Burdened Histories

By Bhakati Shringarpure

The Wake of War:

Encounters with the People of Iraq and Afghanistan

By Anne Nivat

Beacon Press, 2005

Anne Nivat is one of those rare reporters who lets her subjects speak freely. She even allows them to run on with their opinions, ideas, memories, trials and tribulations without interruptions or edits. Of French origin, Nivat became something of a sensation after she reported via satellite phone from Chechnya disguised as a Chechan woman at a time when Western journalists were prohibited from entering the region.

But Nivat is not the stereotypical adrenaline-driven, high-profile journalist who writes a book based on a couple of weeks spent in a foreign place with a reliable driver-translator and little else. Nor is hers a form of armchair journalism where an impressionistic stylized rendering of daily activities in a five-star hotel room passes for gritty foreign reportage. Instead, herein lies a commitment to long durations of travel and sustained conversations with people from all walks of life.

Divided into Iraq and Afghanistan, the book is loosely centered on daily accounts of individuals in an era of post-war chaos and instability. There is no evidence of class prejudice in Nivat. She is in search of neither the authorities nor the experts, nor the military officers or ministers in the region. Each chapter is a vignette of a person she has encountered; there is no semblance of a thematic, narrative or political intention.

When in Iraq, these people, and the images that emerge, include regular Kurdish, Turkoman and Shiite families, a theater director from Basra, a nostalgic Iraqi ex-Admiral and a portrait of the city of Baghdad during the relative calm of April 2003 just after the U.S. invasion. When in Afghanistan, Nivat interviews people from various professions, including an engineer, a gynecologist, a teacher, as well as the spokesperson for General Dostum and some former members of the Taliban.

“The Wake of War” has a refreshing simplicity. The author does not clutter the book with excessive subjective reflections or analyses nor is she too self-effacing. The vignettes allow an emergence of a multiplicity of opinions and the work attains an objectivity that seems effortless. Nivat does not seem to be in search of a monolithic truth about these war-torn areas and for that very reason, she manages to excavate a kind of complicated and conflicting reality about these places and their people.

The book is a wonderful and sensitive rendition of two tragic, burdened histories and Nivat truly succeeds in producing an alive, vibrant and wide-ranging portrayal of an intensely fragile situation.


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid