Thursday, April 19, 2007

Iraqi Travels

11 Mar 07
We currently only have three guys on station from our team. Everyone else is in Baghdad supporting missions up there. Of the three of us, only DC and I live in the IqAF compound. Mike lives in the British compound “Trafalgar.” Trafalgar has its own exercise tent, dining facility, etc so he stays put most evenings. DC doesn’t like to leave our compound so we eat most evenings with the Iraqis now.

The subject of television came up at dinner last night. Under the Saddam regime they only had 6 channels that were regulated by the regime. Satellite is everywhere now and they can’t believe how many channels they have to choose from. The same goes for cell phones and internet. Both were nonexistent under Saddam but are ubiquitous now.

Our officers estimated 90% of the population has never left the country. Those that have traveled usually only went to neighboring Syria, Jordan or across the Shaat Al Arab River to Iranian border towns. Considering their proximity to Saudi Arabia and the significance Islam places on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca called the “Haj,” I figured all of them would have made the Haj. They had a quizzical look when I asked that said “why would you think that?” None of them have earned the name “Haji”…a term of utmost respect reserved for “one who has made the Haj.”

They were curious how much Americans travel and wanted to know where all I have traveled. I listed some 12 countries but they keyed in on Saudi Arabia. They asked if I was on vacation. “No, I was with the military.” They asked what years. I tiptoed around the question but they pressed for the years. I counted back, “2001…1997.” Ali asked what year was my first visit. I answered, “1990-91.” A look of understanding came over his face. He explained to the others in Arabic with the same result.

They wanted to know what I thought of Saudis and we discussed the two cultures. I told them that I find the Iraqis to be much friendlier and more hospitable…I genuinely mean that. Ali said there are many differences between Iraqis and their neighbors to the south but the biggest difference is wealth. He said the southern nations are rich and the people are rich. Iraq is rich and the people are poor. Another guy said Iraq’s wealth “is like the smoke…we see it so we know it exists, but we cannot touch it or have any of it…it just disappears.”

Iraqi men look old beyond their years. One guy asked me how old I thought he was. I guessed low to flatter him but guessed 5 years too high. I thought another guy was in his late 40s/early 50; he was 35! They asked how old I was. I told them 37 and their mouths dropped; they said I looked 27. I’m sure I don’t by American standards but these guys are living hard lives so they age more quickly and it shows on them. Like most Americans, I have lived a comparatively easy life.

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