Books about Iraq

I have read many books about Iraq over the last twenty years. Sometimes it feels as if I have read nothing but books about Iraq! Here is a short list of those I have found the most useful, interesting or enjoyable.

 Iraq cookery recipes cooking cuisine review

Delights from the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah

This recipe book and history of Iraqi cuisine is one of my my favourite ‘portraits’ of Iraq. The country’s long, complex and multicultural history is brought to life in these pages throught the prism of food as ancient and medieval tidbits, folklore, travelogues and the author’s own anecdotes and observations are woven together with over four hundred recipes. The fact that the dishes are delicious is an added bonus, their subtle flavours offering a sensual flavour of this ancient and diverse culture. A new edition of the book is being published in March 2013. I hope it will do justice to the depth and range of Nawal Nasrallah’s knowledge and the qualitiy of her writing which is as enticing, abundant and generous as the meals Iraqi women love to serve their families and guests.


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An Iraqi in Paris by Samuel Shimon

Memoir as tall story, this delightful and unruly book follows the escapades of the irrepressable narrator from his boyhood home in Iraq to the mean streets of Paris. Funny, poignant and unexpected, the sharp observations, memorable characters, pathos and humour endow a tale of  struggle and exile with the intrepid optimism of a modern folk tale.


Without an Alphabet Without a Face by Saadi Youssef

Like a modern troubadour, the celebrated Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef has lived in wandering exile from his homeland for more than thirty years. This selection of his lyrical, lucid and accessible poems, translated into English by Khalded Mattawa, brims with love, sorrow and beauty.


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Traditional Houses in Baghdad by J. Warren and I. Fethi

This scholarly work documents the beautiful and practical courtyard homes that shaped the famous, labyrinthine alleyways of Baghdad. Sadly, much of this housing was demolished in the rush to modernise the city. The numerous photographs in this book now represent a valuable archive about the craftsmanship of Baghdad’s builders, a lost vernacular architecture and the way of life that disappeared with it.


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The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu

This is the best history of modern Iraq available in English, dealing mainly with the period between the revolt against British rule in 1920 and the final ascendancy of the Ba’ath Party in 1968.  A work of admirable and inspiring scholarship, it creates a complex and nuanced portrait of the country in a period of upheaval and change. It is the first book that any serious student of Iraqi history should read and it contains many insights and gems for those who do not have the patience or incentive to read it from cover to cover. It is, however, a splendid academic magnum opus rather than an easily assimilated rough guide!


Arabian Nights Thousand and One Nights Sheherezade

The  Arabian Nights translated by Husain Haddawy

Husain Haddawy’s translation of the One Thousand and One Nights  is from a fourteenth Century Syrian edition – the oldest manuscript of the stories to have survived. The language in his translations –  sensual, sly, bawdy, satirical – reveals these famous tales-within-tales in a new light, demonstrating why they have had such a profound influence on world literature.


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Folk Tales of Iraq by E.S Stevens

Lady Ethel Drower (nee Stevens) accompanied her husband to Iraq in 1921 and lived there for many years. She collected these stories from the people who told them and translated them herself, recording them for anthropological rather than literary purposes. The copious footnotes shed further light on tales that had been told through the generations without ever being written down.


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Guests of the Sheikh: an ethnography of an Iraqi village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

From 1956 to 1957 Elizabeth Warnock Fernea lived in a small rural community in southern Iraq. Whilst the claims of any ‘ethnography’ might be a little problematic, this is a thoughtful, warm, humorous and  touching account of the women she met and, briefly, lived amongst.


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The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Theories and Approaches by Roger Matthews

This slim volume offers an introduction to the methods and theories of archaeology, a historical context for European archaeology in Iraq and how it has shaped our views of ‘mesopotamia’, and a fascinating series of case studies which illustrate key moments in the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to the eventual establishment of the world’s first empires.


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Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux

Although dated in some respects, Georges Roux’ book provides a scholarly overview of the development and history of early societies in Ancient Iraq. Academic, thorough, a dense read at times, it nonetheless succeeds in bringing to life the rise and fall of successive cultures from pre-history to the arrival of Alexander the Great in Babylon.


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Mesopotamia: The invention of the City by Gwendolyn Leick

From Eridu, founded in the fifth millennium BCE, to cosmopolitan Babylon Gwendolen Leick  traces the development of urban culture in ancient Iraq and explores the lives of the people who dwelled in humankind’s first cities.


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Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship by Marion Farouk Sluglett and Peter Sluglett

A political and economic history of post-colonial Iraq which details the emergence and rule of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein. A revised edition was published in 2001.


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Distant Voices by John Pilger

This book by veteran journalist John Pilger contains a collection of articles about the 1991 Gulf War. From the horse-trading within the UN Security Council to win support for ‘Desert Storm’ to the bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure, Pilger demonstrates that the motives for the conflict, its conduct and its consequences were very different from the orthodox narrative presented by the likes of Wikipedia or the BBC.


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Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam and The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice by Geoff Simons

The first of these books provides a useful history of ‘mesopotamia’ and modern Iraq. The second details the workings of the UN Security Council vis a vis sanctions against the Iraq, from 1990 to 1997. Subsequent to the 2003 invasion Iraq’s poverty, the terrible state of its health service, infrastructure and schools was all laid at the door of the regime – a distortion that now goes largely unchallenged as the impact of sanctions is airbrushed from history. This book documents how a country classified as a ‘middle income’ country in 1989 was reduced to absolute poverty by the most draconian economic blockade in modern history, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.