The Prince of the Marshes
Rory Stewart
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Buy *The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq* by Rory Stewart online

The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
Rory Stewart
416 pages
July 2006
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars
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In desiring to defend its liberty each side tried to become strong enough to oppress the other....And the cause of all this is that in trying to escape fear men begin to make others fearful, and the injury they themselves seek to avoid they inflict on others, as if it were absolutely necessary either to harm or to be harmed.

               --Machiavelli, Discourses, Book I, Chapter 46
Reading The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart, about how the author got the interim governorship of the province of Maysan in Iraq, almost takes one back to the city-states that existed in Dante’s era in Italy. A major problem that confronted the Coalition Provisional Authority and Stewart, and which has plagued Iraq throughout its history, is that there are countless factions there, and everyone desires a piece of the pie. To try to get these diverse and competing factions to work together on anything and put aside their differences for even a short time is something which Rory Stewart was asked to do, but the saying is much easier than the doing. Written with firsthand knowledge of the problems inherent in trying to make democracy work in a country perhaps best suited for a despotic, Machiavellian (or Husseinian) style of rule, The Prince of the Marshes is an entertaining guide about how to effectively rule when following the “rule of law” just doesn’t work.

The title character of The Prince of the Marshes is an important tribal leader in Maysan by the name of Abu Hatim. Though Saddam Hussein drained much of Maysan’s marshlands, this area of Iraq, thought by some to be the original place of Eden from the Bible, still has some marshy regions and is home to a group of Arabians called the Marsh Arabs. The man whom some people claim that CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) Chief Paul Bremer was the first to call the “Prince of the Marshes” is a very colorful character who, Rory Stewart learns, is not really a prince at all:

In truth, of course, Iraq didn’t have princes anymore, and it hardly had marshes. The last princes were murdered on the kitchen steps of the palace in 1958 and disemboweled and mutilated in the streets, where the mob used the Regent’s intestines as necklaces. And the marshes, since 1992, had been a thousand square miles of dry desert. The Prince was not even chief of his own tribe, the Albu Muhammed. This may have been why most Iraqis preferred to call this noncommissioned officer from the city Abu Hatim “father of Hatim.”

Though he did not have a son called Hatim either.
Despite this, the Prince of the Marshes, the author found, was a well-known powerful local political figure. Not much got done without Abu Hatim’s approval and, often, money being diverted to his coffers. The Prince of the Marshes had to be dealt with in a manner which assured that he would not lose face, but also in a way that would not be unfair to the many other factions, tribes, parties, and religious affiliations of Maysan.

There were quite a lot of these, making the job of anyone who would try to get them all to meet together and plan a course for the future of Maysan and Iraq frustrating and complex. Rory Stewart, in The Prince of the Marshes, discovers that sometimes a bit of “creative problem solving” or “circumventing the rules” can be useful to get diverse political and religious opponents together and to get them to obey the “rule of the law.”

The Prince of the Marshes is an account of how difficult it can be in a country like Iraq to get anything remotely resembling a democracy to function. In a province with eight hundred and fifty thousand people, “fifty-four political parties, twenty substantial tribes, and a dozen religious figures,” the people of Maysan couldn’t help but to have divided allegiances.

You’ll enjoy reading this engrossing account of Rory Stewart’s experiences in Iraq and come away from the book thinking to yourself it’s no wonder that Andy Bearpark, the British director of operations (and the man who got Rory Stewart his job), tells Rory that he’d be doing a good job: “If I can come back in a year’s time and see that the province is reasonably quiet, has not descended into anarchy and you are able to serve me some decent ice cream, I will be satisfied.” The Prince of the Marshes is a book that will fascinate you and make you want to read to the end to see if Rory succeeds against the odds and helps to bring the factions of Maysan together. Highly recommended.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Douglas R. Cobb, 2006

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