If Iraq is a far-off place and the war, a hostile and politicized diversion, we were reminded today that there is humanity and understanding amidst the cultural divide. We received email from a pal who’d received correspondence with a Marine, whose post was to work with families there. We don’t divulge his name or his specific location, but we offer up his thoughts. The more people seem different, he learns, the more we are all the same.
I think that cultural “differences” are largely a simplified way of pigeon-holing our fears of others. I’ve spent the last four months living in an about the community with Iraqis. Watching the news, listening to music, talking politics and religion— everything that normal conversations back home would contain. I think of the biases and prejudices that I was exposed to prior to getting here. To be blunt, the vast majority of these “one size fits all” assessments are counter-productive, ill conceived and destructive to the prospect of world peace. I’ve also noticed that my Iraqi counterparts are coming to the same conclusions about Americans and US Marines. We agree that we are more alike than we are different. This experience reminds of the song by Sting “If the Russians love their children too.” I remember saying to myself “of course they do.” But cultural grooming never accounted for Russians having emotions or caring about their children… they were just “communists”.
Here’s a list of things I was told to “not talk about” before deploying to Iraq : Religion, politics, sex, alcohol, and “anything controversial.” Here’s what I talk to with the Iraqis EVERY DAY: Religion, politics, sex, alcohol, “everything controversial” AND sports and automobiles. Cars are a no brainer. Automobiles have the same reputation world wide that they have in the United States . BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover, Large SUVS…are all status symbols. Iraqis desire them just like us. Sports you need to understand the passion of support for the National Iraqi soccer team. That’s one thing EVERYONE here agrees on. The list of taboo subjects has been my staple of conversation, because it’s human and natural. This is what people want to talk about. Anything that evokes a strong reaction warrants a more detailed discussion. Let me break it down:
Religion: The running joke here is “Are you Shi’a or Sunni?”, “I’m IRAQI!!!” The point is most Iraqis couldn’t care less which style of Islam you practice… they are just happy to meet other Iraqis. Much of my pre-deployment reading included Islamic history, discussions of the break of Shi’a and Sunnis over the claim to who was the legitimate care taker of Prophet Mohammad’s life work. This understanding and curiosity of subtle differences has paid huge dividends in building trust….here’s an example. I gave guidance to my team that EVERY INFLUENCIAL person in the area needed regular contact from the Marines. Legitimate or not… I wanted to KNOW them so we could solve problems and understand obstacles.
One individual we wanted to meet with was the Imam. He lives 2 hours away and only comes out for 24 hours per week (Thursday –Friday night…Friday is Muslim holy day of week.) I requested to meet with him and took one of my Captains, who is a very devout Christian. I thought they might be able to find a connection. During the meeting I could tell an aqward heavy feeling in the room. The Imam was likely curious why we wanted to meet with him. He would occasionally meet with the chaplain of the unit near his home, but never with Marines in the field. Then a break-through— the captain inquired “So, what was the message at Mosque today?” A big smile was followed by a discussion on family values and the importance of parents setting the right example for their children. Just like that it clicked to everyone in the room… religions might be different but their PURPOSE is the same.
Since then myself and the captain have regularly met with the Imam. Last week the Imam saw the captain in the port and approached him. He wanted to know if the Marines would help reinforce the wall around the mosque. His concern was that thieves were hiding in the mosque since every one knows that we won’t go into that area unless some one is shooting at us. The Imam wanted us to help us keep legitimacy to his house of worship. It reminded me of the story of Jesus knocking over the tables of money lenders on the temple grounds. What parallels life gives us? We will be helping the Imam and I’m sure that more discussions on “God’s plan” will be part of the discussion.
While the Imam is a pillar of his faith just as a priest, rabbi or minister is there are many who wear the title of a certain faith that don’t practice. This is just as true in Iraq . I see many Iraqis who never go to mosque. When asked about it, the same excused that are heard back home are given “Tired”, “don’t want to go” or even “one day I’ll go back.”
