Iraq is the most ancient, beautiful, awe-inspiring, unbearably hot, dangerous, dirty, disgusting place I have ever been. The people of Iraq are the most giving, hospitable, friendly, violent, unreasonable, deceitful people I have ever met. Iraq is a place filled with contradictions.
I have spent about a year and a half in Iraq total, most of that time in Baghdad and now down here in Maysan Province. During my time in Iraq, Iraqis have never failed to impress me, or confuse me. Iraqis have an entire culture shaped around freely giving what is asked of you. It’s actually considered shameful to tell somebody “no” or refuse to do or give something. Constant, often spontaneous gift-giving is of the utmost importance in any friendship. My interpreter while in Baghdad, Haifa, used to bring in gifts for the platoon nearly every week. Usually it was something small, some food, such as lamb kebabs or rotisserie chicken. Often it was exactly what we needed, like a birthday cake for one of my soldiers. Near the end of the deployment, she bought us all Arab-style clothing, the headdress and dish disha (“man-dress”), and dressed us up to take a picture. We added a “special touch” by pulling some AK-47s out of the locker we kept confiscated weapons in and posing with those.
I have had some great times here and experienced the wonders of Arab hospitality. A few weeks ago, one of my soldiers, our interpreter and I went to do some business on an Iraqi Army camp nearby our own. It was about lunch time and as we were getting ready to leave their camp, a half-dressed Iraqi soldier yelled at us from the doorway of a building, “Akil! Amrikee Jundee, Akil!” We walked over to find out what he was shouting about, our interpreter informing us that “akil” means “food” in Arabic. “Amrikee,” we already knew, means “American.”
The Iraqi soldier (“Jundee” in Arabic) vigorously shook our hands with a big smile on his face, saying “Allo! Allo!” He was by far the largest Iraqi I have ever met. Most Iraqis are about average height and rather skinny. He stood about 6’5” and probably weighed somewhere around 250 lbs. Later in the day, he would grab his bare belly and exclaim “Izza baby!” while shaking it. He escorted us to the back of the building and into a room where six other Jundee in various states of undress were sitting or laying on the floor in a circle around several large plates of rice and three whole rotisserie chickens. They all simultaneously looked up at us and exclaimed “Salaam al-akum!” He yelled at them to move over and make room for us as he told us, using a combination of his best charades act and significantly limited English vocabulary, to take our hats and boots off and sit down to eat with them.
We happily obliged and, over the next four and a half hours, enjoyed the best meal and conversation we have had since arriving in Iraq. The local food does something awful to my stomach, but after two full months of nothing but MREs, I was willing to risk it. Nearly all of the conversation was conducted through the use of hand signs and my interpreter, Ghanam, but it was easier to relate to them than to most American civilians I meet. We talked about everything there is to talk about.
We talked about food, music, family, religion, politics, history and, being an all-male group of soldiers, of course we talked about women and sex. We showed each other pictures and cell-phone videos of our wives and children. We played songs from our MP3 players and even danced and sang for each other. We showed off our tattoos (I even drew a smiley face with a ballpoint pen on the arm of a Jundee who said he didn’t have any, but wanted one). We showed and explained the small religious and sentimental items we each carry; I showed them my travel icon and pray rope; one of the Jundee showed us a miniature (one inch by once inch) Koran he carries with him; another showed the prayer beads he carries; the oddest item, I think, was one of the Muslim Jundee carrying a small, laminated prayer card of the Theotokos with the “Hail Mary” in Arabic on the back; he said he prayed it every day. We drank tea (the Iraqis call it “Chi” but I have yet to figure out if this is a generic term for “tea” or if it refers to a specific type), smoked cigarettes (50 cents per pack here in Iraq, can’t beat that!), laughed, and conversed for nearly all of the afternoon. We did all of this as if we were old friends who had known each other for years, but we had just met each other minutes earlier.
The afternoon is the hottest part of the day and so Iraqis tend to spend that time napping or, at the very last, immobile. They invited us to stay and nap with them, even offering up their own cots and indicating they would sleep on the floor instead. We declined, as we had to return to our camp before too long. As we left, there were the mandatory hugs and kisses on the cheek. It was only then that I learned any of their names. The one who had initially invited us in was Areef Ali (Sergeant Ali). Although I haven’t had the opportunity to eat lunch with him again since then, I make sure to stop by his room and great him each time I go to the Iraqi Army camp. I see him once a week at most, but I consider him a good friend. That’s the nature of Iraq.
It is very difficult to reconcile my personal contact with Iraqis, which is nearly all positive, with the fact that many of them are shooting at me. The truly disturbing part of the equation is that even some of them I have shared a meal with or exchanged kisses on the cheek with are doing the shooting, or at least assisting the shooters. In Baghdad, we had to fire one of our interpreters, a man I had played dominoes and drank Chi with, when we found out he was giving information about us and our camp to a militia that was attacking us and he may have been a member of, or at least a sympathizer with their cause. I have seen American soldiers killed or harmed by attacks that were just a little too “perfect” in their time and location, which were known by only their closest of “friends” and “comrades.”
In spite of all this, I see something wonderful in Iraq. “Salaam al-Akum” is the greeting you receive everywhere you go, regardless of religion. Christians, Muslims, Yezidis and Sabaeans all wish that “Peace be with you” each time they greet you, and you return “Walakum Salaam,” “And with you.” Every meeting is a warm one, with repeated kisses on each cheek, firm embraces, and large, happy smiles. Gifts and compliments are exchanged with an exhausting frequency. Friendships are never transitory; two people can go years without seeing or hearing from each other and pick up just as if they had last been together an hour ago. Iraq is a land of potential; of that I have no doubt. It is also a place where deception is the means of survival, a way of life; this I have experienced. There will be a piece of me in Iraq forever, long after I leave this place; I will be here in what I have accomplished and what all American soldiers have accomplished, I will be here even in the trash I leave behind, and, I hope, I will be here in the memories of the friends I made, as they will be in mine. A piece of Iraq will be in me forever, as well; even after I wash the desert sand from my body and clothes and recover from the food, I will never forget what I experienced here. It has already changed me as a person and it will continue to shape much of who I am, even after I leave. For the rest of my life I will pray for the people I have met here and those I haven’t. I pray every day for the future of Iraq and I hope you will too.