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

From Where Will The Breakthrough Come for Julian Assange?

From Where Will The Breakthrough Come for Julian Assange?

by B Nimri Aziz 09.13.23 Julian Assange is still imprisoned; journalism’s future is still in jeopardy. Delegates from Australia’s parliament are headed to Washington to appeal to the U.S. Congress on behalf of the Wikileaks founder. While anyone who recognizes the injustice of Washington’s insistence on extradition of the jailed journalist and publisher, this effort by representatives of several parties may be too late. In any event, it is very late.          This Australian door did not open until the 2022 election of Anthony Albanese, who replaced Scott Morrison, ­­­­­the nation’s uncompromising Prime Minister.          For many years the campaign to gain justice for Assange was largely centered in London, with activists focusing their attention on a succession of legal appeals to the British court that could have freed Assange from prison and denied U.S.’s extradition order. Legal actions were buttressed by supporters who included vocal celebrity journalists appealing for justice on the grounds that this case was basically about a free press, and that the extradition, based on the U.S. 1917 Espionage Act, was inapplicable. Free speech advocates fear indictment of Assange by U.S. courts would set a dangerous…

Safe and Secure? Or Stressed and Scared

Safe and Secure? Or Stressed and Scared

August 29, 2023 by Barbara Nimri Aziz also see Counterpunch          “Why don’t you just report it to the town council, with a photo of that cluttered yard,” I suggest to a neighbor complaining of piles of junk abandoned on an incomplete construction site beside her house. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that”, she swiftly counters; “They might become angry.”                      I wonder if, like me, you detect a wariness and unease – fear, actually­– not known here 15, 25, 50 years ago.          We all know our region is undergoing a huge amount of change. Transformation, really. Yet, the Catskills has never been a static, forgotten part of New York. Here’s not unlike many semi-rural areas, experiencing surges and slumps. I’ve encountered this kind of fear repeatedly. Fear of any personal confrontation. Neighbors prefer to put up with excessive noise, disrespect and other aggravations rather than approach a neighbor, or report their concern to the municipality. It speaks to lack of confidence between neighbors and to misgivings about elected officials.          Certainly, in my village, the number of surveillance cameras through the woods and along country roads is unprecedented.…

Political Theater in Nepal Is Driving Citizen Flight

Political Theater in Nepal Is Driving Citizen Flight

July 13/23 by Barbara Nimri Aziz With unwelcome regularity, every few months Kathmandu Valley experiences a nationally watched theatrical production. This month’s will surely be unrivalled. Yet, each new production seems to outdo the last in commercial evaluations and the celebrity of its leading actors. At the same time however, apart from eager journalists, the public does not attend. In fact, the Nepali public is largely focused beyond the valley, further than Everest, further than Darjeeling and Assam in N.W. India, the former go-to-destination for fleeing disenchanted youths and dreamers 3-4 generations ago. (Today, as we will see, they prefer to watch this drama from much further afield.) Today’s dramas – offering commercial successes (for some), rich fodder for investigative journalists, and political accolades or disrepute for others – are an unending series of scandals. All have a similar theme – riches through corruption. For the past decade, increasing as the national treasury of this new democracy swells, corruption and greed have grown at a rapid rate. It seeps into every corner of the nation, along newly-bulldozed roadways to once-remote nomad camps, into district headquarters in far flung provinces, and…

A Short Conversation about Malcolm X

A Short Conversation about Malcolm X

June 22/23 by B Nimri Aziz (also appearing in Counterpunch) “I’ve been rereading The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, I volunteered. It was a spontaneous announcement after Jim, my neighbor, and I puzzled over the forthcoming Juneteenth holiday, unsure precisely what it signified. (I eventually offered my more or less accurate explanation, without any endorsement from Jim.) He was driving me home from the clinic where he’d kindly taken me to X-ray my leg for a suspicious pain. Jim was talkative on the way out, recalling a recent weekend with his grown family, the swank restaurants, their spacious rental. His descriptions filled the hourlong drive out. I said little, possibly because of my physical discomfort. More relaxed on the homeward trip, I became engaged in our conversation about LGBTQ+ activism and how it was changing our locality. Then my enthusiasm about forgotten facts of Malcom X’s youth seeped out. Despite silence meeting my initial comment, I blithely went on: “The book’s really well written.” Still no reply from Jim: no question of why I’d taken it up the book, or how expertly it was composed. I continued: “Of course, the book…

A Special Place on The Edge of Kathmandu 1983-2023

A Special Place on The Edge of Kathmandu 1983-2023

by Barbara Nimri Aziz, 06.19.23 (published in Nepal 06.17.23 by ekantipur) In 1983 when Sukanya Waiba and her sister Parijat Lama founded what’s now known as Amrit Secondary Boarding School, it was simply Amrit Primary School. It was the only school in that corner of Kathmandu Valley. You might not easily have found it, surrounded as it was by rice paddy and high, leafy trees. It sat sheltered below Mhen Pi promontory at the end of Naya Bazaar and on the edge of the capital. Today Mhen Pi is a crowded, popular neighborhood with easy access to the city center. Heavy traffic moves around it as new suburbs expand far beyond the sluggish Bhagmati River nearby and the old Ring Road a little beyond that. (The now motorable way between the school and the river is called Parijat Marg.) Passing there, you can also catch a glimpse of the Parijat Smitri Kendra, erected almost fifteen years earlier, in honour of the poet. It’s an active literary center for Kathmandu nowadays. Today, in contrast to 1983, thousands of private schools are open across the country– in villages as well as towns.…

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…