Monday, December 19, 2005


Cultural Differences and Respect

How can chewing gum be lethal?

There is no shortage of cultural traits and behaviors Iraqi people have which give cause to despise these people. I can list hundreds of such traits. This essay is not about that; it is a view from the other side.

These little glimpses depict some of the cultural differences that led to enormous consequences following the American invasion of Iraq. Different people simply react differently to similar stimuli. What can only be seen as perfectly normal actions in one culture can convey unintended images to another. In many instances, society expects a certain mode of behavior.


It was a short video clip on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005. There was a ceremony where the US army was handing over Saddam’s palace in Tikrit to the Iraqi authorities. The American Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad was present, in addition to other dignitaries, Iraqi and American.

There was a thud. The place was targeted by a mortar shell that didn’t explode. The clip showed a small glimpse of the chaos that followed: Men in expensive suits hiding themselves behind chairs; Men in army uniforms, some started to run, some crouched, and some moved rapidly to protect their superiors and their charge. One soldier threw himself to the ground, face down.

But, for a few seconds I noticed a group of four Iraqis in traditional Arab dress who remained sanding quietly. I thought that was fascinating! I am almost certain I saw one of them smiling! Weren’t those people afraid? Of course they were… but they couldn’t show it.

This brought to memory a tribal sheikh I knew who used to take his only son with him to the weekly tribal gathering - a routine assembly where tribal kin met and discussed things of common interest and solved some of the conflicts that needed addressing. For most part of a day, that young teenager had to endure long sessions of what must have been boring proceedings and discussions. If the boy as much as turned his head quickly following a sudden noise such as a slamming door or a shattered glass of water, that man, would scold the boy on the way back home. Sudden, undignified movements like those were simply unacceptable for a future tribal chief. Perhaps this example is a somewhat extreme, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make.

It also reminded me of a news conference given by Saddam’s Minister of Defense, Sultan H. Ahmed shortly before the fall of Baghdad. The man was sitting at a table; behind him was a curtain or a tent wall. Those who saw that briefing may remember it for something else: This man said that he expected the American army to reach Baghdad within five days at the same time when the infamous Information Minister, Sahhaf, was declaring victory. During the interview, there were several very loud blasts; the curtain shook. The man, either when listening or while talking, did not even blink an eye!

In much of tribal Iraq, which includes about half of all Iraqis, people in positions of leadership or authority are expected to remain calm and collected at all times, including times of crises. Posture is of utmost importance. This of course is not unique to Iraqis.


One of the major impressions that killed the halo of invincibility of the US army in Iraq was the perfectly normal reaction of crouching or running for cover when under attack. Time and again, I heard things like “they are not men; they panic”. This of course does not refer to the absolutely unforgivable act of spraying bystanders with bullets when, and sometimes after, being attacked. In a country so used to bangs and bombs going off (that frequently children take off to the street to watch planes sending missiles and bombs) such an action may be seen as ‘unbecoming’ to say the least!

The other “image killer” was soldiers with hands on triggers with guns pointing at people. Those postures were dictated by the need for readiness; however, they conveyed an image of fear, aggression and disregard, which most people found offensive.

It is probably perfectly normal for an adult American to be seen chewing gum in public. In traditional Iraqi society, the act of chewing a gum is reserved to women, but never in public. Country folk utterly despise city boys when they see them chewing gum. They regard it as feminine. Even little children are discouraged from doing it. The sight of grown, armed men chewing gum must have been one of the causes of many people losing their respect for those armed men! It simply conveys an unintentionally ‘undesirable’ image!

This also reminds me of a young US soldier manning the Iraqi side of the Iraqi-Jordanian border. He glanced at our passports with a lollypop in his mouth. I couldn’t help but notice the reaction on the taxi driver’s face: Utter contempt!

I really cannot blame those American boys for doing some things that are completely natural and normal. There was no way that they could have known that those little normal acts could be misinterpreted by others. But here I am talking about how perfectly normal actions can be seen from across the cultural divide. I cannot address the rights and wrongs of this. People’s cultures are different; we may see some of their attitudes as wrong or detestable, but that view will not change those attitudes, especially if they hold to them in their own environment and in their own country.

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