An unfortunate effect of more than two decades of war between the West and the Middle East, and the resulting terrorist campaigns launched from there, is the replacement of the charm, even the magic, the historical Persia held for Europeans—and for me—by their opposite: contempt, disgust, even fear. In the late 80’s and the 90’s I read widely in the literature European writers fascinated and enthralled by the Arab and near-Eastern cultures produced, beginning with Charles Doughty in the late 19th century and continuing on through T.E. Lawrence, Sir Richard Burton, and Wilfred Thesiger in the 20th. Among Thesiger’s books is The Marsh Arabs, a moist companion to his Arabian Sands, about a continuous culture more than 5,000 years old in southern Iraq deliberately destroyed by Saddam Hussein when he drained its native habitat, part water and part reeds, in 1992 in revenge for the part its Shi’ite inhabitants had played in an uprising against him the year before. So when I came across The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq (2006) in a secondhand book shop, I bought it.
The book is a personal account by a Scotsman, Rory Stewart, who in 2003 at the age of 30 was appointed deputy governor of the Province of Amara and after that of Nasiriyah Province next door, working under the Coalition Provisional Authority following Saddam’s deposition and imprisonment. Stewart received his appointment from the Foreign Office on the slender grounds of his having gained a familiarity with rural Islamic culture in his previous hike across Middle Asia, because he could speak limited Farsi (allowing him to communicate with Iranian refugees), and because he had experience with “post-conflict environments.” Stewart suspects it had more to do with the fact that no one else wanted the job, or was available for it at the time. (Upon his arrival in Amara, Stewart really possessed no enforceable powers at all.) After reading only a few tens of pages into the book, I am struck by its clean and evocative style, the author’s power of detailed observation, and his narrative abilities. Having read even so little, I’m impressed also by a sense of the utter futility from the beginning of George W. Bush’s war and of the helplessness of the CPA (often owing less to its own faults than to historical and cultural circumstance), but also by the bravery, even the heroism, of the men and women who did their best to make this absurd attempt at nation-building a success. So far, the Arabs of the early 21st century seem unrecognizable by a reader familiar with Thesiger’s Arabs, let alone Doughty’s, but perhaps I shall find them less so as I read further. However that may be, The Prince of the Marshes is a splendid book, and a temptation to set other obligatory reading aside while I finish it.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
My endless research on natural law and tradition (a speech looms in June) has led me back to the Jew turned Confessional Lutheran Friedrich Stahl. I’m scouring his Philosophy of Law, translated into English by the fascinating Ruben Alvarado, whose introductions in this multivolume set highlight Stahl’s conservative regard for prescription—a regard that jibes nicely with Burke and Kirk, Alvarado contends.
A mid-19th-century lawyer, professor, and public official, Stahl earnestly opposed all leveling efforts—the syncretistic doctrine of the Prussian Union church as well as the drive toward German nationalism and unification, which, Stahl argued, sought to upend the traditional, God-given “estates” of family, community, and nobility in favor of the ideology of the French Revolution and the identity of the Mass Man.
—Aaron D. Wolf