The Foreign Service Journal, September 2011

32 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 1 eading off for a yearlong assignment in Baghdad in 2009, I decided to in- clude a little self-improvement, or at least high-class distraction, as a part of the experience: “Get a reading project. Pick some hard-ass novel you’ve always wanted to read and never got around to.” I chose James Joyce’s Ulysses , not ex- actly a hot date of a book, but rather a big, sprawling, con- fusing, difficult novel, with a cacophony of points of view and a narrative arc that never seems to make much progress. Initially the choice had nothing to do with the assignment at hand in Baghdad. I told myself at the outset that the fa- mous Joyce novel would just be an escape from Iraq, since it was so completely unrelated in terms of literary tradition or history and culture. What, after all, could Ulysses’ quests — struggling with Cyclops, resisting Circe’s enchantments and Sirens’ songs, fending off cannibals, avoiding whirlpools, and all the other efforts to return to his beloved Penelope — that form the mythic backdrop for a (very long) day in the life of modern-day Dubliner/main character, Leopold Bloom, have to do with Iraq, or with my service there in Embassy Bagh- dad’s political section? But as I began my messy, diverting reading affair, a few loopy parallels began to emerge. That’s not so strange, I guess, given that the novel is full of weird parallels between its Irish, Jewish anti-hero and ancient Greek myth. Iraq is a big, sprawling, complicated country, made up of 18 provinces, with its capital, Baghdad, dominated — like Dublin on the Liffey — by the Tigris River. It has a complicated, fractured narrative, told from multiple Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish per- spectives, with subplots peopled by Christians, Turkomen, Yazidis, Shabaks and Mandean Sabeans, among others. Ulysses uses disparate Irish voices — pulled from different historical and literary traditions, social classes and occupa- tions — to weave the fabric of the novel. Like Joyce’s sprawling novel, whose 18 long chapters launched decades of critical and legal catfights and hermeneutic hairsplitting before it assumed its current sta- tus as a largely ignored, but still influential giant (especially among literary specialists), we, too, will continue to debate for years what our venture in Iraq stands for, what it has meant for Iraq and for our influence in the region, and what it says about America’s international role in the 21st century. The Journey Begins I remember one friend, who claimed to have read a lot of Irish literature, telling me that Ulysses would not be that dif- ficult. I told him I had read the first chapter and found it fairly easy going. “It won’t get any more difficult,” he assured me. He lied, of course. Although Ulysses greeted me in its opening pages as the latest reader/liberator, it soon pulled in the welcome mat and started harassing the flanks of my men- tal concentration and the supply lines of focus and compre- hension that I thought I had deployed with such skill. I was definitely taking casualties by the time I finished the B LOOMSDAY IN B AGHDAD : R EADING J OYCE IN I RAQ U LYSSES IS A SPRAWLING , CONFUSING , DIFFICULT NOVEL , WITH A NARRATIVE ARC THAT NEVER SEEMS TO MAKE MUCH PROGRESS . A PERFECT CHOICE FOR B AGHDAD . B Y W ILLIAM V. R OEBUCK William Roebuck, a State Department Foreign Service officer since 1992, is currently director of the Office of Maghreb Af- fairs in the Bureau of Near East Affairs. From 2009 to 2010 he served as deputy political counselor in Baghdad; other postings include Kingston, Tel Aviv, Damascus and Jerusalem. H