Before driving into northern Iraq, Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed from his Western clothes into the traditional dress of a Kurdish pesh merga warrior: a tightfitting short woolen jacket over his shirt, baggy pantaloons and a wide cummerbund. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund, as well as sniper binoculars and a loaded .45 semiautomatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, an M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the foot well. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”
Our destination that day in May 2015 was the place of Azar’s greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, ISIS gunmen had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi Army vastly greater in size, and then turning their attention to the Kurds. Azar had divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the scene, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. “It was obvious,” Azar said, “so obvious. But no one wanted to listen.” On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy — and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.
Azar is a practicing urologist, but even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather as if he were sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.
The weaponry also complemented the doctor’s personal philosophy, as expressed in a scene from one of his favorite movies, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” when a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off guard by a man seeking to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, the would-be assassin goes into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.
“When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk,” Azar quoted from the movie. “That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.”
Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages. The six are from different regions, different cities, different tribes, different families, but they share, along with millions of other people in and from the Middle East, an experience of profound unraveling. Their lives have been forever altered by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states.
For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event. For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-man’s-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his “controller,” he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice.
As disparate as those moments were, for each of these six people they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. Such changes, of course — multiplied by millions of lives — are also transforming their homelands, the greater Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the entire world.
History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.
As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East.
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In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation. While Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya set a record for longevity in the Middle East with his 42-year dictatorship, it was not that different elsewhere; by 2011, any Egyptian younger than 41 — and that was roughly 75 percent of the population — had only ever known two heads of state, while a Syrian of the same age had lived his or her entire life under the control of the father-and-son Assad dynasty. Along with political stasis, in many Arab nations most levers of economic power lay in the hands of small oligarchies or aristocratic families; for everyone else, about the only path to financial security was to wrangle a job within fantastically bloated public-sector bureaucracies, government agencies that were often themselves monuments to nepotism and corruption. While the sheer amount of money pouring into oil-rich, sparsely populated nations like Libya or Kuwait might allow for a degree of economic trickle-down prosperity, this was not the case in more populous but resource-poor nations like Egypt or Syria, where poverty and underemployment were severe and — given the ongoing regional population explosion — ever-worsening problems.
I was heartened, in the Arab Spring’s early days, by the focus of the people’s wrath. One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external “enemies” and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.
Then it all went horribly wrong. By the summer of 2012, two of the “freed” nations — Libya and Yemen — were sliding into anarchy and factionalism, while the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria had descended into vicious civil war. In Egypt the following summer, the nation’s first democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, a coup cheered on by many of the same young activists who took to the streets to demand democracy two years earlier. The only truly bright spot among the Arab Spring nations was the place where it started, Tunisia, but even there, terrorist attacks and feuding politicians were a constant threat to a fragile government. Amid the chaos, the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Why did it turn out this way? Why did a movement begun with such high promise go so terribly awry?
The scattershot nature of the Arab Spring makes it hard to provide a single answer. Some nations were radically transformed, even as others right next door were barely touched. Some of the nations in crisis were relatively wealthy (Libya), others crushingly poor (Yemen). Some countries with comparatively benign dictatorships (Tunisia) blew up along with some of the region’s most brutal (Syria). The same range of political and economic disparity is seen in the nations that remained stable.
Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.
In fact, all but one of the six people profiled ahead are from these “artificial states,” and their individual stories are rooted in the larger story of how those nations came to be. The process began at the end of World War I, when two of the victorious allies, Britain and France, carved up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves as spoils of war. In Mesopotamia, the British joined together three largely autonomous Ottoman provinces and named it Iraq. The southernmost of these provinces was dominated by Shiite Arabs, the central by Sunni Arabs and the northernmost by non-Arab Kurds. To the west of Iraq, the European powers took the opposite approach, carving the vast lands of “greater Syria” into smaller, more manageable parcels. Falling under French rule was the smaller rump state of Syria — essentially the nation that exists today — and the coastal enclave of Lebanon, while the British took Palestine and Transjordan, a swath of southern Syria that would eventually become Israel and Jordan. Coming a bit later to the game, in 1934, Italy joined the three ancient North African regions that it had wrested from the Ottomans in 1912 to form the colony of Libya.
To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, confident that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority.
