15 February 2009

Thoughts on Pants

TOne occasionally wonders, doing this, if one is seeing something
significant. I spent today at a district-wide economic development

Now, this is the sort of thing that did not happen the last time I was
here. But now? There was actually discussion of travel and tourism
potential in the southern Kirkuk province. Crazy.

Of course, I spent a couple of minutes thinking about the overall
significance of this sort of gathering in this country, decided it
might be a ground-breaking moment, then lost interest. Hey - your
author isn't perfect. And we'd handed off our interpreter to the
panel discussion, so...

Instead of thinking about the big stuff, I started checking the dudes
out. No - not like that. It's a long tour, but it's not that long.

I was looking at their clothes. There are two options for Man About
Town attire here. You have the Western look, and the Arab look (hence
referred to as the Suit and the Man-Dress).

Some of the folks we work with typically wear western attire. For
instance, the "city manager" or "mayor" of each of our (sub)districts
is not a sheik - he's a hired official. In all three of the councils,
that individual wears the Suit. In the two of our councils that
function best, oddly, the "mayors" are pretty snappy dressers.

The sheiks who make up the councils, however, typically wear the Man
Dress. And nice ones, too. not the run-of-the-mill lightweight white
button down Man Dress over a wifebeater, but well-made robes.

We also interact with Ministry Representatives who work at the local
level. These gentlemen are also frequently in Western attire, but
it's never as snappy as what the mayors wear.

I suppose I can understand the divide - the mayors and the Ministry
reps aren't as concerned with whether or not the public perceives them
as 'adequately Arab." They spend the vast majority of their time
interacting with either government officials in Kirkuk (largely Kurds,
who are fairly western in their attire and habits) and Coalition
Forces. So I suppose they adapted.

The sheiks, on the other hand, although they certainly aren't elected,
are doubtlessly under a certain amount of pressure to represent their
villages and appear to be powerful in a traditional way.

All fine.

But one of them appeared at a recent meeting in a suit. He's a bigwig
- I know him. But I got through a large part of that meeting without
making the connection that the tall, handsome, dignified older
gentleman on the other side of the room was Abu Farras.

I know what my sheiks look like in their traditional attire - I'm past
the phase where they all look the same.

But it wasn't until I found myself actually surprised by Abu Farras'
"transformation" that I started examining that a little bit.

This is my second tour here, and it hasn't all been nice lunches and
long naps, so you're going to have to forgive me. But I have fallen,
occasionally, into the trap of thinking of them as "savages," as
"lying Arabs," and things much more politically incorrect.

Which is what it is. It's a war, and I'm certainly not the first to
catch myself dehumanizing the "other." Probably won't be the last,

But I felt ashamed of myself standing in the hall looking at the
sheik. Of anyone in the Army, a CA type shouldn't fall into that trap.
I was perceiving the sheik differently. Had we had occasion to
speak, I'd have interpreted his words differently, read a different
subtext, probably not suspected that every word was utter bullshit.

And all it takes is a suit?

How different, I wonder, would this whole campaign be going if the
citizens of Iraq were just a little less alien to us? If every
political, social, economic and military consideration were the same,
but if they dressed exactly like Americans? A foreign culture is just
that - foreign. But I did have to think about how much of that
foreignness really is them, and how much of it is perceived
foreignness because of the significance we attach to a suit and tie.

Food for thought.

Incidentally, today's meeting was probably about 60/40, Western/Arab look.