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.



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.


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

A Reality Check on Our Polarized Lives.

A Reality Check on Our Polarized Lives.

May 26, by B Nimri Aziz. also on Counterpunch and River Reporter Arriving for my bone density test at a downstate New York hospital, I’m delighted to again find Belinda in Radiology. When she does my annual mammogram, I learn more than about cancer. Although she readily shares her own breast cancer experience as she prepares her half-million-dollar machine. How she delights in describing its new features.          Our conversation begins with my observation about heightened security at the hospital. “More guards at the main door?” I note. “Yes, more protocols. Now they’re armed!”, she adds.          The bone scanning machine is a sleek new model: silent too; our chat can proceed uninterrupted. “Registration took unusually long today; are there staff shortages here too?” I ask, stepping onto the table. “Don’t get me started”, replies Belinda. “Lots of money some places – not where it’s needed. Nurses work just to pay off student debt.”          How this led to China, I’m unsure; maybe something about growing public anxiety. The radiologist, watching her computer screen as the scanner slides over me, offers a simple assessment. “It’s China. There’s going to be…

Syria, Alas. Is There Reason for Optimism?


May 15, 2023 By B Nimri Aziz Counterpunch We have a stingy agreement from most Arab League countries that Syria, one of its founding members, one of the area’s strongest Arab nationalist members, one whose policy has been the most uncompromising toward Israel, is readmitted to that capricious club. This assembly, however august, is hardly a potent force— having lost much of its influence after the destruction and defanging of another once-core member, Iraq. Assuring Palestinian national integrity had been one of its main aims. And where is that policy today? Palestine continues to shrink while, one by one, Arab league members have openly established relations with the Jewish state or are quietly engaging with it at various levels. But back to Syria: to symbolically demonstrate the Arab League agreement, and highlight its key player, Syria’s president, Bashar Al-Assad is headed to Riyadh to meet its leaders. Apart from signifying the new status, what will it amount to? There must be some negotiations. What will be the items on the table? Presently, it’s still unclear. I doubt if pressure on Syria to ease its stance on Israel will be in…

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela Revisited


By BNimri Aziz 04/27/23 It was only when I started reading a collection of this remarkable African leader’s prison letters (records from 1962 to 1990) gathered in a judiciously edited 600-page book that I began to grasp the powerful character behind the freedom fighter, prisoner and South African president. Many of us have seen the films “Long Walk to Freedom” and “Mandela”; perhaps we’ve read one of his biographies, autobiographies, collections of essays, and consulted quotations and websites devoted to Nelson Mandela. So we understand a lot about this man’s political and ideological struggle before his incarceration and after his election as South Africa’s president in 1994. But this collection of 255 prison letters offers another layer of the man’s personality—one that reminds us of a community beyond his ANC comrades, namely, a family of individuals with whom he was intimately and regularly involved. He carried these people with him into captivity throughout their 27 years of separation. They live with him within his letters. Perhaps because of the editorial demands of translating some of the correspondence, locating documents from various sources, clarifying names, and arranging permissions The Prison Letters…

Identifying Your Neighbors


by B Nimri Aziz March 2023 Catskills River Reporter There’s something living in my basement that wasn’t there before. I’ve always cohabited comfortably with mice and moles, voles too– with the caveat that I use traps to control their numbers. I’m not adverse to the sight of a furry corpse clamped securely in a lethal plastic snare. What I do mind are nighttime scratching and scurrying behind my walls; that’s usually the work of red squirrels…I think.          This winter, my basement harvest of mice is noticeably low. I should welcome this. But I wonder: Has some natural predator taken care of my mice problem? And who or what would that be? Maybe something larger, smellier, even hazardous?          I don’t like visitors I can’t identify.          The certainty of a newcomer was strengthened by my discovery of some decidedly not-mouse droppings. When a second fresh knot of these turds appeared, I decided to act. Whatever their source, it had to be contained. First though– what is it?          Living in the Catskills invariably means acquiring basic familiarity with local animals, seen and unseen. Anyone who settles into a country…

Where should Palestinians Search for Justice?


Gaza Children’s Art Removed from London Hospital by BNimri Aziz, March 8, 2023 (see also Counterpunch) A London hospital removes Palestinian children’s art because it upset some patients. Meanwhile, seemingly unassociated, far away in The West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians men, women and children are being ‘removed’ from their homes through a daily sustained process of genocidal cleansing.             So abundant are the grievances of Palestinians, so relentless the attacks on their bodies, their voices, their land and the very idea of Palestine, that any record or explanation of these erasures becomes buried behind the latest onslaught.             Crippling economic sanctions on Gazans have been underway for years. Life there is simple endurance. Military occupation of the entire West Bank never eases; Israeli forces enter at will to raid, threaten, arrest, maraud, plunder, wound and kill. The killing of 64 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in first two months of this year were so ‘routine’ that outside agencies–neither politicians, nor human rights officials, nor news outlets barely noted them. It matters not if those targeted are children, stone throwers, armed fighters or bystanders. The February 6th murder of five is one…

Menacing Winter Wonder


by BNimri Aziz Feb 5, 2023 Counterpunch Those images from the December blizzard engulfing Buffalo in upstate New York were shocking. Hard to grasp the reality. That ghostliness was not only from the icy, white shroud covering everything. There were also the deaths of citizens who ventured outside, or who simply couldn’t get back home. That calamity was especially unsettling for those of us who live hardly four hours’ drive from there. By contrast. Her in Delaware and Sullivan counties we were covered by an appealing two inch layer of snow. Whatever cold reached us from Buffalo was discomfitingly bearable. We carried on with our daily affairs, simply taking care to cover up with an extra layer of wool and ensuring we had a good supply of heating oil.          Yet, we were aware that, notwithstanding the unpredictability of global climate changes, our Catskill winter had hardly begun. We faced another two months of below zero temperatures, frozen pavements, the toil of clearing our driveways, and costly fuel bills.          About this past weekend freeze, we luckily had been forewarned. Media and utility companies sent out bulletins: stock up on…