Virginia, May 4 By Sam
“Are Americans friendly people?” a question that has to pop out in almost every conversation I have with my non- American friends who live overseas and one that I usually twitch my face and joke about because I don’t really have the answer!
I often try to explain that like the rest of the world there is the good, the bad, and the ugly and just because they are Americans that does make them different from the rest of us. It’s like asking are Iraqis friendly? You just cannot generalize this kind of concept.
The curiosity my friends have comes from the fact that they are torn between what they used to see in streets and what they see on television; the tough, invulnerable soldier or the fictional dim-witted TV character of Joey Tribbiani who everyone in Baghdad fell in love with!
There are definitely cultural differences in the concept of friendliness and friendship that many Iraqis would never fully grasp until they live here. I cannot remember how many times I heard my dad, a U.S university graduate, telling me about his three year roommate Jerry who did not “bother to say goodbye” to him on his last day before he returned to Iraq! Of course every time he told the story it sounded little bit different from the previous time but that does not matter! What matters is that I never understood why he was so hurt until I experienced something similar myself.
Another story I heard was from a non- American friend of mine living in the states was about her neighbor who hardly exchanged a word with her for five years aside from the customary American head nod of “hey” or the dutifully polite greeting of “have a nice day”. It was absolutely shocking to my friend to see that same neighbor sobbing in tears when she learned that my friend was moving out.
Iraqis, like the rest of the Arabs, are so emotional, and in some way possessive in their friendships. To us, sharing a room or breaking bread with someone qualifies that relationship as a friendship. A roadside conversation between two could start with a simple question like “how are you” and is usually followed by a marathon of back and forth responses, thanking God for good health, asking about the kids, the job, who died, who got married and tons of whys and hows and ifs! It may go on like that for some long long minutes until finally one of the two gets tired and drops the bomb; “We really need to catch up, what do you say we meet up tonight?” REALLY!!!
To sum it up I would say that Americans are definitely friendly people BUT they value their privacy a LOT. They want people to “stay off their backs”, “stay out of their way,” “give them their space,” and “mind their own business.”
Since their childhood, Americans are taught to see themselves as individuals responsible for their own destiny, not as a member of any group. While we as Iraqis, or Arabs, are raised up to be part of a support system where the family and the friends are supposedly the ones who get you through the horrible times. What no one tells you though is that this same support system is often the one that gets you in trouble, if you know what I mean!!
Virginia, April 26 2012 by Sam
One of things that used to drive me crazy about Americans is their obsession with list making. Whether they do it because it keeps them from procrastinating or just for the sake of fun, the majority of the Americans, at least the ones I know, seem to be in a mission to either make a list or to make it to someone else’s list !
I’m not quite sure what triggers the obsession but whether it’s their good-hearted competitive nature or their sense of humor, list making seems to be part of their habitual attitude. There is the honey-do list, bucket list, New Year’s resolution list, chores list, things I love list, things I hate list, etc. Tons of books have been written about them, mainstream magazines feature them, entire websites are devoted to them, and even museums have exhibits of them!
I worked with many Americans back in Iraq but I really did not get to realize how this habitual pattern is embedded in every American’s personality until I started living here. My first encounter with this listmania was during my three-month stay with an American host family in North Carolina. Sitting on their porch, Tex and Terry would start writing their to-do lists over their morning coffee. This morning list which starts off with 4-5 things often spread its seeds to more lists like grocery list, DVDs to rent list, medical appointment list, and grandkids’ gift list!.
I used to gaze at all the sticky notes Terry had on the side of her computer monitor, thinking when she is going to check all these things off her lists! I later realized that these to-do lists are probably “the kick in the butt” that someone like me needs to get things done!
It would be quite silly to let this subject pass without me reminiscing on how Iraqis get things done! While Americans see those to-do lists as a tool to take action or as some list extremists like to describe them; “a way to control the uncontrollable”, Iraqis have a totally different tool for getting things done!
In Iraq, our number one locally developed time organizer tool is called: “Inshallah”, a term that many Americans who served in Iraq became familiar with and I bet some of them might be using it. Everyone uses this expression from top officials to peasants! So what is inshallah? It is originally an Arabic word that translates into English as “By God willing”. So if you ask someone to do something and then he or she replied “inshallah” it should be like a promise to do ones best but only if God wills it, otherwise they won’t be able to deliver the promise.
However, this term of fatalism has been overly abused and transformed into a style of living that in most case implies one thing: The user has very little intention to actually perform the task or take action. So you see while Americans’ list making could in one way demonstrate their respect for time, the Iraqis, in contrast, use inshallah to push back doing things. It is actually the opposite of can-do. I guess this kind of passive attitude toward the future is heavily shaped by our religious beliefs and submission to God’s will.
In the same way that list making used to annoy me, there was this question that some American friends would often ask when I get back from my so called vacation; “What did you do during your vacation?” I was tempted in many times to say that I had the tremendous joy of testing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity!!! The truth is that until then my Iraqi understanding of a vacation was closer to the Italian concept for piddling around known as “La Dolce Far Niente”, the joy of doing nothing!
So whereas an American feels guilty if they did not do something during their vacation, Iraqis are ridiculously spontaneous about their vacations in that most of them usually spend them home watching television, or even worse go to work to meet up with co-workers!
