Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Arab Music

During my daily dealings with the Iraqi Army, we spend quality time watching TV. TV, especially satellite TV, is something of a miracle for the Iraqis, as Saddam forbade all satellite dishes. Before 2003, Iraqis could only watch government TV channels.

Back in 2002, an Iraqi took his broken TV to a repair man. The repair man wanted 200 dollars to fix it. That’s way too much. Iraqi went to a second repairman. 150 dollars, no way! But the third repairman wanted five dollars. Five dollars? Why so little. The repairman said he’d put a picture of Saddam on the screen, it would be the same as fixing the TV…That story is much funnier in Arabic.

We always watch Arabic music channels. Arabic music is monotonous. Every single song sounds exactly the same, and they’re always disgustingly sweet poetic love songs, like diabetic Backstreet Boys. Here’s the first thing that pops out about the singers, they’re not that good looking. In America, only rock stars can be ugly. Troglodyte Pop singers on American Idle? Hell no! Some of these Arab music stars would make babies cry.

So, every song just warbles along while the singer stares at his love interest, but they never actually touch. Some songs feature dancing. Groups of men and women will dance in circles, but never together. Every so often the women whip out knives, maybe that’s why the men won’t dance with them. Arab morality is at play here. In traditional Arab society, men and women of different families never mingle before marriage. Isn’t that ironic? All these songs about love, but no one meets their spouse until the day they’re married. I’ve never been married, but by all accounts the romance stops after the honeymoon.

The root of all this irony is virginity. Arab women are supposed to be virgins when married. When I admit to my Iraqi partners that American brides are typically not virgins, they’re stunned into silence. So, in Arab society women and men are never supposed to mingle, which definitely stops them from having sex. Those giant black table clothes the women wear? Keeps men from seeing their curvy bits.

Historically, an Iraqi couple gets married and promptly retires to a private location for consummation purposes. The man will put a white sheet on the bed to, um…collect proof that his bride was a virgin when they got married. He will proudly display this sheet outside of his house to let everyone know that his wife was a virgin, and the wife’s parents take great pride in this proof. I’m not making this up! Positively barbaric, and I guarantee it still happens today in more rural areas.

Where was I…music! So, I’ve tried to show some of our interpreters proper Western music videos through the magic of YouTube. It went something like this:
Me: This is a very famous band called Disturbed, watch this video called “Inside the Fire.”

Ali (terp): That girl…she’s dead? What is this song about?

Me: Suicide and selling your soul to the devil to be with the one you loved.

Ali: They’re just screaming at each other.

Me: That’s the melody.

Ali: That girl is practically naked!

Me: You’re damned right.

Ali: What’re they saying?

Me: I’m not really sure…Where are you going?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Heat

I don’t know how to explain how hot Iraq is. There is just no equivalent that I’ve ever experienced in the United States. I’ve lived in Arizona and El Paso, Texas, so the desert is nothing new for me.

The temperature skyrockets from 90 to 125 every morning around 9 A.M. We spend the rest of the day avoiding sunlight and un-conditioned air. Riding around in humvees, walking, breathing and thinking are all undesirable activities in the Iraqi heat. The temperature will dip at night into the high 80s if we’re lucky.

Leaving any place air conditioned is a hard decision. Do I really have to go to the bathroom? The port-a-potties are stinky saunas. Nothing like doing one’s business in a cloud of poop steam and melting plastic walls.

The Iraqis deal with the heat in a truly Iraqi fashion. They do nothing. As if they ever need an excuse to do nothing. The heat hits and they just sit around in the shade, talking amongst them selves. They never sweat, which weirds me out. You’d figure that after thousands of years living next door to hell people would emigrate to cooler lands. The only people working during the day are Americans. We just can’t sit around for hours on end while there’s perfectly good brain boiling daylight!

Sandstorms are the only natural relief from the heat. A blanket of sand blocks out much of the sunlight, and keeps temperatures low. It is unusual to walk outside and the world has a Tatooine-like tan tinge to it. The downside is that the dust will clog air conditioners and cover everything with a fine layer or dirt.

