They've Only Just Begun

12 August 2004

Back in April 2003, I made a pre-season prediction in my notebook about one possible long-term effect the U.S. liberation of Iraq would have on American culture.  130,000 Americans of every race and socio-economic level were going to the Middle East.  It would be the first time most of them had met an Arab or experienced Islam.  All of us who would be lucky enough to return to the U.S. would have learned some Arabic phrases, perhaps developed a taste for local cuisine, and made a few Iraqi friends.  There would also be those who would fall in love and marry Mesopotamians.  This happens in every war, so there was no reason to think it would not during OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM.

One of the officers with whom I shared a house in Baghdad married an Iraqi girl yesterday in Amman.  Charlie met Zeinub a year ago when they were both working inside the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters; he in a military planning capacity, she as a translator.  Almost immediately they hit it off and soon they were deeply in love.  Many of us were skeptical.  Surely the Iraqi girl just wanted a visa to come to our shining city on a hill.  And the American, far from home and things familiar, was in a temporary state of sentimental lust. 

It is a fact there are many Iraqis, both male and female, who would do just about anything to get a key to America.  And there are many American soldiers in Iraq who promised the world to innocent Iraqi girls in exchange for moments of intimacy, only to forget all about these commitments upon redeploying home to mom, apple pie, and in too many cases, their wives.

But the critics were wrong about Charlie and Zeinub.  They courted as best they could in the confines of a war zone.  Charlie met Zeinub’s parents and told them how much he cared about their daughter.  When Charlie got orders to redeploy home to the U.S., he promised Zeinub he would return to marry her, and that is exactly what he did.  Charlie bought a ticket to Amman and Zeinub traveled overland across the harsh Iraqi/Jordanian desert to meet up with her beloved in the Hashemite capital.

I found out these latter details after the fact.  After my base of operations moved to Jordan, I kind of lost track of Charlie.  But yesterday I got a phone call from him saying that he was here in Amman and was getting married in two hours.  “Do you want to come?” 

Two hours later, there I was sitting in a parlor of a stranger’s house surrounded by a dozen Iraqis who made their way to Jordan for this event.  Two American women came with me, as they said they loved weddings and wanted to see what a Muslim one was like.  I could tell Charlie was happy to have three of his countrymen there.  We were the closest thing to family he had at that moment. 

Across from me were Muslim women wearing hijabs (scarves) on their heads and little children on their arms.  A few elderly Iraqi men in old brown suits and ties sat with their hands folded in their laps.  None of the Iraqis knew who we were, as Charlie’s decision to invite us was so last minute.  I smiled and nodded “how d’ya do” and tried not to wiggle around too much in my seat.  This strange congress sat in quiet assembly, waiting for the cleric to begin the ceremony.  All of us were looking upon Charlie and Zeinub, who sat next to each other on a divan, smiling, blushing slightly, hardly able to keep their eyes off each other.

“So you’re a lawyer, too?” the old man sitting next to me whispered in good English.  I didn’t understand his question.  “What do you mean, sir?” I replied.  “Do you work at the same law firm as Charlie?” he clarified.  “Oh Charlie’s not a lawyer,” I began, “he’s a…”  And then I caught myself.  For whatever reason, Charlie must have told this man he was a lawyer and not an American army officer.  I could guess why.  Not every Iraqi family would be too happy about one of their girls marrying the invader.  Even if that weren’t the issue, other people in the neighborhood back in Baghdad might target the family if they found out they were “collaborating” is so intimate a way.  “Oh, I’m sorry, sir.  I didn’t understand you at first.  No, I am not a lawyer like Charlie.  I didn’t want to put my family through that shame.”  The old man chuckled.

To marry Zeinub, Charlie had to convert to Islam, even if this conversion was just for show.  (Christian girls can marry Muslim men, but not the other way around.)  Neither Charlie nor Zeinub are very religious.  This declaration was for her parents’ sake.  I think the whole family suspected Charlie’s conversion was a necessary public ruse, but they didn’t say anything.  Kind of like parents who are afraid to ask their ballet dancer son if he’s gay, everyone just sat and thought whatever they needed to think to make this situation okay.  During the ceremony, Charlie recited some declaration in Arabic of being a Muslim.  A few moments later, a burning smell started coming from the nearby kitchen.  “What’s that?” one of the American girls asked me quietly, as she scrunched her nose.  “Charlie’s soul,” I replied in a cupped whisper.  My friend covered her mouth to conceal her laughter.

Muslim weddings are very simple, unromantic affairs.  (For the sake of a good story, I was hoping there’d be a goat sacrifice or whirling dervishes or sword play or something.  But these expectations went disappointingly unrealized.)  There were no fancy dresses, no music, and no flowers.  (Those come in the after-party.)  It doesn’t take place in a mosque and there isn’t even really an exchange of vows.  It’s a contract, with the groom promising fidelity and so much money as a dowry (the groom, not the bride pays this), and so much money in the event of a divorce (should the fidelity clause be forgotten).  Charlie parroted the words the cleric read in Arabic.  I don’t think he had a clear idea of what he was actually saying.  Too bad he really wasn’t a lawyer.

Afterwards, as the glasses of Pepsi and orange soda were served on a tray by Zeinub’s aunt, I thought how funny life works.  Who in that room would have predicted such a union a year-and-a-half ago.  After they get Zeinub’s visa, husband and wife will be off to middle America.  Charlie’s bride will go from calls to prayer and crowded souks, to blaring hip hop and spacious Wal-Marts.  As they are moving to the Heartland, it is doubtful she will ever speak Arabic again, except for periodic staticky telephone calls home.  Hummus at home will be replaced by home fries at Denny’s.  Her children will be Americans, and won’t understand why Mom won’t let them go out on dates or stay out late when all their other friends get to.  She’ll be coming to a country suspicious of Arabs; a country where 8 out of 10 people honestly believe Muslims worship a different God than they do.  Fortunately, her English is excellent and she will not be wearing the hijab.  How she and the others like her that are certain to follow are received in their adopted land is up to us.