it!!! Hee hee!
    Just ask Barbara Bush (I know she’s not a liberal, but I suspect a lot of Liberals secretly agree with her more or less).

  4. Salah

    Sadly its never mentioned that the reality daily life inside Iraq early2003, when US occupied Iraq some how the power started flow to Iraqi homes more that 2003 when Iraqis start get internet connected and mobile phones and satellites dishes which was all not available during tyrant regime.
    Then the phase of life changed after Abu Grarib break-up, power went miserably worse and if there is power just for ONE hour A day and in the middle of night, chops overhead shooting any one with cell phone in he have it in had and been on the top of his house roof sleeping in hot summer as normal Iraqi do long time of their generations, jamming on all cell network when US troop and envoy moving in the streets of Baghdad and others cities (As Iraq many.. ..many times we got cut calls our during our talk which not that long in time “cell phone call” when we did call later we just told chop pass over their heads).
    Moreover cell phone networks was bided to Kuwaiti and Egyptian companies no more words can say about these two funny supplier of cell phone and who is behind them despite their miserable services and quality of the network set up.
    In Regards to Palestinians yes same dram Israelis control all phone networks (land and cell phone) no wondered that both o heavy spy and security regimes). The only example that played well was from Iran during their green protesters and it was when Iranians used very well the networks and technology to make their voices heard and louder but then we heard that French companies sold Iran regime a new ethnology that made Iran regime capable to interferes and cape on internet connection also spying on their oppositions which cause that new tool faded down not as use to be early weeks of the Green movement.
    But let not take Iraqi elections on its own merits and outcome as if there is very robust democratic system as most western writer try to twisting the fact that these thuggish politic folks are came and supported by US.
    Let not forgot the new Baghdad’s Khatoon “Meghan O’Sullivan” what she done and how she played very impressive role inside Iraq and “SHE IS THE BEST EXPERST” in Iraq affairs and politic better than those who writing from their comfort in Netherland or US. She put an article line up US starigy After Iraq’s election, the real fight

  5. Salah

    Please Helena, your spam trap caught my comment if you could help to get out for our friends to read.

  6. hmmm

    Let us notice that all these refugees were expelled or escaped from their own Iraqi brethren, not from the US soldiers or actions.
    Therefore the main take away is that if that is the way they treat each other how can own be so naive to expect co-existence with other peoples and religions?

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