Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, British diplomat Rory Stewart was asked to serve as the deputy governor of two southern Iraqi provinces. Stewart was already familiar with the Muslim way of life, having spent nearly two years walking across the Middle East, from Turkey to Nepal, including a hazardous solo trek across a desolate Afghanistan, recorded in his previous book The Places in Between. By comparison, his yearlong assignment in Iraq seemed simple: help the local people transition from dictatorship to democracy.
The Prince of the Marshes is Stewart's account of that year, trying to mold a place of modern order out of a culture caught in medieval chaos. The book is not a record of accomplishments, nor a criticism of excesses. It is simply one man's story of a struggle to have a lasting effect in a land where a single day of violence could turn months of success into ashes. In the midst of this, Stewart was forced to find allies among political parties led by militant clerics, agents of the Iranian secret police and a local warlord (the man for whom the book is named). Unfortunately, any of these allies might treat him as a best friend in the morning, and lob mortar rounds on his roof that night. Whether Stewart's actions as governor were always the wisest might be subject to debate. But then, Stewart's book shows clearly how any choice he made became a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don't. His riveting account of a desperate three-day stand against a militia attack on his office in Nasiriyah is a harrowing reminder of just how fragile and dangerous each decision could be.
Stewart shares his experiences without gloss or self-praise. His writing is careful and spartan, and all the better for it. Rather than glorify, politicize or rant, Stewart simply describes what he experienced and the local leaders he encountered the good, the bad, and the in-between. Regardless of how you feel about the war and the efforts to recast a fractured nation, The Prince of the Marshes offers insight into a turbulent land whose troubles have yet to end. Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.