Hayder Abdul-Hussein writes about Iraq and Basra

As the British leave Basra,  London Grip takes a look at a bit of what they’re leaving behind.


Much work in anthropology has been undertaken under the rubric of ‘the anthropology of violence’, or one of its recent offspring, ‘the anthropology of war’. The intention is to address daily experiences and practices once deemed ‘normal’ which have become anomalous and out of the ordinary within the context of war and conflict.

In the summer of 2004 I visited Basra and found myself made especially aware of one element of the general hardship after some twenty-five years of war and of U.N. sanctions: namely, how the breakdown of the sewage system and the flooding of the streets with excrement and urine had affected the city and its people.

The location itself was chosen for at least two reasons: firstly, the anthropological literature is incredibly sparse on Iraq [1] which gave great scope into what could be studied as there was no specific history or lineage in which this account had to be situated; secondly, the importance which Iraq has assumed in global political interests has overlooked in many cases what Iraqi citizens have had to contend with. In a small way this work is a corrective to these oversights.

If Basra as an area of study requires some form of justification due to the lack of anthropological material, then the focus on excrement in Basra requires more than a few comments. It may be argued, for instance, that there are bigger issues to be dealt with, more pertinent to a ‘serious’ anthropological study. I would argue that it is precisely because the study of excrement has been so marginalised in anthropological discourse that it is necessary to address it as an object of study. Loudon (1975) in her musings on anthropology notes with incredulity the lacuna in the ethnographic literature regarding excrement. Indeed, one as yet cannot refer to a sustained ethnography on the issues of excrement or practices of defecation apart from ethnographic snippets found in some anthropological work (e.g. Evans-Pritchard 1969; Levi-Strauss 1983; Malinowski 1927; Valeri 2000). [2]

It is because of the lack within the anthropological literature regarding excrement and defecation that I have had to turn to, in part, the phenomenological and psychoanalytic literature. However, many anthropologists have found the supposed assumptions and practices of psychoanalysis to be highly contentious. Gellner’s (1985) polemic against psychoanalysis [3] seems to be in keeping with the suspicions of other anthropologists (cf. Seshadri-Crooks 1994). My suggestion, however, unlike Obeyesekere (1990) and Heald (1994), for example, who attempt a harmonious synthesis of the two disciplines, is to maintain the discursive gap separating psychoanalysis and anthropology (Foucault 1970). The benefit of such a separation resides in the ‘occurrence of an insurmountable parallax gap, the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible’ (Zizek 2006:4). The positing of contending accounts of similar objects and experiences would function, in Parkin’s (1995) terms, as ‘latticed knowledge’: each account criss-crossing and deconstituting the other and opening different, aberrant readings (Eco 1980) and avenues of investigation previously closed or ignored.

Through engagement with the literature and the ethnographic encounters I want to emphasize that defecating is a complex cultural-bodily practice and excrement an ambiguous object. Like sex and eating the defecatory function and its products sit uneasily at the margin between biological necessity and cultural practice (Goody 1982). The cultural and social elements of defecating are practiced through what are deemed the correct means of defecating and the specific spaces allotted for where one is allowed to defecate. In Western Europe, for example, the usage of facilities for defecating are determined by age, gender (Penner 2001), physical ability (Kay-Toombs 1992) and even socio-economic status, amongst many other differentiators. Defecating, then, is not an unambiguous process but is invested with meanings and discriminated through various socio-cultural categories. For all the cultural manipulation of excrement, the codes and rules which an encultured subject embodies, nevertheless, defecating occurs as a biological necessity as well (Solomon 2000). Jacques Lacan’s (1978) theorizing on excrement and culture highlights some of the ambiguity of excrement:

The characteristic of a human being is that – and this is very much in contrast with other animals – he doesn’t know what to do with his shit. He is encumbered by his shit. Why is he so encumbered while these things are so discreet in nature? Of course it is true that we are always coming across cat shit, but a cat counts as a civilized animal. But if you take elephants, it is striking how little space their leavings take up in nature, whereas when you think of it, elephant turds could be enormous. The discretion of the elephant is a curious thing. Civilization means shit, cloaca maxima [4]. (238)

Lacan may work within a crude distinction between nature and culture, however, excrement at the very least poses a problem for a large number of the world’s population. The functioning of most cities is predicated on the ability of the mainly underground sewage networks not only to deal with excrement, traffic it to where it will be dealt with, but to do all of this without one being aware of the process, to function below perception (Laporte 2000). Furthermore, if it is still maintained that excrement and the practice of defecation are inappropriate for a sustained anthropological study, one must bear in mind that, according to Mark Sobsey, professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, the statistical ‘average’ of the amount of excreta passed by an adult human being is approximately ‘0.6 pounds a day’  [5] (2005). The population of Basra – some 2.6 million – would produce, according to the statistics, in excess of 75 metric-tonnes in one day. Excrement then poses at the very least a continued logistical problem. Moreover, as will be discussed, excrement and defecating are caught within greater problematics than merely dealing with the sheer quantity produced within a city the size of Basra.

The anthropological task I set myself was to consider how people in Basra – a city which had, previously, fully functioning systems dealing with excrement (from a sewage system, to several processes which dealt with the emptying of the many cesspits in the city) – go about their daily lives contending with their streets and neighbourhoods being flooded by excrement and urine.

In a separate area of inquiry, my focus is on how one of my informants experienced being confined in a small cell with other prisoners with no toilet.

