A school founded by Americans in Iraq before the Saddam Hussein era is an emblem of a time when the United States was known in the Middle East not for military action, but for culture and education. That's the view of Puliter Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who recently wrote an essay about the school, titled "The American Age, Iraq."
First opened in the 1930s by New England Jesuits, Baghdad College became the Iraqi capital's premier high school. Classes were conducted in English — and the defining feature of the school was not proselytizing, but a rigorous education, Shadid says.
As Shadid tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep, the school was a symbol of Iraq's identity — which he says was more secular and universal in the middle of the 20th century than it is today.
The school "also represented something for both the United States and for Iraq, and the way that they saw each other," Shadid says, "that they could allow themselves an almost idealistic version of each other. I think that's impossible today, and I say that with a certain sense of sadness."
One reason for that change came in the late 1960s, Shadid says, when Saddam's Baath Party assumed power — and also placed all of Iraq's schools under state control. But international views of America have also changed since those days, he says, noting that the Jesuits ran their school in an era when many people held "a much gentler notion" of Americans' role in the world.
In conducting research for the article, Shadid says, he asked people "where they would mark the end of that kind of era, when that sense of American benevolence gave way to what a lot of people would see as American imperialism."
"Some people put it at the founding of Israel in 1948; some people put it in the Egyptian revolution in 1952," he says. "My own sense in reporting this story was that it was maybe even a little later, with Vietnam, with the change in government in Iraq. But it is clear that that image changed — and I think it changed unalterably, in some ways."
Shadid's essay "The American Age, Iraq" is in the latest issue of Granta, in which the British journal collects stories related to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
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It would be hard to review the decade since 9/11 without mentioning Iraq. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid covered the war there. But when the journal Granta invited him to commemorate 9/11, his curiosity took him back long before the U.S. invasion.
INSKEEP: He visited Baghdad College, an old high school with dusty yearbooks that illuminate a very different era with very different relations between the U.S. and Iraq. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Catholic priests ran that school. The Jesuit priests agreed not to seek converts in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Instead, just teaching Christians and Muslims alike.
Anthony Shadid found the Jesuits were Americans with names like O'Connor, McDermott and McCarthy.
What made you want to go back and find a story from 50 years ago in Iraq?
Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Reporter): You know, I kind of stumbled on this story. Somebody had mentioned these old yearbooks that had turned up at Baghdad College - at this high school in Baghdad. And I thought it'd be worth a look.
And, I mean, almost within minutes of opening that first volume you just kind of became entranced by the whole experience of what it represented, of what it said not only about Iraq, but also about the United States, as well.
INSKEEP: Well, what does this old formerly Jesuit high school represent about Iraq and about the United States?
Mr. SHADID: Well, you know what struck me is the sense - and I don't want to overstate it necessarily - but this maybe a loss of cosmopolitanism, a loss of a secular identity. An identity that was more universal than particular.
And what's so interesting - or at least what's so interesting to me about Baghdad College was how it represented all those things. And I think it also represented something for both the United States and Iraq - the way that they saw each other, that they could allow themselves an almost idealistic version of each other.
And I think that's impossible today, and I say that with a, you know, a certain sense of sadness. From the founding of the school until, you know, let's say the late '60s when the Baath Party took over Iraq, the school did represent something that was very much different.
INSKEEP: As best you can reconstruct it. If you had walked into this Jesuit school 50, 60, 65 years ago when things were so different in Iraq, what kinds of conversations might you have gotten involved in? What would it have been like?
Mr. SHADID: Well, first of all, I think the setting would've been just remarkable. And you look at these old yearbook pictures of Baghdad College, and it's basically - the school is placed in a forest of date palms. It's a very fashionable neighborhood. In fact, a former prime minister had built a palace there, walking distance from the campus itself.
And then, of course, the campus was built with remarkable precision, melded these influences about East and West in a very aesthetically impressive way. There was instruction in English. There was never any proselytizing. But there was a rigorous education.
And I think the New England Province of Jesuits soon took a lot of pride in what they had created there at the school. There were people who rarely ever went back home.
INSKEEP: So this wasn't just a Christian venture into Iraq, a missionary venture into Iraq? It was an American venture into Iraq.
Mr. SHADID: And I asked, you know, it was interesting, the reporting for this story took me all over the place. I met one of the Jesuits that taught there in Beirut. You see graduates, the alumni, still living, you know, everywhere from Canada, the United States, Europe, of course in Iraq, as well. I mean, it has very prominent graduates.
And I asked when I was doing those interviews, as we kind of wandered from place to place, you know, what did they represent? And a lot of them would say they - they were called fatheria(ph). It was kind of an Arabized(ph) plural of father.
But they also, I think, saw themselves as American. They saw themselves first and foremost as Jesuits. But I think there was a sense of being American. Being American also in a much more innocent age of what being an American represented abroad, you know, a much gentler notion of America abroad.
And I think it's remarkable when you look at how the school ended, how the experience itself ended. Not only was it the Baath Party taking over Iraq and in some ways bringing a certain vulgarity to political life in that country, it was also the Vietnam era in the United States and that kind of shadow that cast over America everywhere.
INSKEEP: What was the image of the United States abroad before all that happened?
Mr. SHADID: There was a sense of a cultural or educational mission that the United States had. Everywhere from Lebanon to Iraq, elsewhere, schools in some ways were the greatest legacy of the American presence. And when I was speaking to people about the experience of Baghdad College, I asked where they would mark the end of that kind of era, when that sense of maybe American benevolence gave way to what a lot of people would see as American imperialism.
You know, some people put it at the founding of Israel in 1948. Some people put it in the Egyptian Revolution in 1952. But it is clear that that image changed. And I think it changed unalterably, in some ways.
INSKEEP: Now, how has the image changed further in the past decade as 9/11 happened and as the United States geared up for and then invaded Iraq?
Mr. SHADID: I think as a reporter being there what strikes you so much as how traumatic the invasion, the occupation is. It's a society that feels dislocated. The soldiers are going to leave eventually. This idea of an occupation is going to end in a very decisive fashion. But I think these whispers of what that occupation represents are going to go on for years and years. And you already see it. Even the way they refer to the Americans themselves and it's somewhat derogatory - is that they call Americans our uncles. There's a sense of intimacy there, I think, but also a sense of maybe more intimacy than was hoped for.
I dont want to make a comparison between the Jesuits and the American military. I dont think thats a fair comparison but what those two intersections represent, I think, is remarkably different. The college that created the sense of cosmopolitan oasis for specific moment - we had today or the past decade, which is an intersection by force of arms. It is an interaction thats based, you know, first and foremost on trauma.
INSKEEP: Anthony Shadid, thanks very much.
Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: He writes in Granta magazine about Americans who traveled decades ago to open a high school in Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.