Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict
by Edwin Black
Middle East Quarterly
Black's fascinating account brings Iraq's rich history vividly to life. The author has a wonderful ability to turn historical events, obscure to most Western readers, into a gripping story. He does this by giving the color of an important episode then racing forward to the next event he chooses to highlight—which makes Banking on Baghdad a great read but not particularly satisfying as a comprehensive history. A first part skips lightly from Hammurabi to the Mongol conquests and the Ottoman era, ending in the late nineteenth century. Next comes a detailed account of the pre-1914 great-power maneuverings to gain access to Iraq's oil resources, carried forward with an equally detailed description of World War I and the chaos that marked the transition to British rule. The story then skips forward, first to the Iraqi dalliance with Nazis in World War II and next to the anti-Semitic persecution that led Jews to flee to Israel soon after that state was established. The last twenty-five years seem not to interest Black, as he devotes less than ten pages to them.
Implicit in his account are themes that Black should have spelled out more clearly. He paints Mesopotamia—the Land between the Rivers—as a place with a unique history, one not particularly tightly bound into an "Arab world." He treats Islam as a rather small part of Iraq's history while conflict over resources is central to his tale. His Iraq is more shaped by oil—and especially by disputes over oil—than by Shi‘ism, which seems appropriate given that few Iraqis were Shi‘ite until the mid-nineteenth century (and Shi‘ism then was strikingly different from today, with little role for ayatollahs). That being so, the opening chapter set in Najaf as the U.S. troops arrive in 2003 is jarringly out of place: Black's account is neither about modern Iraq nor about Islam's impact.
The standard of scholarship is excellent with ample use made of primary sources although Black offers some questionable judgments on matters peripheral to his main story.