The two ethnographic encounters employed in this study present two very different experiences and problematics of excrement. Both interviewees are my cousins. As a means to elicit more complex accounts, I employed a method of walking [6] with one of them, Mohammad, for the few weeks I was in Basra. Through walking together the experiences of excrement and violence within the city were made material. In time, he moved from giving approximations and glossed accounts to vivid memories and practices [7] he was reminded of by their sediments within the ‘flesh and stone’ (Sennett 1996) of the city. I also asked both of them to take photographs of Basra, particularly images relating to excrement and the breakdown of the sewage system. The photographs are all either by Mohammad or Bashar.

A brief historical account of Basra

In the Lancet – a ‘reform medical newspaper’ – the diagnoses of the situation in Iraq’s second largest city, Basra, after the invasion of 2003, was that the British armed forces had some form of control over the city. However, this was qualified by the news that ‘[n]ot only are they [the Iraqis] suffering from high rates of malnutrition, in Basra there is the very real possibility now of child deaths, not only from the conflict, but from the additional effects of diarrhoea and dehydration. We estimate that at least 100,000 children under the age of 5 are at risk’ (Kapp 2003:1351). Simon Fradd, a British physician who spent 3 months as a health adviser in Iraq, describes his experiences in Basra during the summer of 2004 in the following terms: ‘A half-finished sewage treatment plant sits at the edge of the city, but construction stopped 7 years ago. The drains that are supposed to carry human waste into the Shat Al-Arab river are blocked. And although plans to rebuild health facilities are getting underway, ‘nobody had actually thought about getting this sewage off the streets’’ (Brown 2004:15).

This is Basra as it is now. How it came to be thus is largely accounted for by the last three decades of war, by U.N. sanctions, and by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime.

Sewer overflows from rainwater in a suburban street.

For most of the period during the eight years of war involving Iraq and Iran between 1980 and 1989, Basra was encircled by the Iranians with the ultimate aim of capturing the mostly Shi’ite city. The effects of surrounding Basra had disastrous implications for the population. Deaths were occurring from military confrontation and aerial bombardment but severe shortages of food were the result of the Iranian army cutting all the supply routes to the city; sanitation plants were destroyed making clean water extremely scarce and during the summer when temperatures sometimes exceed 50 degrees Celsius, the lack of electricity for fans, ‘swamp-coolers’ [8] and air-conditioning proved lethal to many of the young, elderly and ill.

The long war with Iran produced heavy casualties on both sides: in the millions. Basra bore the brunt of much of the war and came out of it with its infrastructure in disarray and the city in ‘virtual destruction’ (Farouk-Sluglett & Sluglett 1990:20). Its people were scarred from a destructive war and a government of the Ba’thist party that was inflicting a regime of such oppression that as Ahmed Al-Saad, a friend of my family, said to me, one word about how we are hungry or why there is no clean water, if heard by the Mukhabarat (secret police) or hizib al-baath [the ruling Ba’ath party] would get you hanged on the same day. Ahmed went on to joke that if the Ba’thists did not hang you, the daily struggle to find food, clean water, gasoline, was only a slower form of death.

The war against Iran was only a prelude to greater conflict and turmoil. On the 2nd of August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait[9] which was subsequently annexed to the Basra Governorate. The international community reacted sharply. On January the 17th 1991 the Gulf War began and ended on the 28th of February of that same year. A short war, though one which inflicted on Iraq casualties of thirty to a hundred thousand according to some estimates. However, the destruction was not confined only to casualties:

The southern port city of Basra, closer to the Kuwaiti front, has suffered greater devastation than Baghdad, ac­cording to accounts of fleeing Indian construction workers. They report that bombs have hit virtually Basra’s entire infrastructure, including refineries and grain warehouses, and dismembered bodies lying amidst rubble are a com­mon sight. Shelters are not equally available, especially in poorer neighbourhoods. (Hilterman 1991a:3)

In a later report on Iraq, Hilterman noted the dire problem of water in Basra:
…none of the water was drinkable unless boiled for at least three minutes, an impossibility given the scarcity of fuel. The results were evident in the hospitals. In the south, ward after ward was filled with listless children whose cure would have consisted of one sim­ple commodity, clean water, which was not available. Lacking this, they died. With the onset of summer temperatures in May, the incidence of water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid increased, pushing up even further the already frightening mortality figures. (1991b:111)

The Shi’ite intafada (uprising) in Basra of that same year against the oppressive mainly Sunni Ba’thist party was violently quashed with mass executions in the thousands undertaken in the streets. The Ba’thist government instituted a set of policies against Basra in an attempt to quell what it felt were a Shi’ite population militated by Iran, or with the potential to become militant anyway. These policies ranged from a reluctance to repair Basra’s infrastructure to diverting the city’s wealth and resources to Baghdad and the Ba’thist homeland of al-Tikrit. Thus, the electricity produced by the southern power stations was sent north through the power grid. Baghdad enjoyed almost full days of electricity whereas Basra would receive one to three hours of electricity daily which aggravated the damage to sewage installations: all pumping stations were flooded, causing total destruction of vertical pump motors and electric con­trol boards. In densely populated areas of the city, this caused flooding in ground floors (in most houses the only floor) with sewage to a depth of half a meter (Kuttab 1992:37).

