I first noticed it at a truck stop outside of Basra. Actually, I’d seen it happen all over Iraq, but hadn’t paid much attention before. Now, as people peeled bananas, unwrapped cigarette packages, finished soft drinks, then dropped their garbage where they stood, it dawned on me: littering is a way of life in this country. Not that this particular truck stop offered much in the way of trash receptacles beyond a rusty oil drum and soiled cardboard boxes. What happened to waste material was clear: about fifty feet to the right of the dingy tea house and accompanying vendor stalls stood a four-foot-tall heap of fly-infested refuse. A pair of dogs were rooting through the debris.
Meanwhile, across the oil-soaked gravel of the parking lot, hordes of teenagers washed, rinsed, and wiped down motorists’ SUVs, Chevrolet Caprices, Volkswagen Passats, and other cars until they glittered in the sun. “That’s Iraq for you’ grunted my traveling companion, Iraqi journalist Yahya Batat. “They turn the landscape into a trash heap, yet make sure their cars are clean.”
And not just their cars. Arriving in Basra later that day, I accompanied Yahya (pronounced ya-HEER) to his in-laws’ home, where, in true Arab custom, we were treated to a huge repast of fish, rice, salad, assorted condiments, and bread. Also in keeping with Arab mores, I noticed, the house was cool and comfortable, with immaculately clean interiors. Outside, on the street, it was a different matter. Down the block stretched small ridges of bottles, cans, rotting animal and vegetable matter, leading to a hillock of filth piled at the end of the road. Given the cleanliness of the house, the contrast was startling. Even more astonishing, people went about their business seemingly unconcerned with the trash laying about them slowly stewing in the sun.
It was the same across Basra–across Arab Iraq, in fact: spotless homes shielded by high concrete walls from the garbage that clotted the streets. (In Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk, the streets seemed cleaner; moreover, I saw several signs admonishing people not to litter, something unseen in the south.) The message conveyed by this environmental carelessness was clear: for average Iraqis, whatever happens beyond the borders of their personal property is not their concern.
You see symptoms of this “aggressive, broken mentality” everywhere in Iraq. For example, at the truck stop with Yahya, I noticed a vendor selling toys–dolls for girls, replica pistols, rifles and Kalashnikovs for boys. It’s a common sight: boys running around with alarmingly realistic plastic weaponry. I asked Yahya, given Iraq’s violent past, not to mention thousands of nervous and heavily-armed GIs currently stationed in the country, shouldn’t parents encourage their children to play with something else? “There aren’t any other kinds of toys or games,” he replied, shaking his head. “You must understand. Iraq is not a society. It is a huge army camp.”
The free, pleasant social institutions that bond people together and form the sinews of citizenship–clubs, associations, neighborhood groups–are missing from this country. Few recreational outlets exist. Americans may bowl alone, but Iraqis don’t even have bowling alleys. One mother expressed relief to me that a new form of entertainment recently became available for children: video game “cafés.” But while these games may absorb the surplus energy of children, they are hardly instruments to teach young ones teamwork, fair play, and mutual respect, let alone the non-violent resolution of problems.
On the roads, Iraqis transform driving into near-gladiatorial contest of displaced aggression. Motorists refrain from using headlights until long after dark, and when they do, often flash their high beams in the eyes of oncoming drivers, who naturally retaliate, assuring mutual blindness.
The aggressiveness and carelessness of Iraqi drivers is legendary, and it accounts for many cases of wrongful death at the hands of American soldiers who have no other choice. But if/when we try to enforce reasonable traffic laws, build bowling alleys, remove trash on a regular basis, and set up neighborhood groups of some kind, we’re sure to hear all about the sad “Americanization” of a glorious culture. The fact is that all cultures could stand a great deal of improvement. Iraq, whose culture has been in many ways suppressed for quite some time now, probably needs as much help as anyone.
One needs to look no further than the issue of women’s rights to see an example of outdated thinking in Iraq. There’s no question that women in America have it rough in spots, but as I pointed out earlier, the future of Iraq as a functioning nation and society may hinge upon women and how they fit into Iraqi life.
In teahouses, art galleries, restaurants–I’d add movie theaters, but no one goes to cinemas anymore, since they’re overrun with deviants, thieves, and other unwholesome types–middle-aged men predominated. Women were on the streets, of course, running errands and rushing to and from work, but they carried themselves in a grim and harried manner, as if anxious to return home. And no one went out after dark.
The condition of women becomes doubly intolerable when you consider the centrality of gender equality in the war against Islamofascism. It seems blindingly obvious: if Iraq emerges from its current agonies as a functioning democracy, the free world–I use the term without irony–will achieve an enormous victory against its totalitarian adversaries. But in the twenty-first century, democracy is unthinkable without the emancipation of women. As Dr. Mastaq put it, “Women are Iraq’s most underdeveloped resource. If Iraq is to create a new society, women must be equal partners with men.”
Thus is the moral imperative of women’s rights linked with the security of the United States…
And then there’s this, a symptom of the oppression of Iraqi women that had never occurred to me:
Women aren’t the only ones who suffer from the misogyny of Iraqi-Arab-Muslim culture. What is usually overlooked is the impact this has on Iraqi men–especially younger men–who admire the freedoms and ease of interaction they see between the sexes in the West. To put it simply, the barriers between men and women constrict the male spirit almost as completely and effectively as they do the female. My Iraqi friends didn’t talk much about this, preferring to maintain a kind of insouciant bravado, as if women didn’t really matter, and I couldn’t bring myself to raise the topic. But you could feel the loneliness and sexual frustration envelop and batter their spirits as mercilessly as the summer sun of Baghdad. “When someone from the West talks about his interactions with women,” one confessed to me, “it’s like he’s describing color to someone who lives his life in black and white.”