Politics: Decisions that are made by Prime Minister Malaki are discussed as often as decisions made by President Bush. Political parties have their obvious differences and the collective good transcends party affiliation in Iraq just as much as in the United States . When I listen to my counterparts talk about political issues its obvious what political movement people subscribe. I also hear the same arguments about how “ignorant” other parties are that Americans state about the other party (sometimes parties.) Bottom line is this…we pick our officials and if they fail us we can pick some one different next time. Same rules here. Democracy obligates participation. That is your ticket to criticize. No vote = no complaining. I stress civil responsibility to the Iraqis and hold them to enforce the laws that their government makes. They are grateful to hear that politics isn’t perfect in the US . This lets them know that a system of give and take needs constant work and cooperation. But it’s better than a ruthless dictator. It’s refreshing to hear these men talk about their political concerns and opinions of their government. This is a freedom that many Americans take for granted. The Iraqis are just starting to appreciate what individual liberty is all about. They like it and want to know more.
Sex: Every one’s favorite topic. In Iraq you are authorized up to 4 wives as long as you treat them all equally. A man’s influence is evaluated based on his reproductive capability. More children, especially sons, make the man that much more regarded in this system. I’ve been married for 6 years and my wife and I do not have children. Our decision, we both feel that having a child to just have one is just as irresponsible as having one and not having the desire to be a good parent. I’m sure we’d both make great parents, but considering how little time we spend with each other (mostly due to my career as a Marine) we’ve decided not to have children. I have been questioned my many Iraqis who want to know if my plumbing works. Birth control is an obvious foreign concept to Iraqis and one officer in particular was worried that perhaps I didn’t find my wife attractive… or something. He went home and told the story to his wife. She felt very concerned and rushed off to a boutique. She returned with a small package with instructions to deliver it to me. The officer didn’t know what was in the bag. He just was told that it was a small gift from his wife to mine. I laughed my ass off when I got back to the outpost and opened the package… it was lingerie!!!
Despite being covered head to toe in black gowns, the ladies of Iraq are definitely not all wearing “grand ma” panties. Concealed except for their lover, these ladies would clear out Victoria ’s Secret. Bethany and I have done some online research and learned that women’s delicates from Syria are world-famous. To sell them in Europe and the United States , “made in Syria ” tags are removed and “Made in Italy ” is sewn in place. Ladies, check your drawers, you might be wearing something sexy from the Middle East and not know it! Nonetheless, the guys over here talk about sex as much as American men. I can only guess that when the women are huddled up and giggling, they are saying the same things to each other that you might hear girls in the states.
Alcohol: Booze is contrary to the values of devout Muslims. If you think about it… Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians don’t drink either. It is ignorant to think that there isn’t drinking going on in Islamic countries. Recently we stopped a vehicle in the port. It belonged to a prominent individual in the local community. The vehicle was stopped since they were driving too fast. 3 bottles of blended scotch whiskey were found in the back seat. The Marines seized it. They told be they were going to “dump the contents,” which you and I know means they wanted to drink it. I returned the booze to the individual’s house. He was slightly embarrassed at first, because he didn’t want me to think he was a hypocrite. I also returned some documents that the Marines seized. My guys were doing their job, but I saw this as a chance to do some bridge building instead of bridge burning. Instead of accusing the individual I turned the discussion into a dialogue on laws, legal process and standards. I didn’t judge him, but I did warn that future “boot-legging” operations would be intercepted and seized. We laughed about how prohibition was ineffective in the 1930s and the mob was always able to get supplies through. He was well read on prohibition. The Godfather series are very popular in Iraq and any discussion on the mob is a frequent poke at our history.
Music / Television / Movies: US pop culture has a parallel universe in the Middle East. They watch our movies; they also have some of their own that try to emulate ours. Television especially in the evenings is tuned into music and dancing shows. Yes, the music of quite different, but you can see the same reactions from fans that you’d find in your neighborhoods. You can tell when a popular artist is performing. People lean forward on their seats and point at the TV. You get the history of the musician’s life as well as some of the missteps they’ve made. If they own real estate then the awe of their homes is described in detail. The same unexplainable interest in the lives of performers catches people’s interest.
My observations and interactions in Iraq tell me a little bit about myself and a lot about the unnecessary boundaries humans build around themselves. We fear what we don’t understand. The sad thing is that if we would open our eyes instead of filtering what we wee we’d recognize the similarities we have with others, rather than the differences. Seek to build upon what you share instead of fight over what you differ on. There is more common ground with all humanity than we often give credence to. I’ve opened my eyes just a little bit these past 4 months. I wonder what I’ve missed out on in the past since I wasn’t so willing to give others a chance.”