The Invisible people

I wrote this 15 years ago when I was in Iraq and it is even more relevant  today. It is an indictment  of one aspect  of American culture. We are a great people but not perfect and our transitory friendships are one of the less than endearing qualities. As one cultural guru put it, we form instant friendships and a year later we  can’t remember their name.

An Iraqi friend of mine gave me an example. Her father who went to an An American university roomed with the same fellow for three years but after he returned to Iraq he never heard from him again.

Several times a day I walk past about 30 laborers who for the past month have been filling sandbags and stacking them and I have observed their interaction…or more precisely…lack of interaction with the Americans. One of the important things I have learned about the Arab world in my years living and working here is the vital importance of acknowledging the people. Whether they are the street sweeper or doorman at the apartment, or the minister in his office, one must extend a greeting or some sign of recognizing their align=”alignnone” width=”413″]102_0210  Iraqis protest terrorism in Baghdad[/caption]

During the day the Americans walk by seemingly oblivious to their presence, and vehicles by the score speed by with a pace that gives the impression that they may as well be stick people, sometimes running over sandbags just filled. I often wonder what these people, returning to their ramshackle shacks, tell their families and align=”alignnone” width=”455″]101_0159 Iraqis in Baghdad[/caption]

the Americans they see every day. Despite their lowly station in life, these laborers are perceptive people. I have found the Iraqis, whatever their level in society, to be very street smart, a necessary attribute to staying out of harms way during the Saddam years.

They sweep floors, drain septic tanks, fix plumbing, cook, and basically do everything to keep the Green Zone occupants living in relative comfort. I do wonder why we are unable to do some of these basic tasks ourselves. In Vietnam the officers of my battalion sandbagged their own tents. It was expected, as was basic housekeeping for one’s own area. I must only assume the frenetic pace of the CPA,  ( Coalition Provisional Authority) whether feigned or real, demands too much time.

When I first extended a greeting to these people in my Lebanese–accented Arabic, they first reacted with disbelief as if they were not sure it was directed at them. That was followed with massive smiles and a chorus of hello’s and responses in the many flowery forms for which Arabs are famous.

align=”alignnone” width=”564″]iz arm of hussein The Infamous Arm of Saddam now gone!!

I wondered when was the last time the civilian contractors went down to talk to these laborers, brought them some cigarettes, some highly-sugared tea? Do they ever ask them about their life, how they get to work, how their families are doing, and at the same time build up the authority of their Iraqi supervisor by extolling his leadership or, more importantly, ensuring that the supervisor is not abusing his authority as often happens in this part of the world? Do they have the translators say a few words to the laborers explaining why the authorities need to be protected from the Saddam thugs, rather than the current belief of most that they are simply toiling to make the new colonialists safe and comfortable? As Americans we have always had the notion that our egalitarianism and individual ideas of self-determination put us above the earlier European colonialists of this area of the world. In fact, the British were far more attuned to Arab culture than we are. Our assumption is that if we pay the Iraqis what we consider a decent wage and do not mistreat them all else should fall into place. We have become a people wedded to flow charts, personnel assets, laptop PowerPoint presentations…all of which are meaningless in this world. Quite rightly we speak of the vital importance of winning the respect and “hearts and minds” of these people and yet the ones who are seeing us closest of all, we disregard.

Norvell B. DeAtkine 26 Dec 2003

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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1 Response to The Invisible people

  1. Connie Piper says:

    Wow, Tex, this is one of your best gems yet!! Truly you are one of the very finest gentlemen I have ever had the honor of knowing !! This is why you were such an AMAZING FAO in your career – because you TRULY CARED about the people who were around you. There is a saying from a poet “People will forget what you say and do but they never forget how you make them feel.”
    MISS YOU LOTS and hope to see you soon!! I’m in Florida right now but will head to Virginia next.

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