I went to the gym today. I didn’t lift any weights in three months so it was nice to be back. It is a 30-minute walk to the gym and walking feels a lot easier during daylight than at night.
The general facial expression is grim here. But I tried something out that I’d tried in Beirut before: I smiled at people. And guess what? Everybody smiled back. Even the most heavily armed soldiers smiled and waved. I find that amazing. I don’t think this strategy will work with Dutch bouncers.
Although my freedom is limited, I am fine. It is interesting how fast we adapt. When I got here I could see my mind racing through the options: “So I can’t go far but I can go to the gym and I have chicken, nuts, fruit and wifi. I’m set.” It is also interesting how fast we can transform a problem into a solution. I will get out of Iraq fitter than I came in.
There is something with masculine vanity and masculinity in general in the Middle East that I can’t really explain yet. No matter how poor the country or how much trouble they are going through, all the hair saloons are full. They are not stingy with their cologne either.
Being a macho is considered a virtue and being strong too (not necessarily lean). The guys in the gym made me take off my shirt and inspected my muscles as if it was the most common thing in the world. That I had to do a double bicep pose was completely self-evident. And you can probably see the shy and surprised look on my face. I didn’t want to be a party pooper but I wasn’t completely at ease either.
The next funny incident happened at the juice bar. I was told that you couldn’t look at women here. The husband will take it as an insult. But I have been checking out women for at least 25 years! It is very hard for me not to look.
It cracked me up. I find myself staring in my glass, trying to prevent my eyes from going on a subconscious tour. So I am sitting there by myself, laughing at my juice.
And I am appreciating the paradox: a man can’t look at women but the women, although they are wearing a veil, often wear very “loud” make up and relatively revealing clothes. I think they do it on purpose. Good for them.
There is the other side, as well. There are no Westerners on the street, and if they go outside the Green Zone they don’t go without armed bodyguards.
During the time of Saddam there were no foreigners in Iraq either. So the only foreigners Iraqi’s know are soldiers. They are very suspicious. As my friend and interpreter said with a soft voice: “People are afraid. The Americans, they got us good you know. They kill us.”
What could I say? His words send chills down my spine. There are 115.471 Iraqi civilians killed (and counting) because George Bush lied to the world about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction. This number is just the civilians.
Of course, many, many more Iraqi soldiers had to be killed, men who were fathers, sons and husbands too, but killing soldiers is completely justified. I mean, if you can’t kill foreign soldiers anymore, what is the fun of having an army? I feel ashamed to be from a country that condoned that.
How would it feel to live under a dictatorship and then have the most powerful country in the world come slaughter you? When America decides to liberate you from the dictator it used to support, you can be sure that no power in the world will be able to stop the killing. You are completely defenseless.
This happened during the preparation of the workshop. My interpreter Saif brought a friend, maybe because his friend speaks better English, maybe because his friend needed a job badly. (I hope the latter is true, by the way). To give them a taste of what I do I did a few exercises with them; very simple icebreakers I picked up from Diane Hamilton.
I come up with a sentence and the participants who sit in a circle must repeat the sentence and fill in the dots ‘from the heart’. They keep alternating turns until I change the sentence. The beauty is that you get to answer the same simple and personal question maybe five times, which allows deepening and bonding. An example would be: “something I learned today is…”. We did maybe 20 minutes of work. Saif’s friend told me that he’d never had such an open conversation in his whole life.
This remark brought me back home.
I might be completely incapable to take away the immense suffering that has been done by Saddam, the US and the (other) extremists but I can offer some very simple tools to help a small group of Iraqi people experience meaningful communication and help them remember their humanity. This gives me enough motivation to keep going.
Oh, and for the record: Iraqi’s love their children too. And they are just as adorable. I saw it with my own eyes today.
Editor: Andrea B.