Saddam Hussein’s government’s policies towards the Shi’ite south constituted a form of biological warfare where ‘… in many cities of the south (especially Basra and Amara), sewage drainage installations were non-operative, so that the restored water supply caused extensive sewage flooding in the streets, resulting in a continued high incidence of water­borne diseases’ (ibid:38).

Raw sewage and uncollected rubbish between blocks of flats

Basra was not to receive relief from the international community. Instead, U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf war meant that the poor became poorer and the ill and the weak had little or no medicine or means of collecting the paltry rations sporadically supplied by the government in Basra.

Umh Ali, a middle-aged secondary school teacher in Basra, recalls how the strict rations coupled with monthly wages of one or two U.S. dollars a month meant that former imperatives to help the poor, to look after a neighbour when in need, became a luxury. Every family had to look after itself, that’s what the wars and sanctions did. Daily life in Basra was about contending with disease and illness, avoiding getting on the wrong side of the local Ba’thist party and somehow feeding and clothing oneself and family. This was the lot of the majority of people living in Basra and the problems continued during the decade unabated. The introduction of the U.N. oil for food programme changed little. As Garfield makes clear, ‘[w]hile Iraq’s social indicators, includ­ing child mortality, today are certainly not the lowest in the world, the extent and rate of decline there is unprecedented in the modem world’ (2000:16). In other words, Iraq was facing a set of circumstances and conditions formerly alien to the population. For Umh Ali the situation was in Allah’s hands.

Crossing a suburban street to talk to neighbours means negotiating a river of sewage

In confirmation of the accounts of devastation, the World Health Organisation from 2003 onward has both warned of impending cholera outbreaks and reported the outbreaks themselves. Regarding issues pertaining to sanitation little has changed. Clean water is as yet still unavailable apart from expensive bottled water and the city is flooded by excrement, urine and uncollected rubbish, while human corpses and animal remains are regularly found on the streets in the mornings. Furthermore, clashes between rival tribes, militias, religious conflict and the presence of the British army in Basra creates a deeply violent and destructive context for the citizens who attempt to go about their difficult daily task of living.

Ethnographic Encounters: the doctor

Mohammad walking in Basra to the main souq, Al-Ashar

Mohammad Al-Mukhtar qualified as a doctor in the summer of 2005. Working as a House Officer in the newly renamed Sadar Hospital in central Basra, he walks the several kilometres from his mother’s house, where he lives, to the hospital to, as he calls it, ‘feel al-Basra’: So much has changed so quickly, but I still have little or no medicine to treat patients. I have to be wary of the ashiar [tribes], they’re the new Ba’thists, so too the Shi’ites. You do anything that they don’t like and that’s it. It’s normal, especially for a doctor. It was worse under Saddam, but not much worse … different. So I walk to work and back. In the winter or when there are sand storms – when the weather is bad, or I am late – I take a taxi, but when things are fine, I walk. It’s a long walk but there are so many problems at home … every family has problems, so I walk to forget things that happen at home and that happen at the hospital. But when you walk you see your friends, your family, people who’ve become familiar to you because you’re seen everyday at the same time walking. You don’t feel the daily change, unless there’s been an explosion or something drastic has happened, but you feel the longer-term changes by walking because you’re there everyday and every once in a while you realise that things have changed. People you used to say hello to are no longer there. Different people come, or the same people but doing different things. Where you live there is always a feeling. I walk to ‘feel al-Basra’ and I work in the hospital to make things a little bit better.

Casey (1993) argues for something similar to what Mohammad’s experiences suggest, namely, that through walking one experiences a certain temporary suspension, or cessation of typical attitudes and ways of engaging with the world. Casey describes walking as a practice which opens up ‘panoramas’ (247) whereby the city changes, dissimulates, assumes and reveals new meanings through direct bodily engagement with the city’s streets, neighbourhoods and communities. Walking in the city becomes a synaesthetic (Buck-Morss 1992) experience where touches, smells, sounds, sights, form thesensescapes (Rodaway 1994; Howes 2004) of the city which intrude upon any attempt at a vacant disengagement. As Mohammad describes: ‘I can sometimes forget myself by smelling the food being sold on the streets. The smell of vegetables, fruit and meat from the markets. I love listening to the children playing football. This is what Basra is for me. But different parts feel differently to me. I am most happy when I am walking.’ This recalls the work of de Certeau (1984) for whom walking combines and intersects different temporalities and places; he describes an art of walking which is simultaneously an art of thinking and an art of practice or operating in the world. Walking, a spatial acting out of place, narratives the city into ‘spatial stories’ incommensurate with the totalizing effects of ‘the scriptural apparatus’ (ibid:131). In Mohammad’s words, this is what the British army does not understand. Yes, there is a war but people’s lives are in the streets and roads; seeing their neighbours and friends.

Mohammad crossing open sewer

Mohammad and I discuss the sewage that flows through the streets of Basra. He says in places it is unbearable, in other more affluent areas there are less problems. But even then there’s always filth and rubbish. Everywhere you go. The problem of human waste is not being dealt with. People see it as filth, they know there are issues with disease and illness, but Iraq is no longer a country where people avoid things which are bad or dangerous. Many are too poor. They can’t afford to live a hygienic life, it’s too expensive for many. I ask what he means by a ‘hygienic life’, to which he responds by saying it isn’t shit and piss in the streets. It’s obvious. Clean streets. Clean water. Food which won’t make you ill. Streets that don’t smell like the sewer.

