Thebastidge: Conversational gambits
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    Friday, May 04, 2007

    Conversational gambits

    I think one of the more stultifying aspects of being here in Iraq, is that we all experience pretty much the same (lack of) events, day in and day out. That is, we experience them together.

    In normal life, your co-workers may have very similar experiences of home, family life, work, maybe stopping into the local watering hole for a beer after wrork, and re-hash the winning pass aginst the high school rivals lo so many years ago. That can be pretty boring. But imagine if everybody you worked with, lived right next door, or even in the same apartment building, and never traveled anywhere. It's kind of like Gilligan's island- the only interest is generated by occasional outside stimulus.

    We eat in the same chow hall, live in the same trailers, and see the same (few!)people every day. Anything that happens to me, is experienced by pretty much everybody I work with. Our conversation has devolved to a stale combination of faux-homosexuality and "mom" jokes, peppered with enough profanity to obscure the point of the sentence, if you're not paying close enough attention.

    Then there's tv shows and movies downloaded from the web. Any outsider walking into out insular little world had better have seen every movie in history if he's going to interpret the wierd phrases that keep popping up in conversation. One might wonder why, for example, everybody interjects the wierd monotone "robot" voice if they haven't seen "Grandma's Boy." (Thankfully, I have felt no urge what-so-ever to engage in this. So far.) Movie quotes are strewn heavily into even serious conversation (just to make it seem like a unique moment, I guess.)

    Some of the guys leaving are trying to remind themselves not to talk like this when they get home. Constant, casual f-bombs and wierd in-jokes tend to raise eyebrows in polite society and the corporate workplace.

    We watch the news and something out of the ordinary will occasion a few minutes of discussion, or a particularly loud or damaging rocket or mortar attack. When the Prime Minister's building was attacked by a suicicde bomber a little while back, that was occasion for maybe a couple hours more talk about 'bastard terrorists'. But it's not so unusual as to keep things buzzing.

    I think that's the main reason why I read blogs obsessively while I'm here. It's an "outside conversation" substitute.


    Blogger Lil said...

    I wonder what sort of picture the Iraqis are getting of the "average" American, if/when all they see is soldiers being soldier-ly (which I have nothing against, since anyone doing that job deserves to blow off steam in harmless ways!).

    Do you know if it's true that over 50% of Iraqi & Iranian marriages take place between first cousins? I read an editorial column that stated this, claiming that familial ties in the Middle East are so much stronger than nationalism, that we (as Americans) can never understand how they view government and have so little loyalty to an ideal based on country/nation rather than clans/families. (If the first-cousins thing is true, they've gotta be horribly inbred, to boot.)

    5:28 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    Yeah, it's largely true. Read up on endogamy- India does the same thing. It's probably more accurate to say Arab & Persian rather than Iraqi and Iranian.

    Lots of low-trust and low-margin societies do something similar- marry within the clan structure to preserve assets and to bond the family tighter. In some ways, it works much better for the brides too. An Arab mother will never think a woman is good enough for her precious son, but if she's related to his wife somehow, then she has other reasons to not be as harsh on her (loyalty to the girl's immediate family, fear of giving offense to them etc.) Since most men live in their father's house until and sometimes long after they marry, an Arab bride can have a hellish time until she becomes the senior female in the household. This also obtains for secondary brides- the senior wife often resents the newcomers and makes her life miserable.

    Not that *everybody* marries their cousins, but first cousins are not off-limits, and neither, apparently, are nieces.

    There are some odd child-rearing practices as well, where mothers will stimulate the genitals of their sons (sometimes nearly until puberty) to quiet them down as babies or young boys. Older sisters charged with babysitting will often do the same thing. It's been posited as one reason for Arab males' sense of sexual entitlement and tendency to rape female relatives.

    Then there's near-universal experience with male homosexuality. In the absense of sexually available females, and in a very status-conscious hierarchy, boys and young men are often initiated into sexual power-politics in male society. It's a means of enforcing social dominance, which in turn gets passed down through the genreations. I've seen reporting that likens to the situation to prison rape.

    I recommend reading this website:

    And a couple books: The Arab Mind, by Rafael Patai, and A History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani.

    9:40 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    Oh, and there's not much "blowing off steam" here. There's no "You got girlfriend Viet Nam?"

    Gi's are not allowed to drink. They only go off-base in heavily armed convoys for official duty. They're not allowed to cohabitate (have sex) with each other , local nationals, contractors, state department, or TCNs.

    There's no place to go to relax, execept for the compiound you're billetted in. The high point of the day for many people is getting coffee from the Green Bean (not-so-cheap knock-off Starbucks-clone), in the palace, or standing in line at the mini-PX. There's a pool, and there's a gym. Decorum is expected in all places at all times. Gi's are not allowed to wear civilian clothes in theater. They wear uniforms or official PT gear (Service t-shirts and trunks). They are responsible for having their weapon with them and under positive control at all times.

    There's no restaurants or grocery stores. You stand at the serving line and eat on a tray at the chow hall (DFAC), and bus your own table.

    Pets and mascots are not allowed in the housing facilities or embassy compound. You're not allowed to feed stray dogs (people do, and the local mutts very obviously like Americans and dislike Iraqis. Most Arabs don't like or keep dogs because of some of Mohammed's prejudices codified in the hadith.)

    11:07 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    But as for impressions- when we still had people stationed there, Saudi's routinely complained about female GI's being whores because they would speak in public, were unaccompanied by male relatives, dressed 'immodestly' (wearing trousers and not veiling the face, wearing t-shirts etc.) I'm sure a lot of Iraqis feel the same, even though they are not as strict about those things as the Saudis are.

    11:10 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    I should mention that the genital stimulation thing is not confined to Arab societies, it's also known in at least a couple other male-dominated cultures, like Italy and Japan.

    11:13 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    One more harsh observation- high infant and child mortaility rates would tend to weed out the worst effects of inbreeding...

    11:23 PM  
    Blogger Lil said...

    Thanks for the info, it was very illuminating! One of the reasons I was curious about the inbreeding is that Reader's Digest has featured, twice in the last couple of years, stories about Iraqi kids who have been sent to the US for extreme medical help due to a birth defect (if I remember correctly, one was a heart problem and the other a digestive tract problem). I can certainly imagine that those kids would have been part of the child mortality rate if not helped by US medical.

    12:21 PM  
    Blogger Larry said...

    Probably right about them not making it without US medical help. Not that it's necessarily caused by inbreeding.

    A lot of developmental defects are likely caused by nutritional deficiencies rather than genes.

    I was reading a few weeks ago, that iodine deficinency can affect 3 generations in the female line. If your grandmother was idodine deficient, it can affect your growth and intelligence. I'll also post something I found yesterday by Bjorn Lomborg on micronutrient deficiency.

    9:55 PM  

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