We were fortunate to have been able to shoot our film in that brief period during which there was relative public security. Shortly after our visit, Iraq descended into violence; suicide bombings became the norm. The invasion made my country a magnet for terrorists (“We’ll fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here,” President George W. Bush had said), and Iraq later descended into a sectarian civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more, irrevocably changing the country’s demography.
The next time I returned to Baghdad was in 2013. The American tanks were gone, but the effects of the occupation were everywhere. I had low expectations, but I was still disheartened by the ugliness of the city where I had grown up and horrified by how dysfunctional, difficult and dangerous daily life had become for the great majority of Iraqis.
My last visit was in April 2017. I flew from New York, where I now live, to Kuwait, where I was giving a lecture. An Iraqi friend and I crossed the border by land. I was going to the city of Basra, in the south of Iraq. Basra was the only major Iraqi city I had not visited before. I was going to sign my books at the Friday book market of al-Farahidi Street, a weekly gathering for bibliophiles modeled after the famous Mutanabbi Street book market in Baghdad. I was driven around by friends. I didn’t expect the beautiful Basra I’d seen on 1970s postcards. That city had long disappeared. But the Basra I saw was so exhausted and polluted. The city had suffered a great deal during the Iran-Iraq war, and its decline accelerated after 2003. Basra was pale, dilapidated and chaotic thanks to the rampant corruption. Its rivers are polluted and ebbing. Nonetheless, I made a pilgrimage to the famous statue of Iraq’s greatest poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.
One of the few sources of joy for me during these short visits were the encounters with Iraqis who had read my novels and were moved by them. These were novels I had written from afar, and through them, I tried to grapple with the painful disintegration of an entire country and the destruction of its social fabric. These texts are haunted by the ghosts of the dead, just as their author is. No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.”
It was a crime.
Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.