Describing the stench from the streets during his walk to work and back home, Mohammad points to how it is almost impossible at times to see or think of anything else but the smell and the sight of the rubbish and shit in the streets. De Certeau (ibid) theorizes such experiences by distinguishing two different rhetorical strategies of walking, synecdochical – when parts are related to a whole, for instance, when a street becomes emblematic of a locale of community – and asyndetic – an art of walking that dislocates and suppresses conjunctions between different streets, neighbourhoods, roads and so on. The latter rhetorical strategy creates densities within the city which are unable to overflow to other parts through the undermining or cutting through of continuities.

Mohammad’s experiences of disgust and repulsion towards the matter out of place (excrement, rubbish, in the street) are performed through the various rhetorical and praxical tactics employed to negotiate the city: There are few pleasures left for us, all people do is complain. Not in a bad way, but what other stories do people have … the Shi’ites have banned music, nobody is allowed to celebrate weddings anymore … This is why I walk so much. People think I am crazy … you’re a doctor now, you can’t be seen walking, it’s dangerous as well … yes, but I can’t just go from home to work and back. But when you see what Basra has become, how disgusting the whole thing is. It’s one big sewer and death house… I go out of my way to evade the worst places; I ignore them as much as I can. Parts of the city are closed off to me now. Basra is getting smaller for me … the places I think of when I say Basra. It could be argued that the nature of the city has changed for Mohammad with the breakdown of the sewage system. A new city arises reflected in the changing practices of walking, a city in which places are now to be avoided outright or others to be wary of according to the time of day [10] or the levels of sewage on the streets which varies according to the weather [11].

Sheep grazing on refuse off one of the main streets in Basra city

The city then becomes a place which evades the rationalized logics of maps and ordinances. For Mohammad the experience of walking in Basra becomes an excremental one provoking different trajectories of emotions, attitudes and narratives. The smells and sights of excrement become embedded within specific streets, locales which are closed off. Different routes are taken so different people are seen, glanced at or briefly acknowledged with a raising of the head. Old street friendships are lost or suspended until Mohammad returns to his previous routes and rhythms of walking. This attempt to avoid the very worst of the pools of excrement and urine on the streets, then, has a peculiar social element to it.

Excrement also poses or induces other more explicitly social troubles. In Basra there are thousands of orphans, and thousands and thousands of elderly people who have no one to look after them and nowhere to live so they are squeezed into a few disused buildings. I go and help out after I finish my shift as much as possible. I don’t want to disgust you but the whole thing is a big toilet. They are all dying before your eyes and you can do nothing but stand there and watch it all happen … they all dirty themselves, and some of the people are great people … physicists who studied abroad, academics, people who fought for Iraq for how many years … wives and mothers who have lost everything – their husbands, sons, daughters … or their family has just turned their back on them … and it makes you cry to have to clean them up, there’s a great shame for these people waiting in these buildings to die in front of people they don’t know, and worse, the men and women sleep in the same rooms, there isn’t enough room and co-ordination or inclination to organise these people’s space, condition or even their death … communal burial site … Can you imagine your mother or your father left like this, to die … in a bed of their own urine and faeces … ?

The shame experienced by Mohammad lies in what he sees as the collapse of all the good things that made the people of Basra what they used to be. This moral collapse is exemplified by agents outside the immediate family unit having to undertake roles socially designated to the immediate family as the inability to control one’s urinary and excremental functions is highly stigmatic. Witness anthropologist Kay-Toombs (1992) writing of her experience of multiple sclerosis and for whom, as a consequence of her condition, the act of defecation is less mediated, more urgent:
Bowel and bladder disturbances represent much more than simply a mechanical or neurological dysfunction. They signify the most elemental and profound loss of control over one’s body. Incontinence reduces an adult to the status of a helpless infant. One is no longer master of even the most bodily of functions. This experience is deeply alienating. The body appears inherently untrustworthy. Not only does it fail me, but it is capable of causing me deep humiliation and shame. (133)

Kay-Toombs’ description of her body as beyond the control demanded by socio-cultural norms creates distressing feelings and emotions. Similarly, for Mohammad, having not only to witness but implicate himself in attempts to regain some form of order and control of elderly and ill bodies is deeply distressful and shameful. It is also reflective of what Mohammad perceives as the breakdown of the social fibre (anomie) which is most expressively highlighted by his being appalled that women and men are in the same wards (though they are simply rooms of a disused building) and that social hierarchies become meaningless in such spaces, exemplified by his deep reaction to physicists, great men being treated as badly as anyone else. Hence, it can be argued, that the shame and disgust Mohammad feels is not only a visceral reaction to death, excrement, anomie, but is also about the befuddlement of notions of power, hierarchy and gender within these chaotic, ‘warped spaces’ (Vidler 2000).

