Checkpoint as Paradox: Notes from Baghdad

Omar Sirri, SOAS University of London

 

wayn rayah?

For the better and worse part of two decades, security checkpoints have structured vehicular mobility across Baghdad. These installations were placed and populated in 2003 first by occupying US soldiers, and soon thereafter by a collection of Iraqi security forces—to say nothing of the militants and militias who once established their own. Checkpoints operated by US and Iraqi forces once numbered close to 1,500.[1] Yet attempting to discern the precise number of checkpoints at any given time is a fraught endeavor, not least because temporary or “flying” checkpoints come and go with insecuritized winds and the desperate whims of commanders grasping to establish urban control.

In the run up to every election held in Iraq this century, politicians have sought to garner favor with the citizens they ostensibly represent by seeking, however nominally, to improve everyday circumstances. This usually appears in fleeting enhancements to public provisions, such as electricity. More power ensures more power, the political calculus seems to go. But with checkpoints, provisional symbols of another public good—security, broadly defined—the opposite often seemed more true. Politicians would target and commit to the removal of checkpoints from Baghdad’s streets, a top-down wink and nudge to voters that everyday life, which for so long was defined by incessant insecurity, was slowly but surely becoming more liveable. That it usually was not seemed less important to candidates than voters, those whose participation in post-2003 elections has declined at a steady clip.

Variable checkpoint presence does not offer a clue into any coherent electoral strategy. Instead, that questionable political motives are implicated in the shifting permanence of checkpoints necessitates digging into the paradoxes these installations represent and generate.

This brief intervention is more exploratory than explanatory. It reflects on contradictions that help constitute checkpoints in Iraq’s capital city. The central paradox pulsating outwardly from and hovering spectrally over every single one of these past and present installations is grounded in a popular lamentation. Most residents of Baghdad insist that pervasive checkpoints fanned out across their city for nearly two decades have done very little to quell the insecurity through which their persistence is justified. Security commanders too have long acknowledged their inadequacy in this regard, even while extending their longevity. Why do they remain? What effects are being produced if security is not one?

Paradox

These puzzling conditions and lived realities offer an entry point into considering what might be illuminated through approaching checkpoint as paradox—or paradoxes, for there is hardly only one. For starters, while deployed to conjure a semblance of physical security and on-the-ground order, Baghdad’s checkpoints became sites of insecurity early and often, targeted with car bombs by militants seeking to further destabilize the tenuous new authorities claiming the power to rule the capital and the country. Checkpoints peppered across Baghdad’s highways, byways, and laneways meant they could host and even facilitate spectacular violence almost anywhere. Such a persistent prospect of violence may appear more justificatory than contradictory of checkpoints themselves. But this interpretation justifies through sacrifice—of everyday life lost in vehicular queuing, of lives lost waiting at the wrong time and place.

Insecurity at checkpoints cannot be decoupled from the formidable presence and capabilities of parastatal armed actors—groups once known as militias that operated their own “fake” checkpoints during the urban violence in the mid-aughts, where abductions and killings were commonplace. These groups have since been variably tolerated, enabled, and eventually legalized by Iraqi state authorities; they are also collectively and invariably granted laissez passer through Baghdad’s checkpoints. That this privilege is not granted to most other citizens is unsurprising. More bewildering is that members of these groups, representing and sometimes enacting an imposing counter to state power (at least in its idealized form), literally pass by the faces of security personnel standing in the name of the state as such. Baghdadis often criticize these groups for contributing to the very conditions of violence through which the maintenance of checkpoints is rationalized.

To the extent that the city’s residents have long deplored and mocked these apparently “useless” installations, their intermittent removal over years has also generated pause and consternation among those most affected. As much as checkpoint persistence has been a source of derision in the face of experiential evidence that they are only there for show, abrupt removals have raised eyebrows, concerns, fears of the unknown. “Is it really safer?” “Is it the right time for this?” “What about those attacks the other day?” While through most of their existence Baghdad’s checkpoints have conjured lament for their folly, fits and starts of removals reveal conflicted feelings and seemingly irreconcilable opinions about their effects.[2] Removals have only accelerated in recent years; but they do not render these conflicted feelings, and the checkpoints with which they are associated, things of the past. While constant, Baghdad’s checkpoints have never been static, unchanging. The shifting forms and frequencies of these installations, their appearances and disappearances, have long been a reflection of the mercurial political authority they serve—a capriciousness helping sustain popular unease with state power that outlasts the life of a checkpoint.

Questions

The three sections of this intervention are framed by three questions in Arabic, respectively translated as: Where are you going? From where are you coming? Carrying a weapon? These three questions comprise a line of political-geographic querying long asked of travelers moving through Baghdad’s checkpoints. On the ground, these questions help show the ways in which space and subjectivity intersect through the coercive governance of mobility. But here I place them on the page to think with them. These mundane queries have long pestered Baghdadis simply trying to get on with their days and lives. Maybe their nuisance has something more to offer.

