A President's Reflections

Meeting the “other”

Posted on November 3, 2011

It’s good to be home in NH again, though a bit strange to see snow on the ground. I guess that’s the least of it for those who went days without power. The Istanbul meetings went well and we are in very good shape for next year’s event there. 

One of our more interesting encounters happened on the ferry coming back from Halki to the city. In the crowded boat we took a seat on one of the benches next to three men, all in suits, who nodded their welcome. We were all laughing at the performance of a vendor, a comical carnival barker of a guy, and one of the three men commented in perfect English. I asked him if he was from Turkey and he said, “No, Iraq.”

 Turns out they were three civil engineers in the Iraqi Navy and there ensued a serious, moving conversation. Because they served in “the old military” (to use their term), downplayed the more recent violence (mostly against Shiite targets), and did not criticize Saddam, we later guessed they were Sunni.  They expressed optimism about the future and said things are getting better, but when I asked, they described ongoing security issues, trouble exporting their oil because of crippled pipelines and the like, daily power outages of many hours, and struggling government operations at every turn. One of them said, “No area was left untouched by the war.” The one who spoke the best English, quick to laugh and with a warm smile, said “Everything was ruined. America paid a high price, but Iraq paid a much higher price.” His colleague, the one with the more pained eyes quietly added, “Almost one million people dead. Four million gone from the country.” We all went silent at the staggering human cost.

They described the challenge of rebuilding when their engineers, doctors, academics, researchers were either dead or have left. With some pride they said “We stayed and we will stay to help rebuild our country.” I asked if they had sent their families away during the worst of the fighting and they said no, but that they moved frequently to keep them safe. I asked if they were worried about the US withdrawal of combat troops and they were emphatic in saying, “It’s time. They need to go now.” None of it was said with bitterness or anger, but rather with a sad resignation. I said that I was sorry for all that had happened to their country, to them, and for all the loss and pain. What else was there to say?

The more mirthful of the group asked to take a photo together, we all shook hands as the ferry docked, and wished each other well as we stepped onto the quay. Preparing to take our leave, we were approached by an Iranian family we had met on the outbound ferry and they too wanted a picture and a chance to say goodbye. I had sat next to them and they were surprised to meet Americans. Like so many Iranians, they have family in the US (Dallas, in this case) and they were eager to talk as their kids played around our feet.

Thinking about it afterwards, I was again struck by the basic human desires and hopes that unite most of us despite our different cultures, languages, religious beliefs, and political systems. With both groups we talked about our kids, where they studied, our work. I know it is obvious, but everyday people like those we met and ourselves are tossed to and fro by the sweep of history and events well beyond our control. The Iraqis did not want the war that has left their country in ruins, but it came and their lives are forever changed. The Iranians really seemed to care little about the geo-political tensions that swirl around Iran (though in truth, we avoided that topic), but in the news today there was a report of Israel debating a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilties and the likely war that would ensue.

But on this one sunny day, we were all just people finding common ground.   One of them said on parting, “You don’t seem like an American.” I laughed and reassured them that most Americans are pretty nice people. America and Americans do not have a good reputation in the Muslim world. Our newfound friends seemed a little surprised and pleased at our brief interactions. We all seemed to take some solace in the warmth of simple, human interaction with people whose lives we only know from afar and through the lens of larger world events.

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