The anus and its products also subvert social hierarchy, undercut and short-circuit power relations through other means. As a trainee doctor I had a placement in Al-Amara, simple people but very nice. This is during the last years of Saddam. Twenty mukhabarat storm into the hospital, grab me by the neck and drag me to a room. A general has a glass cola bottle stuck inside his arsehole. The whole bottle! I was told that if I didn’t get the bottle out of him they would kill me, my family, friends … and if I told anyone I would be hanged and so would my family … what could I do, I had to do it … I was terrified, of course, one mistake … there’s no problem in killing me … you know how many tens of doctors have been killed over the last few years?… the Ba’thists, the tribal people, they don’t like the idea of someone being smarter than them, knowing more … it’s no problem killing them … but what I want to tell you is that for a few minutes, while I was working on getting the bottle out – lubricating, using relaxants – my hand inside his arsehole, I thought to myself that this is what the whole country is terrified of, people like him … it seemed so stupid, how many millions have been killed or died because of idiots like him … who know nothing, can barely read and write, these are the people who rule us … It’s one of the most important lessons about medicine … open up a corpse and you see how ridiculous the whole thing is, how precarious life is that it can all come to an end because some internal tissue gets a slight infection, or a slight tear, without you knowing you’ll be haemorrhaging to death … or that, in this case, a man can be responsible for the deaths of thousands, a real butcher, yet before my eyes is bent over a bed with my hand up his arsehole getting out a cola bottle …

As Bakhtin notes, images of the bodily lower stratum give birth to a ‘new, concrete, and realistic … awareness’ (1984:367). The grotesque body for Bakhtin is constantly active, exceeding its margins: a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed: it is continually built, created, and builds and creates other bodies:
eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up by another body – all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body. In all events, the beginning and end of life are closely linked and interwoven. (ibid:317)

Hence, by having to ignore the smooth surface of the general’s body and focusing instead on its excrescences and its orifices, a sort of implicit auto-critique is played out in which Mohammad is dealing with authority but from its rear-end both metaphorically and literally. The rage Mohammad feels is that this heap of meat, as he sees the general for only a brief period, can and has had whole villages and families destroyed simply on a whim. The lacuna that separates the General qua General and the General qua body which eats, defecates and urinates is in Mohammad’s own words crazy to think about. The institutional investment of power and authority in the General which aims to supplant and exceed the margins of the body (i.e. the General is more than, in excess of his bodily functioning) is briefly and starkly interrupted in this grotesquely dramatic episode. [12]

Ethnographic Encounters: the political prisoner

As a young man in his early twenties Bashar Hussein was arrested by the Iraqi secret police (al-mukhabarat) in 1993. He was arrested for the crime of procuring forged passports to leave the country illegally. In fact, it was nothing to do with him at all, rather, it was his brother who was intending to flee and who was caught with the forged passports. Instead of going to prison himself, he claimed that it was Bashar who had acquired the passports and he did not know what they were for. Bashar was as yet unaware of the matter. I was walking down my street, a black Mercedes pulls up next to me and I knew that it was over for me. Only the Mukhabarat (secret police) or people big in government have black Mercedes. My whole body shivered when they opened the door and called my name. I didn’t move … I wanted to … I didn’t want to make them angry or irritate them, but I couldn’t move. They dragged me into the car, no one said anything. I asked if there was anything I could help them with? There weren’t any problems, I hope? He was told to shut up and was beaten in the car. [13]

Having to defecate in front of his cellmates was a trauma Bashar had to confront. He was raised within a well-to-do educated middle-class family. His father was a lawyer and his mother a doctor. Issues of cleanliness and hygiene were paramount in the family: I would be in trouble with my father if I left the house wearing an unclean or un-ironed shirt. Such historically specific concepts of hygiene and cleanliness were inculcated in Bashar from as early as he could remember. Cleanliness was an issue of self and family pride. To be unclean was to be part of a different, lower social group but it also indicated one’s moral characteristics: people see you in a clean shirt and trousers with shiny shoes, even amongst the sand and dirt over Iraq, and they know that you are someone different. But cleanliness is about self-respect. That’s what people see and respect in those who look after themselves. Thus, having to defecate before his cellmates produced revulsion in Bashar of a different order from the various tortures he had to endure: At least with everything else I knew it was not my fault, the mukhabarat or the guards were to blame, but this … in front of everyone, this was something from me. Bashar feels that excrement implicates him in the workings of the body, or in the words of Greenblatt (1982) faeces is an ‘expression of the inward state of the individual fleshy man’ which arouse not feelings of ‘shame, the social sense of disgrace in the eyes of the community, but guilt’ (emphasis added:38). By defecating before others Bashar is reminded that he himself qua body is always in some sense beyond total control, mastery, which may be a key component in the arousal of feelings of guilt and disgust (Freud 1985). For Bashar the anus and its products seem to represent, or at least insinuate, that:
in fact, he is nothing but body so far as nature is concerned … the anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death. (Becker 1973:31)

Having to reflect on himself as a physical entity arouses emotions and feelings which ordinarily Bashar rarely confronted outside of prison. Considered from such a perspective it allows one to relate better to Bashar’s experiences in prison because it highlights that there is something more at play than simply a dislike for excrement.

However, it is important to impress that this does not seem to be an accident of the prison system Bashar confronted. The refusal to allow for a toilet or even a bucket within the cell to defecate or urinate should be seen as a strategic move over the bodies of the prisoners. Feldman (1992) describing the tactics employed in a Northern Ireland prison against captured I.R.A. agents, writes that “[t]he prison regime turned to new arenas of regulation that extended the logic of compulsory visibility from the surface to the interior of the prisoner’s body. The interior body … was unfolded and exposed by the colon-ization of body functions-of the digestive and elimination tracts of the imprisoned.” (173)

Feldman continues:
The bodily interior of the inmate was detached from his control and transferred to the skeletal machinery of administration … This colon-ization of the prisoner’s body was intended to force divestiture, to divorce the prisoner from what little sense of somatic mastery he had managed to retain in prison. The beatings of the prisoner that transformed his use of the toilets and showers into a trial by ordeal as well as the violence that accompanied the delivery and removal of food trays were the mecha­nisms that propelled him into contradiction. (174-175)