Where am I going? I suspect one core reason why these checkpoints are maintained and sustained through paradox is because they are intimately wrapped up in the form, function, and inexorability of the state effect—the mechanisms and practices of power that structure an apparent entity we call the state.[3] From where am I coming? Part of my answer, at least conceptually, opens with works that have grappled with checkpoints elsewhere, particularly in Palestine, and hinges on notions of intention, agency, and contingency intrinsic to how these installations operate and are operated.

As for weapons? I brandish briefly specificity by way of stories from Baghdad. The sharp point of particularism often provides the means to make astute analytical incisions, in this case slicing open checkpoints to help reveal their composition beyond strictly coercive characteristics. Checkpoints are hardly universal in how they play out, in why they are deployed, in how they work. Yet accounting for esoteric specificities does not preclude extracting insights that travel. Put differently, asking of weapons in Baghdad evinces a double understanding of checkpoints anywhere, as grounded in setting, and girded by the state.

min wayn jai?

Intention

The Qalandia checkpoint sits at the separation between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem. Examining checkpoints in and around Palestine, Helga Tawil-Souri convincingly argues that Qalandia is a social-spatial contradiction—at once an “anthropological space and a nondescript nonplace.”[4] Activity around it makes Qalandia and like checkpoints sites of “social life;” Palestinians are left no choice but to congregate at them, in the process generating forms of economic activity such as food stands.[5] But Tawil-Souri insists the checkpoint is also, following Marc Augé, a “nonplace” akin to airports, spaces of transit or “anonymous zones, where one Palestinian is no different than the other, all subject to [the] same methods of surveillance and control.”[6] Yet while Palestinian bodies are universally subject to coercive practices, the checkpoint leads to particular outcomes for different Palestinians; some are quickly let through while others are held up for extended periods, even occasionally from the same family. Are such “layers of contradictions” designed deliberately?[7] Are paradoxical practices intended to play out as such?

Hagar Kotef and Meerav Amir offer an answer by scrutinizing what they call the “imaginary line”—an arbitrary, invisible mark behind which Palestinians are directed to stand as they wait their turn to pass through checkpoints.[8] Israeli soldiers conjure this line by pointing to a blank spot on the ground. Kotef and Amir insist that this imaginary line, when “transgressed” by Palestinians under settler colonial occupation, is “an intrinsic failure” that helps constitute Israeli checkpoints.[9] Failure is intrinsic because it is “built into the spatial configuration of the checkpoints” intentionally, helping produce Palestinians as “undisciplinable, and hence as subjects whose occupation is justifiable, if not necessary.”[10] Through this logic of rule, failure is success.[11] Kotef and Amir ultimately argue that such practices are “not paradoxical at all,” for they are in fact “meant to fail.”[12] For them, intention renders paradox a misnomer.

The point is compelling. I dwell on it because security failure—or breakdown[13]—at and around Baghdad’s checkpoints is their most central and consequential paradox. Yet I stop short of ascribing intention to checkpoint failure. I do not insist that practices at Baghdad’s checkpoints are “meant-to-fail.”[14] The evidence from Baghdad does not support such a claim, and seeking proof for one would overlook structuring effects produced through security practices irrespective of intention. Put differently, as it relates to how state power is conjured, asking of intention in security breakdown interrogates as black and white a site through which haziness is productive. A range of practices, interactions, and affects constitute the checkpoint and its representation. What people do, say, and feel matters most.

Agency

“Roadblocks and checkpoints are ubiquitous features of militarized spaces and conflict zones.”[15] This opening line from Rema Hammami is innocuous, obvious even—and that is the point. It simultaneously betrays and gestures toward her phenomenal interventions into Palestinian agency at and amidst Israeli checkpoints. By way of ethnography, her “personal coping method” amidst years of checkpoint imposition on her lifeworld, Hammami details how those subjected to these physical interruptions live through them.[16] In addition to descriptions of her own movements, Hammami presents us with Palestinian narratives that show how “embodied confrontation and interaction” between Palestinian traveler and Israeli soldier are central to “the constitutive dynamics of checkpoint interactions, as well as their gaps and vulnerabilities.”[17] Not walls merely cordoning off one side from the other, checkpoints are instead sorting technologies sifting through while reifying “corporeal difference”—not between colonizer and colonized, but rather only amongst the colonized.[18] Just because they are technologies that de-humanize, however, does not mean they are non-human.

