The Unraveling, by Emma Sky

Christopher Dickey writes: Emma Sky has a lovely sense of irony about many things, from her evocative name to her frustrated dreams for Iraq, where, in the first decade of this century, she spent what she thinks of as the most important years of her life advising senior officers in the American military. “Amidst the horror of war, I had experienced more love and camaraderie than I had ever known,” she writes. “I had become part of their band of brothers.”

Many soldiers have felt that way, but Sky was no soldier, and not even American. She had been among those who opposed the war, an Arabist in her mid-30s working for the British Council, a cultural and educational organization. She thought she would go on temporary duty to Iraq after the shock and awe of 2003 to apologize, if she could, and try to help the Iraqi people. This was a common sentiment among Western Arabists at the time: We shouldn’t have done this, but having done it, we must make it work.

Almost against Sky’s better judgment, as she writes in her important and disturbing memoir, “The Unraveling,” she quickly found herself sucked deep into the business of occupation as she tried to sort out the chaos after the fall of the tyrant Saddam Hussein. She thought she would be working with the British in the coalition forces that had participated in the invasion, but they told her to talk to the Americans running the show. She also thought she would be in Baghdad, but wound up about 150 miles to the north in Kirkuk.

Sky made herself useful in whatever way she could. She provided expertise in the region and the language that was appallingly rare in American ranks. Faute de mieux, she began to function very quickly like the Orientalists of the old British Empire — part diplomat, part diviner of local moods and frequent mediator in bitter disputes. She became the indispensable adviser to the United States colonel trying to hold together the explosive, contested Kirkuk region, which sits on 40 percent of Iraq’s enormous oil reserves. As Sky puts it, sardonically, “Within weeks of the fall of Saddam I had found myself governing a province.” [Continue reading…]

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