As Americans went about their daily lives through the 1990s, few imagined what Iraqi men and women faced under the brutal sanctions declared by the UN and strictly enforced by the United States. It lasted 13 years. 

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a frequent visitor to Iraq through that period, saw first-hand what life was like for Iraqis completely cut off and shunned by the world.

Swimming up The Tigris reveals the power of Aziz’s combined skills in journalism and anthropology. Through her first-hand accounts, ordinary Iraqis speak directly to us. We learn of the breakdown of Iraq’s fine administrative and educational institutions, of needless deaths resulting from the embargo-ravaged once exemplary healthcare system, of the brain drain of its highly skilled professional class. We hear of deprivations, aerial bombardments, and local efforts to fight the wide-ranging embargo with no outside help whatsoever.

Drawing on intimate sources inside Iraq, the author reveals disparities between news reports of unfolding events and what Iraqi men and women were actually experiencing in the months preceding the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

By revisiting this critical period, Aziz sheds light on illegal, cruel tactics used by the United States to destroy Iraq through sanctions well before the WMD ruse for all out occupation. This book offers an essential context for others to appreciate early opposition to U.S. policies, to understand embargo as the ‘real’ weapon of mass destruction, the rise of ISIS, and the disastrous American occupation of the nation.

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Excerpts

Chapter 4: ” Mehdi—Iraqi Foreign Service Officer

January 17, 1991, 7:00 pm, New York time: the American led assault began. 

In their office Iraqi embassy at the U. N. Mission staff huddled together, smoking nervously, tapping their feet on the parquet floor, while they stared at the television, stunned and helpless as their nation was being bombarded. The most painful sigHt for Mehdi was the collapse of brides over this land’s great ricers. He stared at replays of the bombing of Jisr Muallaq…. Nasiriya Bridge was in tatters too. After a few days, his wife Suha was able to phone from Baghdad: “Keep the boys with you as long as you can”.

Mehdi’s boys survived the animosity of classmates and the setbacks to their household budget. Khalid, seventeen and Mahmoud, twelve, were sophisticated lads, modest and thoroughly trained in diplomatic protocol. They concentrated on their schoolwork and stayed close to home. “people will try to provide you. Be prepared. Be polite. Walk away. Keep your passport with you and don’t volunteer any information about yourself,” Mehdi cautioned them.

Even when Khalid was apprehended and held in the NY police jail for a night, his father was sympathetic. The problem had erupted on a quiet summer night when Khalid was having a soda with boys from his building at a nearby corner store….

Chapter 15: “HIM”

Iraq is not a large country. Yet within three generations it became highly modernized with a skilled, educated and forward thinking middle class. I met so many defined people in Iraq who cared about their country, who worked tirelessly to raise their children and to hold on to their dignity. Iraqis proved to be perceptive, ready and capable. They had much to contribute to the development of a strong civil society.

Seeing this professionalism and noting the basic goodness of the majority, one could not help asking: “Did no one listen? The reply was swift and unequivocal. “No did didn’t listen; he just did not listen to anyone.”

How could that be? He held council; he invited delegations; he made himself accessible to a wide representation of citizens; he took pride in reaching out to the common man and woman.

“He only seemed to listen,” declared Iman despondently. Iman is one of those ordinary Iraqis who met the president face to face and spoke with the leader privately. 

Iman was a dedicated Iraqi nationalist, although not a Bath Party member. She was convinced that Iraq could achieve much, much more. She used opportunities with her president to speak candidly about some of Iraq’s domestic problems. “He paid close attention to what I said. But he didn’t listen…to anyone.

Reviews

In my opinion, [Swimming Up The Tigris] is the single most informative book, article, or report I have ever read about Iraq. It is gripping, depressing, anger-provoking… a roller-coaster ride of emotions which, in the end, left me feeling embarrassed to be an American.

Aziz does away with the mind-numbing and confusing statistics that form the core of nearly every other writer’s work on recent Iraqi history. She doesn’t count the bodies; she doesn’t dissect the Iraqi society by religion or clan as many self-styled Mideast “experts” do. What she does is provide a sweeping portrait of Iraqi society from the late 80’s to 2003 through the eyes, ears, and voices of Iraqis who lived through these turbulent times. She lets the Iraqis—farmers, diplomats, mothers, students, military, etc—tell it like it was and is. She presents a devastating portrait of what it is actually like to live in a state of war in an internationally isolated country under relentless attack.

J.P. Marra

 If you believe, as I do, that the war against Iraq is one of the most important issues facing people in the US and world-wide, then you must read this book.

Independent journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz traveled throughout Iraq, beginning in 1989 in the days after the end of the Iran/Iraq war and up until the most recent disastrous invasion and brutal occupation. Her quest as an anthropologist was to document Iraqi society. She became a reluctant war correspondent.

