One of the blessings of this my second tour in Iraq is the cultural interaction. As a Transition Team we live with the Iraqi Army. We stay on the third floor of a 3-story building inside an Iraqi base, not an American forward operating base (FOB). The Iraqis live on the first floor. Most nights we have Chai together, the main Iraqi officer CPT Basil, who speaks a smattering of English, always calls me his brother, as he did with our predecessors. The fact is, we are his family. He has no wife or children. He was once Major Basil but with the help of our predecessors, he reported corruption in his chain of command and got a general and a colonel fired, but he was demoted in the process. Our predecessors called him “the most honest officer in the Iraqi army”.
Every night that I am not on mission and in our main home I play dominos with CPT Basil, SFC Faidel, our interpreters Kamil, a US citizen, and Loren (a local national), and other random Iraqi soldiers. Every night chai is served by a Jundee named Haji Jazim Abu Ali. Every time I see Haji Jazim he insists that I come to CPT Basil’s room for chai, usually at Themaniya or “aiet” as he says. Haji Jazim is a portly man originally from Syria with a heart condition. For him, hospitality is an obligation and he loves showing me this eastern respect. He practices his English with me and amuses himself by correcting my broken Arabic. When there is food he never fails to force it on me no matter what. When we are building positions or just making our quarters more civilized he always shows up to help. Haji, meaning he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca but used by everyone more to indicate his age, has two wives, as is occasionally the Muslim custom, though it is less common in Iraq than in Saudi Arabia. He also cares for his sick mother, sons Ali, Ahmed, baby Muhammed, and a daughter, Fatima. Truly every conversation with him is a profound cultural exchange, a conduit of cultures. Haji Jazim’s insistence on these courtesies is older than Islam, an echo of Babylon, which is where his family lives today in Al Hillah.
One of our interpreters, Code-named Loren, is originally from Balad Ruz, a few miles from my current location. Now he keeps his family, a wife and a baby girl, in Baghdad. They moved after Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) left a note on his door threatening to kill his family by name and calling him an “enemy of God” because he was working with the Americans. He is young, 23, and he loves American culture but is equally proud of his Iraqi heritage, and never hesitates to teach me about the Iraqi people and the Arabic language. Loren wants to become a US citizen and even wants to join the Army. To me, Loren is the epitome of what Iraq has come to and he represents the choice Iraq has to face in the future.
Another jundee, Muhammed, tells me that he loves Americans, then shows his scars and tells me in Arabic that he is from Fallujah. Once he was hit by a mortar round inside an Iraqi base. Then on his way to the American aid station the truck he was in was hit by a roadside bomb. The Americans evacuated him and his comrades with helicopters and operated on him at Balad Air Base. The sincere gratitude he feels can be seen in his manners and eyes as he displays horrific scars across his chest and legs.
After a few weeks, the Arabs who know me began to call me Habibi, which literally means “my Love”. Loren explains that “in Iraq this not gay”. The expression still has a homosexual sound to my American ears, in fact my wife giggles when I tell her about it. But for the Arabs, men specifically and exclusively, it is a sincere and non-threatening expression of affection. They say Shloanak habibi“ how are you my love” and afwan habibi “excuse me my love” when I’m in the door way or they need to break off the conversation.
Eating is always the most demonstrative and culturally significant event. I’m quite fond of Iraqi food, but not always so fond of Iraqi habits.Once in Khanaqin, my team and I ate at an Iraqi restaurant. On my last tour this was forbidden and still is to the average US military personnel but we are a transition team and we don’t play by big Army rules. We took off our body armor, carried only our pistols, a few frag grenades, and some radios. I sat with my back to the corner to watch who came in, how they reacted to seeing us, what they were wearing, did they leave when they saw us? We were careful. We were served rice (timmon), flat bread (hops), Simoon (a puffy bread), chicken, lamb, beef, lamb kabob, and an assortment of spices and vegetables. It was delicious! But as I came to my last piece of lamb I noticed it looked a little different. I thought it was just a fatty piece, then I realized it was either a grilled ear or lip. I concluded that it was lamb lip and sat it back on my plate, covered it with some vegetable leftovers, smiled, and inhaled vast amounts of second hand smoke; Iraqi men are generally train smokers. Of course, eating with your hands is also customary but not always done. It is the early twentieth century in Iraq these days and silver ware is pretty well accepted. When you do eat with your hands it is extremely important to never use your left hand, this comes from a time before toilet paper in Iraq and if forgotten generates an immediate reaction of disgust from the Iraqis. With Saliva still on their hands Iraqis will offer you their portion of meat, a gracious sign of respect and welcome Camil tells me. When an Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel offers me a piece of his meat from his spit soaked hands I remember to turn my brain off, enjoy the company and food, and endear myself to these people who are suffering every day in this experience that I will never forget.