The body of the institution and the body of the prisoners become embroiled in an agonistic flux, each seeking to find its own space and position. Bashar had, within the first days and weeks, attempted to control his bowel movement in an attempt to regain some mastery and control but also to evade the perceived humiliation, the torture of defecating before others. Having spent his initial days without defecating he says I couldn’t control it any further, it was forcing its way out of me. In the corner, squatting, everyone looking at me. I stared at the floor, embarrassed and angry. I could hear rustling, I thought everyone was looking at me but I did not look at anyone. Finally, I got up and sat in the opposite end of the room. The prison system totalised and inscribed itself not only on the surface of the body of the prisoner, it made what was internal, beyond the scopic-field visible, laid bare before others.

It is precisely this laying bare before the scopic-field that Bashar relates his feelings and emotions of embarrassment and disgust. The act of looking, being seen to defecate, recalls Sartre’s (2003) account of ‘the look’ and the alienating effect of being seen by others. According to this account the gaze of the other objectifies, shames, and degrades. The look institutes a troubling dialectic by being both the very thing that enslaves (i.e. one can never control what others think of one, or not fully) but also is the very condition of being, as, for Sartre, being is always for others. If the ontological assumptions [14] are decanted from this account it becomes possible to use the idea of the look to gain some form of understanding of Bashar’s experience. Being seen to defecate before others is a traumatic experience for Bashar because there is something in that act of being seen – it is accusatory, implicating and causing Bashar to reflect back at himself.

Bashar would have his back towards his cellmates, thus not able to perceive the others’ look. Sartre, however, extends the notion of the look beyond merely seeing as he shows in his example of a man peeping through a keyhole who feels the look when he hears footsteps (ibid:350). Thus perception of the other cannot be limited to mere optics. In The Visible and the Invisible (1968), Merleau-Ponty goes much further with this notion of the materiality of the look and describes the palpitations of the eyes as analogous to tactile palpitations in a vision-touch system: ‘[v]ision is a palpitation with the look’ (ibid:134). Vision is dependent upon touch and the necessary connection, even reversibility, between the body and the visible world. For Merleau-Ponty the materiality of the world is the connective tissues that nourishes and maintains the possibility of seeing. Vision touches the world and people in it not in order to fix it or them in the gaze; it is a movement, a caress and not a grip, a motion picture rather than a photograph (1964:162). Hence Bashar is caught in the fluidity and impermanence of the glancing look. If being seen to defecate alienates it is not because the look is inherently accusing, rather, in this instance, Bashar makes public what had seemed an inherently interior, private monologue. In Leder’s (1990) terms, the body is made present through the optical colonization of the gaze of the other in the act of defecating where it was previously absent.

Voiding excrement before others for Bashar opens and reveals facets of himself which neither he nor others had seen previously nor should have seen. Do you have any idea of how much shit we produce as people? … It was always diarrhoea, we always had stomach problems. They fed us rotten meat and stale bread and off rice. Do you know the stench that comes out of you when you are ill? And then add that to all the other men with me. We were suffocating from our own shit. There was nowhere to go in that cell, no peace from it. As Lacan (1989) would have it: defecating and urinating before others revealed that thing in him which was more than Bashar himself. That thing which, ordinarily, like having sex, Bashar would go to tremendous lengths to keep from the gaze of the other. Defecating before others subverts and deconstitutes one’s social being. Within the cell, however, typical socio-cultural norms are suspended, replaced by codes and ethics of practices particular to the situation (Feldman op. cit). Cell-mates knew not to defecate during the times when food was given, or to complain as little as possible about the oppressive fug of fresh excrement as it was not intentional. The cell becomes a micro-cosmos, with practices and rules of its own to be obeyed and adhered to. Beyond the rules, though, of the cell lay the stench of the pile in the corner. It’s strange, it hits you. No matter where you go in that cell, standing or sitting, you can’t avoid it. The invisible spread of the stench was disconcerting to Bashar, it occurred from without. It had a strange ephemeral quality (Classen et al. 1994), initial disgust would subside and the ferocity of the stench would be normalized until the next person had to defecate.

If the look or gaze is problematic for Bashar then the sheer materiality of the excrement in the corner of the cell was another factor that preyed on Bashar’s thoughts. Whatever conversations people were having or even in moments of light-hearted banter Bashar always felt he perceived the excrement,through the corner of my eyes. It was always there. He could not forget it, the whole geometry of that cell was organised around that fuming pile in the corner. Sometimes I would catch myself looking back at it constantly, even if there was something going on in the cell. It became a habit. It almost began to take on a life of its own, like it was a cellmate because you constantly had to think about it. The cell was so small that a little trip and you would be in it. But it was also a psychological issue; you had to live with shit. It was there. Immovable. It became almost another cellmate. You had to respect its space. The pile of dung almost had that quality of perception, it is given agency through the fear and avoidance it instills in the cellmates through the repetitious acts of encircling and avoidance (Deleuze 1995).

