Across Cultures and Empires
An Immigrant’s Odyssey from the Soviet Army to the US War in Iraq and American Citizenship
University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2021, 176 pages
Book Review published on: January 7, 2022
In his fifth published work, Across Cultures and Empires: An Immigrant’s Odyssey from the Soviet Army to the US War in Iraq and American Citizenship, Mahir Ibrahimov provides a short autobiography that is both honest about and insightful to the realities of the world. Ibrahimov, deservedly, demonstrates pride in his personal accomplishments and indicates his hope for the future. His life story is that of the struggles of the world and its citizens in the fight for human dignity and success against adversity. The account he provides exhibits the value of diligent personal effort regardless of any hindrance to achieve a better life, and the importance of understanding national cultures and traditions.
I selected Ibrahimov’s book because his life as a Soviet citizen and subsequent service as a contracted interpreter supporting U.S. forces in Iraq intrigued me. His story more than satisfied the curiosity that encouraged me to read about it. He reveals a clear ability to draw forceful conclusions that are relevant to anyone with service in the U.S. military and are incredibly useful should any responsible authority seek to apply history to their decision-making methodology.
The book’s cover includes two photos of the author. One black-and-white picture is of him as a young man in uniform, serving as a draftee in the Soviet army. The second photo, in color, shows the author wearing the desert uniform issued to U.S. military interpreters in the early years of twenty-first-century conflict in the Middle East.
The young soldier in the first photo, involuntarily serving a government to which he does not feel a sense of belonging, does not smile in this picture. The author’s face in the second photo reflects a slight smile. It is the face of someone who seems content knowing that his life choices are his own and is doing his part to help make the world a better place. The contrast between the photos is clear and evident: a life without free will and status as a secondary citizen compared to the life of an individual pursuing personal goals.
Readers familiar with Soviet history will recognize the concealed racial tension and bureaucracy Ibrahimov endured as a son of the communist empire. His efforts to develop a professional career and simultaneously improve the status of his native nation, Azerbaijan, as a burgeoning state in a post-Soviet era should be familiar to anyone struggling to better himself or herself in a world still dominated by longstanding national customs and prejudices. His observations of the results of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a result of centuries-long ethnic hatred, will leave readers horrified by its effects on human life and forced to recognize that such animosity still exists in the world.
Ibrahimov’s descriptions of life as a translator supporting U.S. military operations in Iraq provide valid insight and lessons into the struggle of that Middle Eastern nation. He compares the American-led counterinsurgency effort in Iraq to the simultaneous effort in Afghanistan. He provides his own analysis of operations conducted during the U.S. Global War on Terrorism and contrasts them to similar efforts by multiple states in the same region, over multiple centuries. Readers with military service in the Middle East should not find surprise with his comments; those lacking personal experience in the region should seek to understand Ibrahimov’s thoughts before blindly supporting the initiation of similar operations in the future.
The book consists of nine chapters, bookended by an opening prologue and concluding thoughts. It includes an “Interlude” in which the author provides his views on military operations amongst native populations. Readers will find an author incredibly descriptive in his prose; one can picture oneself on the scene as he describes it. The author will at times move from one thought to another without an identifiable transition, but such moments do not detract from the author’s eloquence and analysis.
I recommend this book for the story it tells. The author’s life story, in miniature, would substitute well for a history of the world. Ibrahimov’s perceptions of his life’s experiences reflect an earned appreciation of free will and are attentive to the criticality of understanding the culture and history of nations and peoples.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Matt Marfongelli, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas