I’ve begun reading The Shi’is of Iraq, by Yitzhak Nakash, and was struck in the first chapter by the mention of the Mamluk rulers of Iraq, who had virtual autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, and I started googling around to find out more about them. A tantalizing Angelfire page said:
The last Mamluk governor of Iraq, Da’ud Pasha (1816-31), turned increasingly to Europe for weapons and advisers to equip and train his military force and endeavoured to improve communications and promote trade; in this respect he resembled his contemporary in Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. But, whereas Muhammad ‘Ali’s Egypt drew closer to France, it was Great Britain that continued to strengthen its position in the Persian Gulf and Iraq.
The fall of Da’ud can be attributed in part to the determination of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) to curtail provincial autonomy and restore the central authority of his government throughout the realm…
Imagine my delighted surprise when I discovered that Abdelrahman Munif had written a three-volume historical novel, Ard Al-Sawad (‘the Dark Land,’ the tradition Arabic name for the Iraqi lowlands), about this very Da’ud Pasha and his times:
The life of Dawoud Pasha, the famous wali (governor) of Baghdad and one of the main characters in Ard Al-Sawad, is well known to historians. Born in Georgia in c.1774 to Christian parents, Dawoud came to Baghdad as a Mameluke, or member of an indentured servant or military caste, at the age of 10, changing masters until he reached the court of Soliman Pasha Al-Kabir, who was impressed by the boy’s intelligence and love of the sciences. At a fairly early age Dawoud had mastered Arabic, Turkish and Persian and excelled at mathematics and, in recognition of his labours, Soliman duly appointed him court treasurer (khazindar).
Dawoud went on to marry the youngest of Soliman’s daughters. In 1817 he became wali of Baghdad, but was defeated by the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II in 1831 and subsequently expelled from the city. Quite uncharacteristically, given the usual Ottoman practice, he was pardoned and held smaller governorships in the Ottoman Empire, including that of Bosnia (1833-35) and Ankara (1839-1840). In 1840 Dawoud retired to Medina, where he stayed until his death in 1850, being buried in the vicinity of the Prophet’s shrine in that city.
Such is a thumbnail sketch of the life of Dawoud Pasha… In order to understand the significance of Dawoud Pasha’s career, one needs to remember that the period 1775-1831 witnessed the relative breakdown of central authority in the Ottoman system, meaning that the administration in Constantinople lost effective control over many provincial governors, especially in the Fertile Crescent. This led to the rise to power of various local rulers, in many cases only nominally recognising the sultan’s authority, in Iraq and elsewhere, and foremost among these as far as the north-eastern part of Ottoman territories were concerned were the Mamelukes who gained power in Baghdad and, by extension, in Basra, which, then and now, was Iraq’s main port and the outlet of its trade to the outside world. The Mamelukes settled their affairs among themselves by force or by conspiracy, often leaving Constantinople with little choice other than to give its seal of approval to whomever had successfully seized power.
It is against this background of the deterioration in Ottoman power and the rising influence of the Western imperialist powers in the region that the events of the novel unfold. This backdrop, the properly historical part of the novel, must continuously be borne in mind when reading its narrative of events, which, with the exception of an introductory Prelude of a few, highly charged pages and occasional flashbacks, deal only with the first four years of Dawoud’s period in office in Baghdad. Its final chapter ends in the year 1821 with the departure from Baghdad of the British Consul-General Claudius James Ritch, following a period of bitter strife between him and Dawoud Pasha, a strife emanating from the latter’s eagerness to check the growing influence of the rising foreign powers over the political life of the country…
One of the main features of Ard Al-Sawad, in fact, and one that is likely to stick in the mind of any sensitive reader of the novel, is the meticulous care with which the details of the lives of ordinary people living at the time have been rendered. One leaves the novel with an abiding impression of these people’s daily struggles, and this impression transcends the boundaries of the historical period and lends the novel a universal significance. It is these ordinary people, the people of Iraq then and now, who occupy centre stage in Mounif’s narrative. Mamelukes, walis and the representatives of foreign powers may crisscross the historical stage, mostly wielding knives ready to stab into each others’ backs, but Mounif’s “love-song” to Iraq, as the novelist describes his work, is dedicated to these ordinary Iraqi people. The book perhaps may best be understood in these terms, for its true subject is the people of Iraq and the stern, yet all-embracing, natural environment in which they live: the overflowing Tigris drowning all about it; the clear springs of the north of the country flowing through the mountains; the burning sun of the desert, appeased only by torrential rains; the bewildering accumulation of the country’s smells and textures. These features are equally characteristic of the Iraqi national character; underneath the gravity and apparent grimness which beset the Iraqi people, there flow the tender springs of emotion.
Now imagine my bitterness when I realized that I will almost certainly never be able to read this novel, which in a better world would already have been translated (it was published in 1999) and would be informing our interaction with Iraq. But who will spend the money and take the risk involved in translating a huge novel from Arabic, when translations sell so badly in general and no one is interested in Arab culture? It’s a miracle that Cities of Salt was published, but I can’t imagine it made much or any money, and I seriously doubt any publisher would be tempted to throw more money after it. If Munif had won the Nobel, of course, things would be different—Mahfouz had a flood of English publications after his award. But without that kind of spotlight, Arabic literature is basically a black hole when viewed from the solipsistic shores of the US. I can’t tell you how much I wish that weren’t so.