This was only the most overt level of the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy, however, for just beneath the sectarian and regional divisions in these “nations” there lay extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and subtribes and clans, ancient social orders that remained the populations’ principal source of identification and allegiance. Much as the United States Army and white settlers did with Indian tribes in the conquest of the American West, so the British and French and Italians proved adept at pitting these groups against one another, bestowing favors — weapons or food or sinecures — to one faction in return for fighting another. The great difference, of course, is that in the American West, the settlers stayed and the tribal system was essentially destroyed. In the Arab world, the Europeans eventually left, but the sectarian and tribal schisms they fueled remained.
Seen in this light, the 2011 suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi seems less the catalyst for the Arab Spring than a culmination of tensions and contradictions that had been simmering under the surface of Arab society for a long time. Indeed, throughout the Arab world, residents are far more likely to point to a different event, one that occurred eight years before Bouazizi’s death, as the moment when the process of disintegration began: the American invasion of Iraq. Many even point to a singular image that embodied that upheaval. It came on the afternoon of April 9, 2003, in the Firdos Square of downtown Baghdad, when, with the help of a winch and an American M88 armored recovery vehicle, a towering statue of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was pulled to the ground.
While today that image is remembered in the Arab world with resentment — the symbolism of this latest Western intervention in their region was quite inescapable — at the time it spurred something far more nuanced. For the first time in their lives, what Syrians and Libyans and other Arabs just as much as Iraqis saw was that a figure as seemingly immovable as Saddam Hussein could be cast aside, that the political and social paralysis that had so long held their collective lands might actually be broken. Not nearly so apparent was that these strongmen had actually exerted considerable energy to bind up their nations, and in their absence the ancient forces of tribalism and sectarianism would begin to exert their own centrifugal pull. Even less apparent was how these forces would both attract and repel the United States, damaging its power and prestige in the region to an extent from which it might never recover.
At least one man saw this quite clearly. For much of 2002, the Bush administration had laid the groundwork for the Iraq invasion by accusing Saddam Hussein of pursuing a weapons-of-mass-destruction program and obliquely linking him to the Sept. 11 attacks. In October 2002, six months before Firdos Square, I had a long interview with Muammar el-Qaddafi, and I asked him who would benefit if the Iraq invasion actually occurred. The Libyan dictator had a habit of theatrically pondering before answering my questions, but his reply to that one was instantaneous. “Bin Laden,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. And Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad.”
Beginning in April 2015, the photographer Paolo Pellegrin and I embarked on a series of extended trips to the Middle East. Separately and as a writer-photographer team, we had covered an array of conflicts in the region over the previous 20 years, and our hope on this new set of journeys was to gain a greater understanding of the so-called Arab Spring and its generally grim aftermath. As the situation continued to deteriorate through 2015 and 2016, our travels expanded: to those islands in Greece bearing the brunt of the migrant exodus from Iraq and Syria; to the front lines in northern Iraq where the battle against ISIS was being most vigorously waged.
We have presented the results of this 16-month project in the form of six individual narratives, which, woven within the larger strands of history, aim to provide a tapestry of an Arab World in revolt.
The account is divided into five parts, which proceed chronologically as they alternate between our principal characters. Along with introducing several of these individuals, Part 1 focuses on three historical factors that are crucial to understanding the current crisis: the inherent instability of the Middle East’s artificial states; the precarious position in which U.S.-allied Arab governments have found themselves when compelled to pursue policies bitterly opposed by their own people; and American involvement in the de facto partitioning of Iraq 25 years ago, an event little remarked upon at the time — and barely more so since — that helped call into question the very legitimacy of the modern Arab nation-state. Part 2 is primarily devoted to the American invasion of Iraq, and to how it laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts. In Part 3, the narrative quickens, as we follow the explosive outcome of those revolts as they occurred in Egypt, Libya and Syria. By Part 4, which chronicles the rise of ISIS, and Part 5, which tracks the resulting exodus from the region, we are squarely in the present, at the heart of the world’s gravest concern.
I have tried to tell a human story, one that has its share of heroes, even some glimmers of hope. But what follows, ultimately, is a dark warning. Today the tragedy and violence of the Middle East have spilled from its banks, with nearly a million Syrians and Iraqis flooding into Europe to escape the wars in their homelands, and terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Paris and beyond. With the ISIS cause being invoked by mass murderers in San Bernardino and Orlando, the issues of immigration and terrorism have now become conjoined in many Americans’ minds, forming a key political flash point in the coming presidential election. In some sense, it is fitting that the crisis of the Arab world has its roots in the First World War, for like that war, it is a regional crisis that has come quickly and widely — with little seeming reason or logic — to influence events at every corner of the globe.