This book documents the terrible years of grinding deprivation that was Iraq under the deadly US/UN sanctions. Why look at that period? Because everything that is happening today is rooted in the merciless sanctions period where more than 1.5 million people perished unnecessarily.

Every family in Iraq was touched. Everybody there would never be the same. Aziz writes brilliantly and compassionately about the people of Iraq, the ones we never hear from. The ones whose destiny is tied up with ours so completely.

Deirdre S.

Barbara Aziz’s recent book Swimming Up the Tigris is an important addition to the scholarly analysis of the Iraq War, its origins, conduct, and uncertain aftermath. Most Americans assume that the days of colonialism are over, leading them to overlook the quite traditional colonial basis for the invasion of Iraq, to secure its natural resources and control its almost limitless commercial potential.

Barbara Aziz’s exhaustive research and in-depth interviews with Iraqi people break through the clichés and illusions common to the mass media. Her warmth and compassion bring us face-to-face with the reality of modern warfare and the inevitable price paid by ordinary people in Iraq and other trouble spots around the world. Great powers may continue to intrude on vulnerable nations like Iraq, but the work of journalists like Barbara Aziz will make it difficult for them to win the hearts and minds of the world community. In the absence of popular support, aggression is unlikely to prevail.

Karen F.

The writer William Gass once described a book as “so good you don’t judge it, it judges you.” Swimming Up The Tigris by Barbara Nimri Aziz is that kind of book. Like most other writers on the Middle East I have focused so intently on America’s two military invasions of Iraq that I misjudged the near-fatal impact of the economic sanctions on the Iraqi people.

Aziz resembles the Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison in her refusal to accept the obvious answer to any question. (Has anyone but Aziz argued that the sanctions and embargoes hurt Iraq more than the bombs?) Another thing Aziz has in common with the magnificent Ms. Morrison is her uncanny ability to find the truth in terms of what is not there. Example: One of the most beautiful and harrowing chapters in the book is Aziz’s observation that the defining characteristic of Iraq’s playgrounds is the absence of children. (Just silence.)

Swimming Up The Tigris is required reading if we want to avoid the same mistakes with Iran we made with Iraq.

Ron David

As a social anthropologist, Barbara Nimri Aziz does not write a political diatribe. A keen observer of human societies, she examines, for example, how important education is to Iraqis, what role women play in Iraqi society, what kind of medical system is available to Iraqi citizens, how Iraqis coped with twelve years of devastating sanctions, how they are affected by the American occupation of Iraq.

Included in her role as social anthropologist is not just observation but participation. With a gift for friendship and an ear for story, Aziz empathetically introduces her readers to individual Iraqis whose afterimages have “staying power.” For those of us who have not traveled to Iraq, Aziz succeeds in giving her readers the haunting vicarious experience of having seen the tragic destruction of this ancient society as if with their own eyes.

Suzy Kane

Selected Articles

Being A Spectator, Or Bearing Witness

Being A Spectator, Or Bearing Witness

by B Nimri Aziz May 2024. also on Counterpunch They are watching us. At least, they were. Before they became overwhelmed with grief, before they collapsed, wounded, dazed by hunger, confusion and fear. By now, they must have completely given up on our world of voyeurs, including those taking a moment to glimpse that relentless slaughter day-after-day-after-day over there. They know how we live—our pools and malls, our raucous ball games. Gazan graduates win scholarships to study here. Women and men locked in that smoldering prison have relatives in the US, families who managed to emigrate war-after-war since 1967. They know how determinedly relatives toiling overseas month-after-month send some savings back to Jabalia, back to Khan Younis, back to Rafah, back to Deir al-Balah, to Beit Lahia and Gaza City. They drink Fanta and Coke and Maxwell coffee; they buy foreign-made diapers for their infants and children’s outfits embossed with American brand names. They welcome secondhand clothes shipped by charities from church-after-church, mosque-after-mosque, country-after-country. Mothers follow Arabic-dubbed Turkish series-after-series, while youngsters gather to cheer Mission Impossible’s heroes-after-heroes. They huddle together to ‘facetime’ with uncles and cousins in Dearborn, in Austin,…

US Palestinian diaspora: growing and striving for half a century

US Palestinian diaspora: growing and striving for half a century

May 4, 2024 by BNimri Aziz also on Counterpunch The Palestinian diaspora, particularly those living in the US, should not be overlooked as a player in calls for the freedom of Palestine. A new generation of professional Americans of Palestinian origin have worked tirelessly for a half century to document and update a largely unresponsive US public on conditions in their occupied homelands. Their efforts had seemed fruitless; the risks they took were high; the difference they made hardly registered. Today, coalitions they built, the quiet admiration they earned, the skills they acquired, the resources they provided must be recognized as preparing the ground on which expanding support rests. Albeit it has come with immense suffering and martyrdom by Gazan residents in past months. Despite a US veto of Palestinian membership in the UN; despite dismissals of elite college presidents; despite major media’s unmitigated coverup of Israeli war crimes; despite accelerated funding for the Israeli war machine; despite a US congressional resolution banning the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”; despite small crowds in early demonstrations against Israel’s genocide on Gaza; despite individuals risking careers…

