In “The New Iraq,” author Joseph Braude paints a vivid portrait of modern-day Iraq and lays out a detailed plan for rebuilding the country after the war. But Braude — who has lived in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and Tehran — has never actually been to Iraq. Not yet, anyway.
“I’ll be on the first plane to Baghdad” after Saddam Hussein is deposed, he said. “There are many Iraqis of all religions who yearn for connection with the motherland.”
Braude’s connection to Iraq is in his blood. His mother is a Baghdad-born Jew who hails from a prominent Iraqi Jewish family. Braude’s great-great grandfather was the chief rabbi of Baghdad during the 1930s.
“In a sense I’ve studied [Arabic] since I was 6 years old,” Braude told the Forward over tea at the Flatotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “My mother gave me a phrase book to talk with my grandmother.” Today, Braude speaks Persian and Hebrew, in addition to impeccable Arabic.
Growing up in Providence, R.I., Braude, whose father is a Reform rabbi, went to Jewish day school and later Yale University, where he was a Near Eastern studies major. At Yale he won a grant to study Arabic in Cairo at American University for a year. After Yale, Braude went to Princeton University, where he wrote his dissertation about political violence in 10th-century North Africa. “I think it would make a great movie,” he said.
Braude got to know the Middle East first-hand working as a research consultant all over the region during the 1990s, before the intifada broke out. “Some of the warm and memorable experiences I’ve had in the Gulf [would be] more difficult to manage in the current” state of affairs, Braude said with a touch of sadness creeping into his voice.
Being a Jew in the Middle East was, for Braude, anything but a lonely experience. He speaks adoringly of his friends in the Gulf. Many of his Muslim friends have urged him to convert to Islam, not out any particular animus toward Jews, he said, but out of concern; after all, they’ve told him, he could go to hell.
Tall, dark-skinned, with a round face and blue eyes, the 28-year-old Braude remains an optimist, focusing on a positive vision for the future. The first sentence of “The New Iraq” (Basic Books) reads, “This book is not about Saddam Hussein,” and Braude repeated the sentiment when he met the Forward. His book is filled with all the wild possibilities of what a society as rich and diverse as Iraq could become after the war.
In writing the book, Braude and his seven researchers — one of whom was his younger brother, Yoni — spoke to hundreds of Iraqis in refugee camps in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran, as well as in the United States and Europe. Braude also spoke to Iraqi officials whom he knew through his work at Pyramid Research, where he worked with Arab heads of state in privatizing state phone companies. “Basically we get information that no one else can get,” Braude said of Pyramid Research. His team raided the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University, where tens of thousands of documents about Iraq are stored.
Braude lays out the long litany of issues that will face the future Iraq: religion, the army, Saddam’s politicos, the media, entertainment, globalization and — perhaps most important and controversial — oil.
Many of Saddam’s minions, according to Braude, will have to be purged, much as in post-World War II Germany — but, as in Germany, some will be needed to keep the country together. A significant army will have to be maintained that will need to be at least one-third the size of the Iranian army in order to deter against possible aggression. “We’re not Iraq’s neighbor,” Braude said. “Iran is.”
Fundamentalism can be defeated by making Iraq as egalitarian a society as possible, he said, and the oil wells can be brought back to their full capacity — which they have not been anything close to for 10 years — very soon. Braude is fond of the Elvis Presley maxim: “A little less conversation, a little more action.”
“That needs to be translated into Arabic,” Braude said with a laugh.
But “The New Iraq” is as much a slice of present-day Iraqi life as it is a vision for the future. Braude repeats popular current jokes — Did you hear the one about the Kurd who brought his broken TV to the repair shop? The repairman glued a portrait of Saddam to the screen. “There,” said the repairman, “all finished.” Braude describes “Dhi’ab al-Layl” — “The Wolves of the Night” — the hit television show about organized crime in Baghdad, an Iraqi version of The Sopranos. He talks about Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, the marja, or religious authority, of the Iraqi town of Najaf who receives religious queries from all over the world via donkey.
Braude is adamant about not appearing politically partisan. He politely shrugs and refuses to assess personally how the Bush administration has handled Iraq. “I would not give a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” he said. “My politics are oriented toward constructive engagement and progress — I believe in defying labels of left and right.”
His personal involvement in politics is limited to a local election that was held when he was attending high school. Running a community paper, The East Side Variable, which he founded when he was 15 and which paid his way through Yale, Braude invited the six candidates for mayor of Providence to play a game of Sim City, a computer game in which players manage a fictitious city. Buddy Cianci, the Independent candidate who won the election and went on to be convicted of corruption and racketeering charges, was the big winner of the game. “He beat the pants off ” everyone, Braude said.
Braude wrote about the incident in The Variable. “It was the only positive article [about Cianci] in the campaign,” Braude said with a grin.
“I wouldn’t comment on Bush until I sit him down and play a computer game with him.”