“That’s the big problem with Iraq today—all the intellectual capital has been lost… So many basic facts are unknown. There’s basically no literature on what happened to the universities other than just numbers.”
This is the premise of second-year Matthew Schweitzer’s research project, “Iraq’s Intelligentsia Under Siege,” which aims to understand the Iraq War’s impact on the nation’s intellectuals–many of whom fled the country following the U.S. invasion in 2003–and the universities where they taught, which were largely left unprotected and open to looting.
“Iraq used to be a center of learning in the Middle East… People would come to study in Iraq,” he said. “It’s interesting now that everyone’s leaving, so it’s sort of like a switch. And along with that switch comes the destruction of all the archives at those universities.”
“I was interested in telling a story of a country that we’ve pretty much destroyed. As a student in a university setting, I can relate and understand what it’s like to be an intellectual and academic because I study with them.”
"I got a little bit antsy during high school"
The story of how he began this endeavor came from a broader interest in the Iraq War during high school—and some senioritis, he admits. During his senior year, he started a website on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
“I originally started the website to keep an eye on the drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq because at that point, we had just withdrawn from Iraq. And then, [the website was] looking forward and analyzing what’s going to happen when we withdraw from Afghanistan, so I started out by interviewing people about Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
“That’s the reason I tell people. But the other reason was because it was second semester senior year, and I got a little bit antsy in high school,” he added with a laugh.
To find interview subjects for the website, he began with scholars he knew, and through those initial interviews, he attracted the attention of more notable people.
“You call them up and ask if you can have 20 minutes, and an hour later, they say, ‘Oh, I have to go now.’... I had some guy in Poland who said, ‘It’s Friday. I could talk about Afghanistan for hours.’”
Schweitzer’s website gained a following, especially after he landed an interview with Noam Chomsky.
“That really got the ball rolling… once you get one big name, all the other big names are like, ‘Ah, now I want to debate with this guy.’”
"Someone should write a book about it"
It was an interview with an Iraqi professor teaching at the London School of Economics, Saad Jawad, that sparked Schweitzer’s interest in what has become a massive project. Unbeknownst to Schweitzer, Jawad had been a prominent scholar at Baghdad University before moving to London, and his thoughts on teaching in Iraq were surprising.
“He said, ‘It was easier to teach under Saddam,’ and I sort of did a double take because I hadn’t really studied Iraqi history, and I figured it was pretty bad after the invasion, but it had to be better than what it was like under a dictatorship,” Schweitzer said. “According to this guy, that was not the case at all… It was more dangerous to speak your mind after 2003 because you didn’t know who you were going to piss off. Before 2003, you knew: don’t criticize Saddam, and you’re fine.”
When Schweitzer asked Jawad about the situation today, he replied, “It’s such a big topic. Someone should write a book about it.” And with that, Schweitzer realized that this was a project worth pursuing.
"Iraq is still timely"
After arriving at UChicago in the fall of 2012, he sought ways to advance the project by applying for grants and contacting interested professors on campus.
“I remember during O-Week, I was working on a grant application, and everyone was like, ‘You’re a weird kid.’”
With the help of Law School Professor Tom Ginsburg and a major grant from the University’s Neubauer Collegium of Culture and Society, Schweitzer has been able to fund the work of five Iraqi professors conducting interviews within the country, a significant first step.
“We’re lucky that Iraq is still timely, and things are still developing, so that helps us get funds.”
Schweitzer and his colleagues focus on two angles of the story: the conditions for intellectuals who remain in Iraq, as well as the stories of those who fled Iraq after the war.
“Academics went to Australia, they went to Malaysia, they went to Sweden, England, Jordan, you name it, there’s probably someone there.”
In total, they are looking to do 150-200 interviews. Schweitzer said the interviews will be archived in the University library and will also form the basis of a book about the topic. He and his colleagues are also collecting Iraqi intellectuals’ papers and artifacts, which can be difficult to track down.
"There are people here who know a lot"
Schweitzer mainly works on the project over breaks. He traveled to Istanbul last summer to meet with scholars working on the project. Then, over winter break, he embarked on his first of what he hopes to be many trips to Iraq. As a history major, he is struck by the country’s rich history as one of the world’s first civilizations.
“You’ll see a city, and say, ‘Oh, that’s an old city. Oh wait, that’s the first city.’ It blows your mind.”
Schweitzer said it is difficult to find courses in the College that match his specific research interests. However, he noted that the theoretical underpinnings of his courses and the reading and research course option are good supplements.
“Reading courses have been helpful. It’s just one-on-one with the professor, and you choose a reading list and just sort of go. Those have been good because you get a good theoretical basis of what you’re thinking about,” he said. “There are courses that give you a framework [for] understanding a broad problem. I haven’t taken a course on Iraq or even the Middle East because a lot of the times, modern Middle East is like the Ottomans, but there are people here who know a lot.”
Schweitzer hopes his project has some impact on the political situation in Iraq, particularly in fostering a more open intellectual environment.
“It really just comes down to respecting free expression. The government doesn’t respect intellectuals, as with most sort of quasi-dictatorships. You talk to professors, and they get very emotional, and [they] say that it’s the worst thing that’s happened [to them]. It’s hard for them because there will always be people who don’t care… As an American student, I feel a responsibility to understand what we did to their country. It’s humbling stuff.”
By Marina Fang, College New Media Editor, Class of 2015
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