Hammami’s arguments are a jolt to allies and allyship as she takes to task “critical Israeli writers” who “[d]espite political sympathies (or because of them)” miss the ways in which Palestinian agency undercuts Israeli technological “mastery and control.”[19] Instances of colonial breakdown must be attended to by foregrounding everyday Palestinian life. Hammami’s contentions powerfully raise still more questions. If embodied interactions among those subjected to and through checkpoints can destabilize authority, might they also unintentionally reify that order?

Incessant encounters with checkpoints help reveal how social and political effects are generated through them. But dissimilarity abounds. In Baghdad, residents do not congregate at checkpoints to carry out essential social activities, as Tawil-Souri describes of Qalandia. Nor are they subjected to a settler colonial regime that seeks to produce undisciplinable subjects, as Kotef and Amir show—a regime that, according to Hammami, is not as impenetrable as it seems. And while imperialist conditions were present at US military checkpoints during the height of its occupation of Baghdad, offering generative comparisons with Israeli settler colonialism,[20] the securitized conditions have since shifted. Iraqi security personnel manning these checkpoints have inherited routines and procedures, yet how they play out has changed. Dissimilarities are thus both internal to Baghdad across time, and external through further away geographies like Palestine. These differences raise the prospect that checkpoint paradoxes can be made sense of by turning to particularities, eschewing the possibility of checkpoint universality as setting specifics always trump. But this move feels unsatisfying. Paradoxes may be situational, generated out of context, but their import stems, to a far greater extent, from their place as constitutive of political authority anywhere.

shayal slah?

Stories

Everyone has checkpoint stories. One of the first shared with me was more than a decade ago, in the summer of 2012. Sinan, a Baghdadi then in his late twenties, was casually criticizing checkpoints.[21] He recalled how one night, towards the end of 2005, he had been out late with an old friend, Wissam. Their socializing dragged out, as it almost always had. They were finally heading to their homes, carefully moving between neighborhoods in western Baghdad, where they both lived; they figured their circumscribed, localized movements rendered trivial a curfew then in place across the capital. Wissam was in the driver’s seat with Sinan his passenger. The two turned a corner onto a main road leading to the Saidiya district and chanced on bad luck: Iraqi soldiers had set up a flying checkpoint. As they slowly approached the soldiers, breaking curfew was hardly their main concern. It was instead, Sinan insisted, the weapon in their possession. A Kalashnikov rested in between them, stuffed in the cranny between the gear box and driver’s seat. There was no time to hide it.

“Where are you going?” began one of soldiers as he leaned onto the open driver’s side window. “Don’t you know it’s past curfew?” Wissam apologized without demur, respectfully explaining that while it was late, they were on their way home. The soldier nodded to the expectable response. Spotting the weapon, the officer shifted his eyes between Wissam and the rifle, then glanced back at Wissam and asked calmly: “Carrying a weapon?” Of course not, Wissam quipped, not missing a beat. “You sure?” For sure. “Okay then, get home quick,” replied the soldier. Wissam and Sinan pulled away, silently stunned.

This shortest of interactions is saturated with mundanity—and it confounds. Why hadn’t the soldier pressed these two young men? Had he not wondered who they were? Was it just too late in the night that he couldn’t be fussed? Perhaps ̀it was fear, a worry that one of them was backed by a greater power than his own authority as a state functionary. Or maybe a still more discerning understanding inflected the soldier’s actions, through which he came to judge Wissam and Sinan innocent of malicious movements.[22] Neither of them knew for sure.

I recently recounted this story to Othman. A writer from Baghdad, he left Iraq more than five years ago. He laughed with the story heartily, knowingly, though a tinge of disbelief intoned his last bits of chuckle. “You have to remember,” Othman insisted, “we think about what we say to the men as we pass through the checkpoints. How we answer.” Sure, of course, but say more, I pleaded. “It matters how you interact, you know. How you respond. So when a soldier or police officer would ask me about weapons, if I had any,” he recalled, “I would reply to him with my own question. I’d ask, ‘What do I need a weapon for? For what?’ I’d tell him. ‘You’re my weapon, brother. You’re my weapon.’”

State

Dwelling on intention and agency at checkpoints necessitates close inspection of the interactions occurring through them. Such conceptual framings are insightful entry points into how the messy machinations of everyday life can present us with moments that give us a word just when it feels like we have no voice at all—a prospect that is itself paradoxical. Still, that contradiction helps constitute checkpoints suggests paradox is essential to the formation of political authority. Checkpoints are sites of control (saitarat), as they are called in Iraq, installations supposedly intended to at once represent and reify stability—a condition most Baghdadis yearned for during the worst of their city’s post-2003 violence. Lament for what these so-called architectures of security fall short of providing raises questions about the equivocal relationship between ruler and ruled. Put differently, it seems one of the central reasons why the state can be conjured out of abstraction in the first place is because of our collective ambivalence towards it. Ambivalence helps to affectively compose the state, and so too the checkpoint.