The traumatic experience of the heap of human waste in the corner, however, certainly took other less ambiguous forms. A year or two after being in prison, Bashar being unsure of chronology, themukhabarat took most of the cellmates including Bashar out of the cell to a room opening onto a long corridor. The mukhabarat were asking questions which no one seemed to have answers for. Everybody received a beating of varying degrees. The finale to all this seemed to be buckets of what Bashar and his cellmates were informed were human excrement which they were to consume. Everyone refused. I would rather die. Nobody wants to die, but there are certain things, a limit that you can’t go past.

I knew the beating I’d get would be the most severe. Some time later they put eight or nine of us together [in a separate room] and they got two guards to pour the waste from a cesspit tank over us. As disgusting as that was – you felt numb from how terrible it was – we could see a man having his toes cut off with a pair of large pliers. He was dead within a while; not from having his toes cut off … that was the beginning. He didn’t scream, or not loudly, not from what we heard, he just kept muttering, over and over again … Allah akbar …. Allah akbar … until his final breath.

Bashar’s lack of specificity in terms of chronology can be accounted for on a number of levels. Firstly, Bashar, like all the cellmates, was constantly being tortured. The torture took so many different forms, from sleep, water and food deprivation. Weeks of darkness followed by strong projector lights turned on the prisoners for days on end. For Bashar these things however occurred in the past … they have no place in my mind now. What he meant was not so much that this period in prison, or the troubles encountered from the Ba’thists were erased or suppressed from his mind, but his experiences had been disinvested of feelings of anger and rage at what he, his family and friends had lived through. We have to live, to go on … I have a wife and two children, I am happy if they are happy. As Bashar reminds me, it is enough that it happened, in what order these things happened is not a problem for me. Such a response confounds the linear conceptions of time constantly progressing forward. Memories and feelings are constantly criss-crossing between a now, a then and a possible future, none of which necessarily had to or will have had to happen (Casey 1993).

Last Rites

The story of Basra over the last three decades has been of wars, sanctions, a tyrannical military dictatorship, amongst many other factors. The starkest indications of the violence inflicted on Basra are the oppressive miasmas of human waste that hang over parts of the city, the corpses left on the sides of the roads on the outskirts of the city; the poverty that affects large numbers of the city’s population and the almost defunct infrastructure. By focusing on excrement I aimed to show through both encounters the strange awareness excrement affords of practices and experiences by upsetting the orderings and perspectives through which one might ordinarily consider them. In Foucault’s terms excrement and defecating raises the problem of experiences on the edge, these forms of experiences that instead of being considered central, of being positively valued in a society, are deemed to be borderline experiences which put into question what is usually considered acceptable. (1997:152)  But if concentrating on excrement is taken to be a perverse approach, one need only be reminded that it is matched by the situation in Basra – and not only in Basra – where things follow their own grimy course …

Bashar’s first-hand experience of the Ba’thist’s oppressive regime in his overcrowded prison cell was an unrelenting negotiation against the regular beatings, rituals of humiliation and psychological threats against his life and his loved ones. During his period in prison Bashar was to experience excrement as a weapon to be used against him. Over and above the more blatant forms of physical torture, Bashar’s experience also included negotiations against the more pervasive and sustained forms of torture such as precluding the most basic rights of not having to defecate on the floor that one was to ultimately sleep on. His bodily functions were to turn into a daily performance of mortification by having to empty his bowels in the company of his many cellmates in the cramped conditions. Bashar’s experience and understanding of his body was to change in these different circumstances he found himself in: his mastery of his body, in this instance exemplified by bowel control, was to dissolve into something which would ultimately let him down. Defecation could only be deferred for so long. This radical shift in social setting, hence, had changed the very existential co-ordinates by which he was to understand himself, his body and his fellow cellmates. However, there was a limit to which Bashar allowed the violent circumstances to fully dictate.

For Mohammad excrement closed and changed the city of Basra, it represented a breakdown in the social fabric. Excrement became symptomatic of larger social and political issues. Though excrement was not merely a symbol or a sign. The materiality of excrement, its effluvium, the flooding of the streets with sewage matter had concrete effects on the lives of Basra’s inhabitant. Former daily, habitual rhythms of walking, driving, and the friends one would normally encounter during the wanderings within the city were foreclosed with new rhythms and habits having to account for areas were the filth was too great, or the large areas one had to avoid because of the threats posed by the militias. For Mohammad the change of the cityscape was a drawn out affair, barely recognising it consciously. The anus and its products were not however just to be found in the streets as Mohammad encountered Ba’thist authority through the rear end and showed how excrement and the anus can deconstitute perceptions of others; how clear lines between self and other are broken in moments of extreme trauma, pain and suffering. But also how through these experiences a process of ‘radical worldmaking’ (Goodman 1978; Irving 2001) is instituted: where worlds of meaning, experience and understanding are constantly shattered and new worlds are supplanted till they collapse as well.

It is this continual project of salvaging and creating worlds which are ultimately habitable, even in the most onerous of circumstances, which Mohammad and Bashar invested their lives in. Feldman suggests one must look beyond seeing violence and terror instrumentally; rather, violence itself is deeply ideological and ‘an institution possessing its own symbolic and performative autonomy’(1991:21). Daniel (1996), along similar lines, urges that anthropologists look past the received wisdom on violence and war which posits a breakdown within the socio-cultural fabric, to see instead the generative effects of conflict which, through the very violence and contingency, produces different, unstable subjective positions. No matter how appalling the context one must think past the degradation and filth and find instead those lives and narratives, like Mohammad’s and Bashar’s, which constantly struggle to overcome a bleak and difficult past and present for a future of potential and hope.


