I eat food, realize I’m a colonialist and learn what sex means to iraqis.
I feel like I don’t have a lot to write today. I’m particularly exhausted. I had a very early briefing from the US Treasury department people in charge of rebuilding Iraq’s banking system. Nothing like getting up after 4 hours sleep for a talk on banking. Yay. I actually met the guys yesterday when I crashed one of their meetings. To prepare for the meeting, I read all these articles about how the Bush administration plans to transform the Iraqi economy from a socialist to a capitalist economy. All these huge plans. I heard the treasury guys were meeting with the Iraqis at a certain place at 2. I showed up a bit early, waited a little while and then the Americans showed up. Two old white guys and one younger yuppyish guy. They wore full US military protective gear and were surrounded by armed soldiers as they walked in to this house where the Iraqi bankers hang out. I just walked in with the Americans and nobody asked who I was or what I was doing, so I got to go in to the conference room and sit right next to them. It’s this big conference table and at it were all these leading Iraqis from the Finance ministry and Central Bank and the chairmen of the leading banks of Iraq. You keep hearing that the restructuring of Iraq is an Iraqi-led process, the Americans are serving as advisors. But watching these Americans walk in and just take control of the meeting, it was so obvious that they are completely in charge and the Iraqis are supposed to just do what they’re told. The younger guy chaired the meeting and was somewhat politely ordering the Iraqis around. He set the agenda for the meeting and then told them all to hand in what he asked them for: budgets for their departments. Each of the men around the table handed over a one page hand-written sheet. I found it shocking that the budget for the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry or the leading private bank of Iraq fits on one sheet of paper. Can you imagine the budget of the US Central Bank. It’s probably 50,000 pages. I’m sure they used to have bigger budgets, but it was funny. You hear about all these big plans for the Iraqi economy, but all they are dealing with now is getting employees paid (the US promises each civil servant will get $20) and getting their building’s fixed. It makes sense. Those would be the first steps. And the country’s economy is in such shambles it seems ridiculous to think it could be transformed this early. But it’s still strange reading these articles about the huge goals for Iraq and seeing how humble the action on the ground actually is. It’s also so clear this is an American-run show no matter what people say. After a few minutes, this TV crew from Abu Dhabi TV showed up and started filming and then a couple friends of mine came in with reporter’s pads, so the gig was up and all the reporters were kicked out and told we could have a briefing the next day. So, with no sleep, I went to the Republican Palace, where the US reconstruction team is based and listened to the same guys–who certainly seem nice enough’talk about how this is an Iraqi-led process and it’s up to the Iraqis what they want to do with their country. I asked if they’re doing anything to turn it into a capitalist economy and they said that’s up to a new Iraqi government to decide. Yeah, right. I’m sure the new Iraqi government is free to do whatever they want: become Islamic, become communist. The Americans are just here to help you be you.
Then I went to my driver’s (yes, I have a driver and a translator and feel very colonial) house for lunch. This has been a big plan all week and it obviously was a big deal for them. Like every Arab lunch I’ve been to, the women prepare the meal in the back and you never see them, and then the men sit down and eat. (Not entirely true, more westernized, wealthier Arabs eat pretty much like we do, women and men sitting at the table, even drinking wine or beer.) We sit down on the floor, on a big beautiful rug, like every Iraqi has, and eat with our hands. It was kind of awkward and boring. They had no questions for me at all. My driver put on music videos on video CDs. These are very popular here and they’re a strange mix of just regular music videos from MTV, Arab music videos, and then some of them were just popular American songs while the video was scenes from violent American movies. I mean, they’d play some Michael Jackson song and have that scene from the Matrix where Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss go into the building and shoot all the security guards. Or there was some other soft love song and the video is from some crappy sci-fi film where all these people get cut up into pieces by lasers and their bodies fall apart in front of you. Very odd. My driver, who is this totally typical macho Arab guy (very nice) is always playing Madonna and Michael Jackson in the car. His favorite. My translator, also a typical macho Arab guy, is obsessed with Mariah Carrey. Anyway, lunch was great. Typical Iraqi food: lots of vegetables stuffed with rice, great chicken. Lots of side dishes: yogurt and cheese and salad. There was Masguf, the favorite Iraqi fish, which I found so fishy and salty and inedible. But everything else was great. I’m off my only-eating-MREs kick. I’m eating local food all the time and enjoying it very much and never getting sick. Knock on wood. My driver’s dad was the coach of the Iraqi Olympic Wrestling team, but he said it paid so badly that he quit and got a job paving roads. He never got to go to the Olympics. I don’t really have anything to back up what I want to write, but it feels like Iraqis have really had the life beaten out of them by Saddam. There is just a lot less curiosity, a lot fewer questions, a lot less liveliness here than in other Arab countries. People are amazingly interesting when I draw them out. They all have great stories. But there is a deadness to Iraqis that I see everywhere. I mean, they’re very energetic and entrepreneurial. They’re not slow and depressed or anything, in general. They go about their business and their lives. But there is such limited conversation, such dull conversation most of the time. I guess it’s the decades of Saddam combined with the horrible situation now where everyone is just worrying about having enough food this week to eat or worrying that looters will attack them or their house. Also, everyone at lunch seemed really nervous. I thought it was because I’m American or something. But then I realized that I have become the lifeblood of this family. My