Only four years after its publication and a drastically changed landscape, reading Deborah Amos’ “Eclipse of the Sunnis, Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East,” will give readers a chilling sense of futility towards the impending signs of violence that politicians either conveniently overlooked or malevolently exaggerated to their advantage. With the American Occupation of Iraq, Amos, an award winning journalist, has set off to record the “the mass departure” of Iraqis to Damascus, Amman and Beirut. For each destination, she juxtaposes the political machinations behind the public rhetoric with a compilation of personal stories whose tragedies directly result from these power shifts. In her travels, Amos experiences some of her own close calls with militias, yet they do not blind her to American complicity in this widespread human tragedy. Witnessing the brain drain in Iraq that has only further crippled the country, Amos poses the question of how a country can possibly build a democracy when the middle class--predominately Sunnis--has gone into exile?
In Damascus, she meets with an Iraqi theater troop who re-establishes itself selling nostalgic dramas, and political commentaries on home, to fellow exiles and television viewers left behind in Iraq. She hears the stories of “the oldest community in Iraq”, the Christians, who largely supported the Americans before becoming the first targets of sectarian violence after the fall of Hussein. The author gives a short history of the political maneuvering between Syria, Iran, Iraq and the United States. While Bush accused Bashar al Assad of aiding the Iraq insurgency, Bashar gained popular support at home for his hard stance against the Americans in Iraq. Yet, as this occurred, U.S. and Assad intelligence sources continued to share information on the fight against terrorism.
Amos’ interviewees take both Washington and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to task for exasperating the sectarian violence despite the rhetoric of secular democracy. In Damascus, she has dinner with Tom Dine, former executive director of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which in over thirteen years, he transformed from ‘the pro-Israel lobby into a major political force.” In an ominous example of foreshadowing, Amos observes, “In a country as highly fragmented as Syria, with the danger that sectarianism could cross the border from Iraq, and a hostile administration in Washington, Bashar al-Assad’s government [has] determined it [cannot] afford to show weakness.”
In Lebanon, the flow of new refugees heightens the Shiite-Sunni divide. Impotent in their struggle against Israel, the Palestinians in the Lebanese camps, find the powerful idea of a ‘global jihad” an attractive alternative , while the Shiite Hezbollah’s war with Israel leaves the Sunni Iraqi refugees “defensive, marginalized and bitter.” At the same time, Lebanon’s neighbor, Jordan remains “a Sunni refuge for Iraq’s Baathist army generals, air force pilots, intelligence operatives, and business elites who had crossed the border early for an indeterminate stay.”
Amos continuously connects the complex political divisions with human costs that extend beyond death and destruction into the fabric of the family. In one fascinating chapter, she spends time with Iraqi prostitutes in Damascus finding that these former middle class professional women have made some difficult decisions to survive exile.
While one may not always agree with her perception of the Sunni-Shiite divide, “Eclipse of the Sunnis” certainly brings attention to a large diaspora that will have to be recognized in order to achieve any lasting stability in Iraq and in the region as a whole. Although the military violence has escalated drastically since Amos’ reportage, her narrative continues to shed historical and personal light on the current carnage.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71.
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