Thankfully after five years in America, I can proudly say that I have managed to train slowly, but surely, the lazy fatalist inside me to cross off on some important tasks that I used to place on my inshallah calendar forever !
April 17, 2012 By Sam
Last week while driving back home after having a good time at a friend’s birthday party I caught myself thinking like a typical Iraqi again!
“Its almost midnight, everyone must be asleep by now and most importantly I don’t see any police patrol around so why should I abide by this stupid stop sign when there isn’t another car in sight?”
It only took me a fraction of second to peel back that thought as I started to think of all the all the violent driving accident ads I usually see all around the city. This crazy thought I had made me realize how engrained is this desire for orderliness among the average American and….. how different it is among the average Iraqi!
I know that some of you don’t think so highly of the American driving codes but if you ever had the chance to drive in a Middle Eastern country you will for sure change your mind.
Driving in Baghdad can be the worst since there is always the possibility of running over a IED, but trust me you are not safer if you were to drive in Cairo, or Beirut or even Dubai which many people mistakenly think that its local drivers are more civilized than in the rest of the region.
To give you some idea, I’m listing some of the driving traits that people in in Iraq and other parts of the Arab region consider as driving codes:
A policeman may pull you over for no reason. Relax, you didn’t do anything wrong! This is just his way of borrowing some money. And if you did something wrong, don’t panic either! There’s nothing that money can’t buy, just remember: bargaining is a style of living.
Turning turn left from the left lane is absolutely a myth just like the using a seat belt or signaling.
You’re not a classy driver if you don’t play loud music, wear a fancy pair of sunglasses, and smoke a cigarette!
Don’t take it too personally if someone gives you the forefinger or yells at you! Among a number of hand gestures Iraqis use is one used by angry drivers quite often, and which many westerners mistakenly think of as the Iraqi high five. When Iraqis slap both their palms together with a satisfying clap before they push them quickly in your direction that can only mean one thing: “GO TO HELL”
When you reach an intersection do not, under any circumstances, stop, regardless of what the stupid signs read. Blink your lights or even better; blow your horn to claim the right to go first. Likewise, if hear someone honking; don’t shy away from honking back.
Speaking on honking, mass honking is very common. It could be a wedding entourage, or soccer fans celebrating the national teams wining a match. In Iraq, these two occasions can also be accompanied by mass bullet firing!
Most of the time, traffic lights are broken or don’t work; either because of power outage or because the city really don’t see a point of fixing them..
Pedestrians or bicyclists come last in any driver’s priority list. If you are one of them you will most likely spend your time huddled on the sidewalk, afraid to cross the road.
One thing that you should never ever underestimate is the black sedan with tinted window.!! These are the ones driven by local officials and their families and nothing on this earth can save your neck if you thought of overpassing them, not even the White House!
I hope these few lines managed to convince you not to underestimate the orderliness built inside you just as much it convinced me when I first came to America that I need to learn driving all over again!
April 14 2012, By Sam
Growing up as a teen, I got hooked on American movies and television shows not only because they were the only way to know about America but also because they brought joy in times when reality was so bleak.
In those movies and television shows, Americans drove convertible cars, went to colleges they liked, had breakfast in Tiffany’s, ordered Chinese for dinner, received their bills in mail, paid for their shopping with credit cards, left their parents’ home at 18, had a date on the roof of the Empire State and got married in Vegas!!
I watched every American production the official Iraqi television aired from Dallas, to Remington Steele, Little House on the Prairie, Moonlighting and Friends. It did not matter how many times they aired these shows I would still watch them over and over again.
These shows seeped into my consciousness to such a deep level that I thought they were adaptations of what life must be like in America. Of course now I realize that some of these adaptations might have been far from reality, but I still love them anyway because they took me out of my small space and made think more of how it would be like to be part of a larger community such as America.
I still remember a conversation I once had with a British boss who asked me why I use the American accent not the British one. His question was valid taking in consideration that Iraq’s school system used to and still teaches the British English. I told him that while it’s true that Brits invented English, the Americans are the ones who made it famous! Actually its the American movies that made English much easier than all the textbooks we had in schools.
Up till the early 80s, the Iraqi movie theatres used to screen the latest American movies. Moviegoers, mostly middle-class families, had to see one during their Friday weekend. In the mid 1980s, Saddam’s Baath party started to see in those movies a threat to its nationalist-socialist system. The few American TV shows that the Iraqi television used to air started to be censored and some of them were even dropped after two episodes such as Dallas. As part of his schemes to cut off Iraqi people from the rest of the world, the regime closed down several movie theaters and made it hard for the rest to play American movies by placing high fees on those who wanted to import them.
Ironically, Saddam used the American movies to scare off people. At least twice a year, the Iraqi state television would play Francis Coppola’s The Godfather. It is widely known in Iraq, that Don Vito Corleone was the depiction of what Saddam used to be. The dictator’s propaganda machine did not even seek to deny it and many of Saddam’s close circle aides said that Corleone was his source of his inspiration. There’s also a rumor that the late dictator ordered copies of Black Hawk Down to his troops as a primer on how to defeat the Americans!
Going to a movie every weekend might be one of those many pastimes that most American take for granted, but for me it’s a joy I savor. I plan it carefully and I enjoy every detail of it, especially the popcorn!
After five years of living in the U.S I still cannot believe that I have finally stepped inside the American dream that I used to watch only in movies.