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″] 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″] 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″] 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