Writing of political subjectivity in Ma‘an, in the Jordanian south, José Ciro Martínez sensitively shows how a “constitutive ambivalence” helps form the relationship between citizen and state.[23] Ma‘anis can “decry the ways they are governed” and the deprivation for which they deem the state responsible, while demanding that apparent entity, indeed expecting it, to improve their conditions.[24] The point is not that such conflicted feelings are “paradoxical but hardly incongruous.”[25] Rather, that ambivalence is central to our political subjectivity and the authority to which we acquiesce might make both inexorable.[26] Ambivalence is agency, even—perhaps especially—amidst statist strictures.

Ambivalence, like checkpoints, hardly plays out similarly or equally everywhere. To suggest so would preclude examining the particularities and histories of exception inherent, for example, to settler colonialism and the dastardly practices on which it and its stateness is propped.[27] Instead, if checkpoints and roadblocks are omnipresent across landscapes and streetscapes of conflict, it is because claims to political authority always remain outstanding, unresolved, indeed contested. Such techniques of rule matter because they help us see the ways in which the state, and claims on and for it, remain ever processual; like checkpoints, stateness is constituted through time, place, and movement.

Checkpoints are not as totalizing as they may appear. Their ubiquity betrays power’s instability, in turn helping engender interactions with authority that in many intolerable instances are dripping with acerbic condemnation of coercion. But other moments are drenched in desire for better governance, in a recognition or a demand—especially prevalent during times of physical insecurity—that someone must carry the weapon. That condemnation and desire are both evident reminds us that ambivalence is temporally situated, grounded in past and present experiences, even in the futures we wish can unfold.

Endnotes

* Thank you to the Beirut Urban Lab, the Project on Middle East Political Science, and The Policy Initiative—and particularly to Mona Harb and Marc Lynch—for a thoughtful and engaging workshop. I am also especially grateful to José Ciro Martínez whose comments and pushes on earlier drafts of this piece only made it better.

[1] International Crisis Group, Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal, Crisis Group Middle East Report no. 99, 2.

[2] José Ciro Martínez and Omar Sirri, “Of bakeries and checkpoints: Stately affects in Amman and Baghdad,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38, no. 5 (2020): 849-866.

[3] Timothy Mitchell, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 1 (1991): 77-96.

[4] Helga Tawil-Souri, “Qalandia Checkpoint as Space and Nonplace,” Space and Culture 14, no. 1 (2011): 5.

[5] Tawil-Souri, “Qalandia,” 15. See also: Rema Hammami, “On the Importance of Thugs: The Moral Economy of a Checkpoint,” Middle East Report 231 (2004): 26-34; Nasser Abourahme, “Spatial Collisions and Discordant Temporalities: Everyday Life between Camp and Checkpoint,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no. 2 (2011): 453-461; Amahl A. Bishara, Crossing a Line: Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022).

[6] Tawil-Souri, “Qalandia,” 17; Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to An Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 2000).

[7] Tawil-Souri, “Qalandia,” 13.

[8] Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir, “Between Imaginary Lines: Violence and its Justifications at the Military Checkpoints in Occupied Palestine,” Theory, Culture and Society 28, no. 1 (2011): 55.

[9] Kotef and Amir, “Imaginary Lines,” 61.

[10] Kotef and Amir, “Imaginary Lines,” 61.

[11] Kotef and Amir, “Imaginary Lines,” 63.

[12] Kotef and Amir, “Imaginary Lines,” 61, 58.

[13] Judith Butler, “Performative Agency,” Journal of Cultural Economy 3, no. 2 (2010): 147-161.

[14] Kotef and Amir, “Imaginary Lines,” 75.

[15] Rema Hammami, “Destabilizing Mastery and the Machine: Palestinian Agency and Gendered Embodiment at Israeli Military Checkpoints,” Current Anthropology 60, sup. 19 (2019): 89.

[16] Hammami, “Destabilizing Mastery,” 88.

[17] Hammami, “Destabilizing Mastery,” 96, 87.

[18] Hammami, “Destabilizing Mastery,” 89.

[19] Hammami, “Destabilizing Mastery,” 95.

[20] See Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[21] Pseudonyms are used for all interlocutors.

[22] José Ciro Martínez and Omar Sirri, “Bureaucraft: Statemakers in Amman and Baghdad,” Cultural Anthropology 38, no. 3 (2023): 386-410.

[23] José Ciro Martínez, “Ambivalent states: Paradoxes of subjection in the Jordanian south,” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 41, no. 2 (2023): 394.

[24] Martínez, “Ambivalent states,” 398.

[25] Martínez, “Ambivalent states,” 398.

[26] Laurent Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[27] Sherene Seikaly, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 5.