The Anonymous Men Who Bury a Nation’s Martyrs

The Anonymous Men Who Bury a Nation’s Martyrs

by B Nimri Aziz April 7, 2024. also on Counterpunch We wring our hands and shake our heads sadly as the toll mounts. Palestinian corpses along the roadside, limp bodies pulled from rubble, wrapped figures large and small laid outside a hospital or beside a tent. Viewing these images from afar is painful enough. But what about those young men who day-after-day carry away for burial that endless stream of bodies? Heroes worthy of notice, respect, gratitude – you’ve seen them, lightly clad, sometimes bloodied, unkept, their eyes downcast as they wait for relatives to bid farewell to loved ones, or some stranger absorbed in securely binding a shroud. Thousands of overlooked able young men, themselves survivors, come forward for this weighty, urgent burden. Today in Gaza, there is no safe place – not for those still standing, not for the wounded, not even for the dead. But the dead must be interred, must be honored with the simplest prayer. This is made more onerous by Israel’s bulldozing cemeteries, its tanks churning scattered bits of hardly retrievable souls across their boundaryless killing field. Even burying the dead in Gaza is…

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

Film review: by BNimri Aziz Feb 24, 2024 Author James Baldwin was more than a brilliant novelist; he was a powerful speaker, a compelling debater and pithy commentator. His legacy includes many quotable insights. Those carry no hesitation, no hint of doubt in his mind. His mien adds to the resolve in his words. Can we imagine this man in anything but a polemic context? Well, a newly rereleased film offers us that characteristically penetrating but a less emphatic James Baldwin. That’s how we find him in I Heard It Through the Grapevine, a 1982 production newly restored higher quality digital version. Marking the centennial birth of the author, it’s screening this month in New York City at the African Diaspora international Film Festival.             I Heard It Through the Grapevine is essentially a programmed road trip – a highly symbolic one. Baldwin is in conversation with his brother David on a 1979 journey, accompanied by two independent filmmakers employing a Cinéma Verité approach, as the brothers recollect 1960s Black activist history. In addition to Newark, Philadelphia and Washington they visit key sites of the Civil Rights Movement in the…

Snowless in NY’s Catskills

Snowless in NY’s Catskills

Feb 17/ 2024 by BNimri Aziz          I know, I should be delighted by our mild(ish) winter weather. I’m not. Why? Not because I fear climate change and a warming globe that this moderation probably signals. No. It’s for practical reasons.          It’s essential to devote my late autumn weeks preparing for a real winter. So I stocked up on wood, had the woodstove cleaned, taped inside ethe door frames, blocked holes in the basement with handy aerosol foam. I bought a new set of yaktrax too, and with much effort, fastened them to my snow boots. They’ll by the door, waiting, ready to carry me safely across 4 meters of ice between the car and my front door. (I might even take a winter stroll in them.) I even purchased a new electric bed mat – conveniently still in its box.          And what about endless bare fields out there? Those lifeless swaths of defoliated trees, brown and black, would be transformed to beauty, even lightly dusted with crisp New York snowflakes. I grudgingly admit I spotted a hint of winter splendor one morning – it lasted a few…

Buried under The Genocide Debate: Desecrated Graves

Buried under The Genocide Debate: Desecrated Graves

also carried in Counterpunch Feb 7, 2024 by Barbara Nimri Aziz It’s hard to imagine this happening in modern times. Even an assault on a single grave is a criminal act in a civilized (sic) country. The very idea is reviled everywhere. So what about Israel’s ongoing assaults on Palestinian cemeteries across Gaza? The terror has received passing reference, first in a fleeting video on Twitter, then in an international news outlet. For a day. That CNN report exposed how widespread was Israel’s upturning and ravaging graves. Yet, while it may have generated some shock, outrage was surprisingly muted. Moving images – red-stained shrouds clutched by sobbing boys; rows of silent, bent mothers: wandering, stunned orphans: all compete for our rationed sympathy. Dying and grieving display feelings, if not hope. They’re more compelling. Long-dead bodies, their shrouds obscenely shredded, and bones scattered irreverently in pits are best left to archeologists. We wring our hands in moral indignation about genocide and starvation while we swallow our shame watching whole neighborhoods fleeing by foot to they-not-know where. Is it not enough to order families – old, young, infirmed, pregnant – from their…