Bad climate is the real reason countries establish empires. Ever been to England? Cold wet and miserable. It’s the ‘Blighted Isle’ for a reason. So what to the English people do? They run around, settle North America, conquer every tropical island and costal vacation spot they can. Going native in India sure beats sitting in freezing fog and eating Sheppard’s Pie.

We drink a lot of water. One of the best treats a Soldier can have is a frozen water bottle. Take out a liter of bottled ice and carry it around. After awhile, it’ll turn to slush, which is just what the doctor ordered when the sun is three inches from your face. The hard part is keeping the Iraqi workers away from the cold drinks. Iraqis will never bring their own water to anything. So, the workers do an hour or so of work when they first show up, spend the next six hours guzzling Gatorade, then work for another hour in the early evening. Ever wonder why this war costs 12 billion USD a month? Gatorade for the Iraqis.

Constantly oozing sweat is takes a toll on clothing. We don’t have ready access to washers and dryers, so we try to get as much wear out of a uniform as we can before sending it off to the cleaners. If a uniform has salt deposits from evaporated sweat, then it is time for that uniform to get washed.

If you want to replicate the Soldier’s experience in an Iraqi summer, I suggest you:
Turn a hair dryer up to eleven and hold it about three inches from your face…24/7.
Strap 60 pounds of metal to your body and do jumping jacks in a sauna for ten minutes. Rest for 2 minutes. Repeat.
Throw a blanket in the oven until it’s nice and scalding, then wrap that around your body.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

4th of July

Ah, the 4th of July. Back in the States everyone can celebrate with BBQ, fireworks and cold tasty beer.

We decorated our meager mess hall with a few patriotic plastic tablecloths and set up our own BBQ. If Bobby Flay could see it, his head would explode. Our lone cook started grilling chicken, steak…things and hot dogs early in the morning. The smell of carcinogens and evaporated beef fat teased me throughout the day.

In an effort to increase rapport with the Iraqi Army, we invited some of the senior officers over for dinner. It’s very rare that we ever get the Iraqis over to eat. They won’t eat food prepared by the Hindu Indian chefs at the larger mess halls (they’re an impure people according to the Koran) and out at the more austere patrol bases, the food is just terrible.

At my lovely patrol base, we rarely cook anything. Everything is pre-cooked in the States, vacuum sealed and shipped over to Iraq. Then we reheat and enjoy. TV dinners for dozens of people, Yum-o!

Iraqi fare is pretty fresh. Sometimes the goat is still alive when we show up for dinner. But, Iraqi food looks like road kill.

I’ve been eating Iraqi food for the entire deployment, so I’m pretty much immune to whatever evil spirits lurk in the kabobs and eggplant wraps. I took two of my soldiers to eat with our Iraqi counterparts, and they weren’t so lucky. They spent the next three days sweating to death, and puking all over the place. Me? Just fine. They’re a little gun shy about eating anything that has an expiration date before 2015.

So, what does inviting the Iraqis over for dinner mean for me? Sweet revenge! Now the Iraqis can ponder and smile politely as they eat our reheated-beef-substance. Ha ha! Keep me in Iraqi for 15 months will you? Enjoy some of that rubber chicken with BBQ sauce from the lowest bidder! The best part of any American meal is that we don’t need antibiotics as the dessert course.

The Iraqis were terrified by our 4th of July feast. They gently poked at the steak and picked at the chicken. They didn’t know what the corn on the cob was. Maybe if I said it was goat penis they would have tried it.

I tried to fool myself into having a good time with a near-beer. Beer with no alcohol, who came up with this idea? No one drinks beer for the taste! I told the Iraqis about the 4th of July in the States, why we celebrate, etc. The Iraqis had a period of English occupation that ended in the 1920s, so they could empathize a little bit.

No fireworks! Random explosions around people with guns is never a good idea. Iraq has forever ruined fireworks for me. The Iraqis celebrate by firing off the family AK-47 in the back yard, that may catch on in the States after recent Supreme Court rulings.