June 11, 2004

The Collaborators

The CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), and all the reconstruction that it generates here, wouldn't function without the help of the local Iraqis. They fill a variety of roles from food service to translators to associates at consulting firms to the members of new government that is taking over.

You notice that there are no pictures of the Iraqis that I work with on the website. Well, those that work with us, or for the new government, are generally considered to be collaborators. Iraqis that work with us are sometimes killed. Some of them don't come to work some days, or show up hours late, because they were being followed. One of our IT guy has a typical algorithm: he always takes two buses, or two cabs, or some combination of the two to get to and from work. That way it's not so obvious where he's going. If you call someone on their (company supplied) cell phone at night, and they are out with other people, and they have to speak English on the phone you could get them killed. I've called people who have jabbered Arabic at me for a while until they could get away from other people to talk to me (usually their car, I hear them drive in circles in the background while they talk).

First I assumed this was because they are working with the occupying power, but when I ask "well, this will bet better after June 30th, right?" every one of them has told me no. It seemed logical to me that, after June 30th, when an Iraqi government is in place, that it will be okay to work with an Iraqi government. Nope. Okay, so now I assumed that this was because the new government isn't viewed as legitimate. Nope, not that either.

It's because no one here trusts the government. Government in Iraq has for so long been an entity to be feared that working for the government is a short path to some potentially serious problems in the post liberation environment -- which is still a very chaotic and nearly lawless environment. Security is the object most desired by those I talk to, more than power, or water, or anything else.

None of them tell their friends where they work. Some tell their family, usually just their parents and not their siblings. One guy who works with us is from a town far away from Baghdad. Everyone at home, including every member of his family, thinks he is working in Amman. He goes home every month or two, drops off some money, tells them lies about Amman, and comes back to Baghdad to work.

I find talking with the locals extremely interesting, especially those in a socio-economic group parallel to mine. I recently met some very charming locals who are about my age etc. and I got a chance to ask about Iraqi culture (for a 30's something single). It used to be: go to dinner, go to the club, go to a friend's house for a party. Now it's stay home because it's not safe to go outside. Movies? Music? It was, at least, pretty much like America. In fact, American movies are very popular here. Titanic was such a hit that it was overplayed and there was a cultural backlash to it, just like in the US. They never heard of Kill Bill, so there's some selective censorship or at least filtering going on, but they're generally in the mainstream.

There is, not surprisingly, some visible anti-Semitism here. People are still suspicious of you if you've been to Israel. "I hate Israel" is a typical comment if it comes up. I try to portray a more balanced view of the US than a super power who, in between gulf wars, just sits around and funds Israel's conflict with the Arabs; I even once tried to explain some of the teachings of the great American Philosopher and Poet, Eric Cartman, (South Park reference) but I think they don't get it.

Our taxi driver likes to joke around about girls. But he has never heard of a thong before. I downloaded a picture for him last night; I think it will melt his brain. The guys joke about sex like in any culture; the women, even the most liberated ones, wouldn't consider making even a crack about it. It's still a very conservative culture that way.

An Iraqi man is allowed up to four wives. This is starting to sound pretty good, but it turns out that each wife typically wants her own house. I suggested that one big house, with one big bed, might be a better way to go. People tell me it would cause "discord". I guess I can see that, these things tend to obey the Pauli Exclusion Principal (the Physical law that states that two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time).

So maybe it's not as good as it sounds. Also, well educated Iraqis of any social standing only take one wife, with the possible exceptions of a man who's wife can't bear children, or a guy who is old and successful picks up a wife 30 years younger than him -- it's kind of like a trophy wife but you get to keep the first one too.

Anyway, the culture here is nothing short of fascinating. It's the same, yet completely different. Our IT guy was marveling at some of my technical gadgets and says, with open envy, "we don't have such things here". I said you will soon. He said "maybe ten years". I said "let's work hard together and do it in five". He said that it would take longer: "my people don't want to know about things on the outside".

Yeah, but, dude, you get four wives...

Posted by rick at June 11, 2004 11:05 PM