driver is the only one in the entire extended family who is working. Before he met me, he was driving a cab and some days making $10. I’m paying him $35 a day and often give him extra. With that he supports his mom and dad, wife, kid, three sisters, a brother-in-law, who knows how many nieces and nephews. Jesus. It is a very odd feeling to suddenly realize this. I mean, when I travel to people’s houses in other countries, I feel like I can just be a sort of observer. Just a nice guy from the US who wants to know how they live their lives. Then, boom, I realize I’m this colonial lord or something. It feels good and bad. It feels good that I’m making their life better. It feels lousy that everything is so awkward. I don’t understand the rules, but somehow, after lunch, the women started coming in to the living room. They came one at a time, like five or ten minutes apart. Maybe they were finishing up their work in the kitchen and coming out when they were done. Or maybe there’s some rule that women can only come out at certain intervals. I don’t understand it. My driver’s wife is young and quite pretty and dynamic and is the only one in the family who speaks English well. She’s so clearly smart and strong and it felt absurd that she had to be in the kitchen most of the afternoon and that she almost never leaves the house and just stays there raising her 17-month-old kid and waiting to have eight more. After lunch, my driver put on a documentary in English (with Arabic subtitles) about Saddam. It was a really brutal documentary that laid out how horrible Saddam and his family are. Everyone was watching it like it was just a thing on TV. Blank faces. Sometimes laughing. I don’t know, I wanted more. Tears? Anger? Some reaction. Afterwards, I asked my translator if seeing Saddam now made him miss the old guy. He said it does. He misses Saddam. Saddam could be charming and funny and he’s a real Iraqi. But then he thinks of all the horrible things Saddam has done and he’s glad he’s gone.
I’ve been having this on-going conversation with my translator about sexual politics. He has a fiance and a girlfriend. To get married, he has to have enough money to build a house or an addition to his parents’ house (that costs about $1500) and he has to have enough to show her parents that he can take care of her and give her money if they get divorced (another $1000 to $1500). He’s been saving for years for his marriage and he has $500. I told him that I’d make sure that before I leave Iraq he has enough to get married. I asked him what the deal is with having a fiance and a girlfriend. He said that his girlfriend is just for fooling around with. (I switched hotels today, but kept my old room for an extra day so he could bring his girlfriend there). I asked what he does when he fools around. Do they have sex? No. Is it true what I heard, that Iraqi girls have anal sex but not vaginal sex so they can be virgins? No. He doesn’t have anal sex. Oral? No. What do you do? I play with her boobs. (That’s a direct quote). It’s so hard to get time alone with her that he can only see her for an hour or so every few weeks. He’s never been alone with his fiance, there’s always lots of family around. And he would never think of even kissing her before they get married, let alone play with her boobs. He’s 30, never had sex, doesn’t know any unmarried people who have had sex. I said I’m sure lots of young people are having sex. Probably, he says, but he doesn’t know them. He says that women are very fragile, delicate creatures and they must be protected. I asked if he wants to have sex. He said of course he does, but if he had sex with a woman he would find the whole thing disgusting, the woman disgusting, it would be awful. For days I’ve been trying to explain that it’s good that we in America have sex before marriage. That women of my generation feel empowered (at least sometimes) by choosing to have sex. But it never comes out right, somehow. I always just confirm his view of things. I even went in to this long explanation of the changes in sexual politics since the 1960s. I went on and on, and he kept agreeing with me that women are weak and must be protected. I was not saying that. I was saying the very opposite, but it went nowhere. He said men must control women. I said that it’s OK if a couple makes decisions together. He said, yes, it’s sometimes nice to ask the woman’s opinion. But the man must decide everything. I’ve heard from so many people that this is all bullshit. That in most Arab families, the women run the show, but the men act all bossy around guests to prove they’re real men. I told him that I hate how in Baghdad there are so few women in public. You almost never see women walking on the street or in restaurants. He said it’s not true. Women are everywhere. I keep pointing out to him on a street or in a restaurant that there are no women here. It’s all men. He keeps saying, no there are many women. (There are never any women). You do see women occasionally. But I’d say 95% of the people you see out in public are men.
I’ve been meaning to write that sometimes I feel like everything I write is full of shit. I mean, it’s honest, as far as I can tell, and true to what I see. But this place is so overwhelming and confusing and so much is going on and I really don’t know the big picture. Maybe this is obvious.
I like my new hotel. It’s actually somewhat clean and functional. I have a suite with a nice living room. I have my data sat phone back, so I’m not begging from friends all the time. Life is good. It makes me realize how stressful it was having a dirty, crappy room in a horrible hotel. When it seemed like the only option, I didn’t think about it. Also, it was the only hotel surrounded by massive US forces. But the army is pulling out and the hotel is so disgusting, I’m so happy to have left. This place would be definitely third rate in the US. But it’s deluxe living here. I’m even going to leave for Amman for a long weekend to get some supplies and money and to sleep and relax and float in the dead sea. I’m so excited. It’s still amazing being here, but it’s too damn much, sometimes. Last night at this ABC TV party, I was talking to a reporter everyone calls robo-hack. He’s a really good guy, but so serious. When the Israelis were getting ready to invade Arafat’s compound, he slept on the ground next to the tanks, so he’d be the first one up when it happened. He’s always gung-ho. And when he told me he’s overwhelmed and exhausted and is taking a couple day’s off, I realized I could give myself a break. I’m taking tomorrow off.