Iraq hospital fire
Iraq hospital fire: There have been protests as COVID ward blaze killed more than 90 people Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

The shock of tragedy wears off, but the memory of it lingers in the mind long after the fact, haunting us, as tragedy often does, with images of anguish, loss and despair.

Such has been the effect on our minds of the blaze that engulfed a coronavirus ward in the southern city of Nasiriya in Iraq on July 13, a blaze which turned into an inferno that lit the night sky with flames and killed dozens, both patients and the families visiting them at the time.

Like a similar catastrophic fire in a Baghdad hospital three months earlier, that had had equally tragic consequences, this one was attributed, as a Washington Post news report filed from Nasiriyah put it, to “political parties [that] siphon off vast sums from the country’s health budget through corrupt contracts that either deliver cut-rate services or do not deliver at all”.

The claim is not news. It is rather a reminder of the problems that have plagued not only the country’s health system but virtually all other public services in the country, including, say, the educational system, which was once considered near the top of the Arab world but now sits near the bottom.

The unspeakable horror in Nasiriya “should be blamed on persistent corruption and mismanagement” by the ruling elite. The words are those of none other than the country’s own president, Bahran Saleh, which he tweeted soon after news of the tragedy broke.

Iraq's collective grief 

Persistent corruption and mismanagement should also be blamed for societal instability, an expression of which we witnessed on Monday, a day before Eid Al Adha, when a bomb was detonated in a busy downtown neighbourhood, killing 28 people and injuring 35 others — the third time this year that a bomb hit a densely populated neighbourhood, with similarly dreadful results.

Iraq is a resource-rich nation where, if the reservoir of oil it has in the ground is money in the bank, Iraqis today would be wealthy folks. But they are not. The country they inhabit has one of the highest poverty rates among middle-income economies in the world, with a staggering 36 per cent unemployment rate.

Iraq, it seems, has fallen into an abyss. And whenever Iraqis gaze at that abyss, as they daily do, it gazes beckoningly back at them.

Ravaged Syria and Lebanon can now pass the torch on to Iraq — that ancient land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, once the vanguard of Arab and Islamic civilisation — as the epicentre of a suffering humanity living chaotic, helpless lives, at the receiving end of corruption, ineptitude and double-dealing by self-serving elites to whom the rules of the social contract are there to be broken.

Why? Why has it come to this in so many countries in the Arab World, a world once known to an earlier generation as the Arab Nation, where Arabs were confident that one day, and soon, they would live as one united people possessed of a dynamic voice in the global dialogue of cultures?

An open dialogue

Surely, in order to leave no question unanswered and no answer in doubt about this issue, I say we must provide a forum in the Arab media for an open dialogue, among intellectuals, academics, writers, ideologues, theoreticians, social critics and others, aimed at probing the mystery — for mystery it is — of why so many Arab state-collectivities in the Middle East and North Africa have remained broken in body and spirit, having failed to meet the challenges of modernity, well over half a century after independence; and of why the citizens of these collectivities continue to live in perpetual misery in a dystopian world sheared of any semblance of ‘assabiyah’, the politico-cultural élan precisely described by the Arab historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun in his monumental treatise, known as muqaddimah (1337).

To attribute that failure merely to the corruption, ineptitude and double-dealing of self-serving leaders is to proffer too facile an explanation of the problem.

Corruption, ineptitude and double-dealing by political leaders or representatives of political forces are but symptoms of a corrosive illness in the body politic — illness contracted somewhere along its evolutionary continuum that drove it, much in the manner of a man who misses a step in a darkened staircase.

It is known to secrete poison into the blood of any body politic. For what are those “political parties that routinely siphon off vast sums from the country’s health system” other than a symptoms of that poison?

A nation defined by that kind of political culture, where corruption is a currency of rational exchange, is at best not likely to be thrust beyond its fixed meaning and at worst not likely to survive the rage of a mass alienated by seeing its humanity so wantonly reduced to a fragment.

Next Monday, US President Joe Biden will host Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House. Were I the American president I would have some rancorous words to say to the Iraqi prime minister, directed clearly not at the visiting diplomat personally but at the excesses that his government has allowed those “political parties” responsible for the tragedy in Nasiriya to get away with.

Tragedy, I tell you, lingers in the mind long after the fact.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile