News From The Front
Your average graduate student probably spends most of their waking hours in the department, the library and the College bar. Not so for Pembroke PhD student Renad Mansour, who regularly travels to Iraq and Lebanon and spends his time in the UK juggling appearances for the nation’s major media outlets.
Renad works at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) and specialises in Middle Eastern current affairs. He is currently studying political cultures in Iraq and, in particular, the relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north and the rest of the country. He also continues to work as a Fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST) in Beirut, Lebanon, where he assesses the risks posed to stakeholders by political upheavals.
Things haven’t always been so hectic. Renad explains: ‘It all blew up for me when we convened a conference here last October.’ The conference marked ten years since Saddam Hussein was toppled and was an opportunity to assess Iraq’s attempt to build a democratic institution. Says Renad: ‘People who wouldn’t usually sit down next to each other in Iraq came here to discuss and debate. We had five or six media outlets from Iraq in attendance because some of the speakers were big names – people like the new Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi.’ Smiling, he adds: ‘I emailed him the other day; when he was announced as the new Prime Minister I wrote to send congratulations from Cambridge. It was funny typing: “Dear Prime Minister”. He replied within five hours saying he’d had a really good time at Pembroke, so that was pretty cool.’
It’s not just that Renad conducts casual email exchanges with world-renowned politicians. Since the conference, he has also become the media’s go-to-guy on matters related to the Middle East. As one of very few Cambridge academics working on the current situation in Iraq, he is frequently called upon to comment on a range of political issues. ‘Since things kicked off I’ve been on the radio once or twice per week,’ he says. ‘I do a lot on BBC Radio 5 Live and I’ve done BBC Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel too. The other day I got a call from BBC West Midlands, so I appeared on a show for them.’ He laughs, ‘I never knew that there were so many BBCs!’
Renad recognises how important it is to help organisations like the BBC get their facts right. ‘The general public base their opinions on documentaries, movies and the media coverage,’ he says, ‘but the BBC has maybe one guy in the Middle East who has to cover everything. There is no way he can be an expert on all the intricacies, so they’re always going to be offering a more general idea of what’s happening. Plus they have to keep it short enough for people to be interested. You can’t really blame them for that, but it makes our job more interesting because then we have to add the more nuanced view.’
So where does Renad get his information from? ‘I travel to the region every two months or so and I am constantly in touch with people on the ground there. They help me understand what the communities think.’ When at his desk in the UK, Renad relies on open source literature along with Twitter. ‘To be honest, a lot of the different groups in the Middle East use social media, so that’s the best place to look for information.’ He continues: ‘In the Middle East they don’t use social media like we do. We might be on Facebook for an hour or two per day. They are always on Facebook; that’s what they do all day. It’s like they’ve been emancipated through Facebook.’
This kind of insight allows Renad to be ahead of the pack when it comes to recognising trends and predicting future events. ‘For example, I have been talking about ISIS being a problem for Iraq since 2011,’ he declares. Part of his confidence comes from a childhood spent on the ground. Renad’s father was a political figure in Iraq and was active in the opposition whilst Renad was growing up. ‘I followed him around and I really enjoyed it,’ he says. ‘It shaped my thinking having the chance to see that people who will, at some point, yield so much power are just normal people who you can have a drink with.’
Today Renad is still in touch with politicians in the region and finds that, for the most part, he is allowed to offer impartial academic analysis without getting drawn into political debates. ‘At least with this conflict people are willing to listen,’ he says, ‘more than with many other conflicts that have long histories of remembered trauma.’
When he needs to relax, Renad regularly comes into College to spend time with other Pembroke graduate students. However, he often finds his mind being drawn back to work: ‘Everywhere I go I find that people want to talk about the situation in the Iraq. Everyone has an opinion. My friends see something in the media and they’ll email me to ask me about it. I go to the bar wanting to have a quiet drink and immediately someone will start asking about a recent air strike or something. It never stops.’
When Renad gets home at night he still can’t escape talk of the Middle East. Over the last few months TV screens across Britain have been filled not only with news coverage and documentaries, but also with fictional responses to the unfolding crisis. Has he enjoyed any of them? ‘I watched Homeland and I did enjoy it, but the little inaccuracies really bothered me. A few episodes were set in Hamra, which is a busy suburb where I often stay. It has huge streets and shopping malls and everything. For Homeland they chose to film scenes supposedly set in Hamra in a desert somewhere, with camels and little carts and old-school markets. I knew straight away that was not Hamra! So I laugh at little things that. But what really annoys me is when people stop seeing these TV shows as fiction and start basing their opinions on them.’
There is one thing that provides Renad with an escape from work. ‘I play for both the University and the Pembroke croquet teams,’ he says. ‘I just picked it up thinking it looked like a funny sport and then for some reason I started taking it pretty seriously.’ It has caused a few entertaining mishaps: ‘One day I got a call from BBC 5 Live asking me to appear on a show and I was so busy. I told them I didn’t have time to get to the studio but they were really keen for me to appear and so they offered to do an interview over Skype. At the end of the segment the presenter said: “Thanks Renad. Stand by and we’ll get back to you.” I forgot that I was live on air for a moment and I said: “Sorry, I have to go to play in a croquet match.” After I hung up I realised what I had done.’ He confesses: ‘It was a little embarrassing.’
Whether he is appearing on British or Iraqi news shows, Renad thinks that his experience is part of a wider trend for the media – along with the security and intelligence community – to turn to academics for input. He also believes that spin-offs of the University of Cambridge, like the Centre for Science and Policy, represent the start of a convergence between academia and politics. ‘That’s what I want to do in the future,’ he says. ‘I’m really interested in advising and in doing something that makes a difference in the real world. I’d much rather be doing that than sitting at a desk writing a really good critical analysis of the historic narratives that is read by maybe ten other people!’
One thing is for sure: interest in what Renad calls ‘the Vietnam of this era’ will not fade any time soon and, for as long as it remains topical, he will remain interested in helping people to make sense of it.
Further details about Renad and his work can be found in this article and this interview. For more information about the conference, Iraq: A Decade of New Governance, see the CRASSH website. You can also hear lectures from the conference through the University’s audio and video collection.
Those with a particular concern for the Middle East may also be interested in a talk on the topic by Pembroke’s former Master, Sir Roger Tomkys, which is due to take place in London on Thursday 2nd October 2014. Tickets are available here. Please note that this event is not being organised by the College and enquiries are to be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.