It wasn’t just that none of them had girlfriends, wives, or women friends. (Men profess to value women’s company so little in Iraq that platonic relations seem unwanted, if nearly impossible–besides, as the Prophet once stated, “If a man and a woman are alone in one place, the third person present is the Devil” and “Never will a people know success if they confide their affairs to a woman”) No, it was also the plethora of titillation that poured into this nominally Muslim country.
If Iraq were Puritan New England in the 1600s, perhaps men would be generally free of this paradox. They’d still burn witches, of course, and it would be astoundingly unfair to the women. But the men might not suffer the ill-effect of this arrangement so badly, and they might not be crushed and twisted and inspired and humiliated (all simultaneously) if the outside world didn’t intrude. But it does, and don’t tell me that these conflicting feelings sometimes don’t lead young men to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. We all know that women cause men to act irrationally in the best of times. And 2005 Iraq is not the best of times.
More serious is the contention that women’s second-tier status is too deeply ingrained in Middle Eastern cultures. Statistics support this claim: a Gallup poll taken in September of 2003 revealed that 72 percent of Baghdad males and 67 percent of the females believe that women “should follow more traditional/conservative roles than they did before the invasion.” Given this regressive desire, isn’t it folly to think that feminism will sprout amidst such stony soil–and dangerously counterproductive to force the issue?
I imagine people said the same before Lincoln forced the issue of the Confederacy’s “tradition” of owning human beings. Besides, cultures frequently exhibit self-reflective transformation: witness the former militarized countries of Japan and Germany. In the U.S., attitudes toward race, the environment, and smoking changed completely in one generation.
But the real reason women’s rights will take hold in the Middle East is because it has to. The patriarchal culture of that region is so irrational, so debilitating, so self-destructive–and so morally objectionable–that one senses it is no longer politically or historically sustainable. When even Saudi Arabia is contemplating offering physical education classes to girls, change is in the wind.
Call it my Damascene–or rather, Baghdadi–conversion to feminism. But it seems increasingly clear that women are the Achilles heel of Islamic states. More than military force, economic sanctions, and homeland security, gender equality is one of the most–if not the most–potent weapons against the social factors that breed terrorism. If we unite the progressive forces of both the left and the right around this issue, we may yet see the veil of theocratic despotism lift from Damascus to Riyadh, and beyond.
While I don’t dispute Vincent’s claims for one second, I must admit that I don’t share his optimism. At least not to the level he seems to hold. I fear that this is one of those “core values” discussed earlier and that attempts to alter it will result in catastrophe. This is a change that is going to have to come from within, and it will take far longer than I wish it would.
As we near the end of the book, and Vincent nears the end of his trip to Iraq, we encounter this:
We stop to drop Hassan off at a street corner near his home. Collecting his luggage, he pauses by my window. “When you write about this,” he says in Arabic, Sabah translating, “mention to your readers that it’s the small details that do the most to undermine Iraqi faith in the Coalition.” He pauses, giving me a hard stare. “We’re all grateful for liberation, you understand, but how long can we remain grateful under conditions like these?” I shake his hand, tell him I’ll do my best, and we drive off.
“Don’t listen to him,” Sabah whispers, seemingly forgetting what he has just told me. “All they know how to do is complain.”
But that’s not right, either. There is a basis for legitimate complaint from the Iraqis, Arabs as well as Kurds. Liberation has brought these people freedom from tyranny, but at a cost, the merest measure of which is increasing stress on the ties and connections that hold their lives together. This was the promise that America didn’t articulate, I suddenly realize that our tanks and guns and ideas of democracy would twist their way of life to the breaking point, that the little things they took for granted–ease of transportation, safety, a general predictability of conditions–would be shattered, in many cases beyond recognition.
Worse–and here’s the thought, the secret, that really troubles me–even this tumultuous destruction may be not enough. The pressure on Iraqi society must go deeper, to its very roots. If the tribal, religious, and ethnic matrix remains untouched by American power (and it surely does not want to be touched), if only the secular bourgeois lives of people like Sabah and Hassan (and Esam and Rand and Naseer and Dr. Mashtaq) are rent asunder by our power, then we will have failed. How then can we maintain what good will we still enjoy from the Iraqi middle class? If we only split the nation into sectarian congeries, eternally at war, how have we differed from the terrorists? The sheikhs and imams, those who traffic in religious and ethnic obscurantism, must experience the plow of democracy churning up their fields as well, or the invasion, liberation, and reconstruction of Iraq will be for nothing.
This is the conundrum. We want to free Iraq. We want to rebuild Iraq. We want Iraq to thrive and her people to prosper. We believe that if this comes to pass that Iraq will be a valuable member of the world community and that a battle against the foes of civilization will have been won. Not only that, but an example, a beacon in the storm, will have been lit for others to follow who would.
But many forces in Iraq, most of them “core beliefs”, oppose what we want to do, what we want to help the Iraqi people do. It’s not just the powers of medieval Islam fanaticism, either, but the tribal bonds and simple cultural traditions that run counter to our purpose. These must be approached with great care, and we need to be sure to be showing them the way rather than forcing them down it, even as our tanks and planes battle those that would destroy us.
And as Vincent left Iraq:
Nour was noticeably subdued when two British press officers finally pulled up in a civilian car. “Sorry about the delay,” said a tall, handsome captain wearing a beret and neatly-pressed desert camo. “But when you said you were coming, we thought you were flying in like all the other journalists. We weren’t prepared for someone who actually lives in Basra and drives to the airport.”
“Makes you wonder about Western reporters, doesn’t it?” I said to Nour. She avoided my eyes and didn’t answer.
The officers drove us into the airport and escorted us to the main terminal. Here, in a waiting lounge turned into an impromptu briefing center, a portly, avuncular major spent about forty-five min