The encounter took me back to my first weeks in the village in Peace Corps, when the pictures were published from Abu Ghraib Prison in a two-page, full-color spread in Al-Ghad newspaper. Things are not so tense around here anymore. There seems to be a vague sense of cautious, qualified optimism here about the future of Iraq, or at least the prospect of Pres. Obama getting America out of the mess. Still, there are awkward moments.
Yesterday evening, as I was coming home from work, I met our new neighbors here on the third floor. Two or three middle-aged Iraqi men now live in the apartment across the landing. At least one of them speaks excellent English, and at first he translated for the other, until they figured out that I understand Arabic. That was when the other guy started rolling up the sleeve of his dishdash to show me a long, puckered scar that curved from his wrist around his forearm to his elbow. Then he explained that his son had been killed by the Americans in Iraq. I think I said, “God be merciful upon him,” the usual response to a death in Arabic. After that, I lost the thread of the conversation, except that I felt sure that they wanted something from me. Then they excused themselves – they’d been on their way out the door anyway – and I let myself into my apartment. It was awkward, and I sat on the couch for several minutes trying to figure out what in the world I could have said.
I suppose there’s nothing to say, really. Yes, as Miss Ismahan said to me years ago, those are my brothers over there in uniform in Iraq. They are my people. But that, ultimately, is why I am here. As John F Kennedy envisioned for the Peace Corps, as Rotary International envisions for their Youth Exchange Program, so I see myself in the world. Perhaps it’s naive or idealistic in some way, but this is what I do: I travel not merely because I love to discover new places and meet new people, but because I want those people to see another side of America. I write this blog and run my mouth constantly about my travels because I want people back home and my friends elsewhere to understand the people and places I encounter.
Like Rotary and the Peace Corps, I believe that if we understand each other better, if we know that real human beings live in those supposed “bad places” on the map, people who love their children and struggle to eat and stay warm and put their kids through school just like us…. If we understand that all the places of the world are full of people just like us, then we won’t have to fight each other. The Bible says, “Love thy neighbor” and “Love thy enemy.” The Quran says, “We made you into tribes and peoples so that you might know each other better.” The US Constitution says that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The UN Charter affirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” The Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association “affirm and promote … Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” These are all fundamental elements of my moral, even my spiritual being.
While there is nothing I can do about my neighbor’s loss, I hope that it is clear from my actions and attitudes to others that I am trying to mitigate that loss (as much as any death can be mitigated) by trying to work in whatever way I can towards a world where such losses can be prevented.
To my neighbors’ great credit, they did bring me sweets this evening. No apology was made, and I would have rejected any attempt to make one, but I did see this offering as some tacit recognition of the awkward position I’d been put in last night. There was some question in the office this week as to whether the very considerate actions of Jordanians – e.g. how taxi drivers will, immediately and without being asked, pass you a box of tissues if you sneeze – were sincere, or because they expected to be berated. I think the Arabs really are that considerate; hospitality is not just a historic value of Arab culture … it is a very present and prominent one.