October 20th 2005 Bashar is kidnapped. Who kidnapped him nobody knows. A rush to find him at first. There is nowhere specifically one can look. He is nowhere now. Only luck would lead to where he is being held. Asking the informants who work for the kidnapping groups, Sunni militants and other such groups is too dangerous. If the kidnappers get a whiff that he is being searched for, there is even less chance of Bashar being found. After a few days Bashar’s mobile phone, which he left at his flat, rings. His wife answers. The kidnappers want initially US $20,000. Bashar does not have that amount of money, nor his wife’s family. Bashar’s family are in Dubai and their relationship is strained, and they do not have that amount of money either. However, Bashar’s cousin in London is informed and acquires the money and sends it immediately. The kidnappers are paid. Police in Iraq are hard to trust as many are involved in these kidnappings. The police that are known to the family are informed of the kidnapping and are asked to keep their eyes and ears open. Bashar, within hours of the ransom being paid has been shot three times in the head. His body is dropped on the side of a road, somewhere south of Baghdad. The family wait for Bashar to return. A week goes by till the police finally get round to calling Bashar’s wife: we have your husband’s body. Men close to Bashar (uncles, cousins, friends) go to the police morgue where the body is held to identify the body. It is Bashar, his body anyway.

Bashar had recently acquired a large plot in Karbala for his family to be buried in. These plots can be expensive and difficult to get hold of. In the summer he buried his great aunt. The plot was meant for his older relatives, not for him … not yet anyway. … Bashar’s body is some several feet below the position where the picture was taken … if left outside to rot and decompose … the body too can become excrement … filth…

The grave of Bashar’s great aunt. Bashar is buried on a plot to the left of the picture.


[1] Of the little available (e.g. Field (1935; 1940)) tends to be of a ‘biological anthropology’ nature, focusing mainly on bodily characteristics, blood types and demography. Other works on Iraq by Abdullah (1976), for example, focus on power brokerage between tribes and ethnicity, while brief glimpses of Iraq crop up in the work of Hall (1969).

[2] Most contemporary of all the work in anthropology on excrement is Sjaak van der Geest’s (1998) analysis of family networks and defecation. However, the work itself is limited in scope, using excrement and defecation less as objects of study than as a means of understanding social and familial orderings.

[3] The structure of the polemic takes the common-place triadic of: 1) psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable because if one takes issue with any of the ‘doctrines’ one is immediately claimed to be ‘resisting’; hence, any claim it makes, however unsubstantiated – and most are according to Gellner – nevertheless become established as a cannon within the discourse; 2) psychoanalysis occurred within a very specific context of early 20th century Vienna, how can it be universalized? ; 3) Freud was a racist and a misogynist.

[4] One of the first sewage systems, built in Ancient Rome.

[5] Information found on the following website: http://www.river-law.us/pages/21/. Visited December 2005.

[6] It should not be overlooked that walking, as with any activity, is determined by cultural and local conventions (Mauss 1979; Feeley-Harnik 1996; Ingold 1992) and the specific bodily capabilities of each individual (Winkler 1994).

[7] Schieffelin (1976) shows the rather extraordinary qualities of eliciting lost or muddled memories through practice and performance.

[8] A form of air-coolant which relies on the evaporation of water as its main method of reducing temperature in a room.

[9] The invasion was due to disagreement over border issues, Kuwait’s perceived over-production of oil resulting in its decreased value, lack of acknowledgement (especially financially) for keeping the Shi’ite Iranians from taking over the gulf region. These are amongst some of the many reasons the Iraqi government cited as reasons for the invasion.

[10] At the height of summer the temperatures can reach in excess of 50° celcius hence the effluvia from the stagnant waters and the drying excrement on the streets can be very powerful.

[11] Rain causing the increased overflow of the sewers.

[12] Bataille (1986) goes further and equates laughter and the grotesque as a philosophy of un-knowing in which he ‘envisages laughter undoing the tenets of metaphysical philosophy, relating concepts to their own baselessness, subjecting them to inner ruination, and inscribing a nonteleological method of ‘backwardation’ by referring the known to the unknown’ (Trahair 2001:157).

[13] Bashar remembers his experiences initially through jokes or little stories: I laugh with my cousin, he was at the same prison I was in, when we remember that even the chai-chi [person who takes tea to the guards] would slip us a kick, spit at us or pour hot tea on us … even if the guards weren’t watching. They would do it because they wanted to. The joke here stems, Bashar and I both discuss, from the inherent inability of these aberrant and violent experiences to be assumed within one’s commensensical, day-to-day practical apparatuses (Freud 2002; Bourdieu 1977). You can say things in jokes you couldn’t say anywhere else.

[14] Sartre’s ‘the look’ is caught up in a long history of Western epistemological and ontological assumptions, though the most explicit precursor is surely Hegel, particularly his master and slave/bondsman in that well-trodden move in The Phenomenology of Spirit from consciousness to self­-consciousness through self-recognition in the eyes, look of the other. This ‘recognition’, Hegel claims, of the other’s body self-consciously mimicking one’s own actions in turn makes one want to kill it: ‘Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same’ (Hegel 1977:112). It is this attempt to make ‘the look’, in and of itself, distressing which I want avoid. Instead, ‘the look’ has to be particularized: who is doing the looking? Who is being looked upon? What is the context? (cf. Rudolph 2002; Zizek 1996)



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