28 November 2004
There was not a Thanksgiving Day parade anywhere in the Middle East this year. Anthropologists will tell you this is because Thanksgiving was invented by Americans and is a uniquely American holiday. Maybe part of the reason has to do with the fact that there is no Macyís in the region. If this giant retailer did set up shop, Iím sure that the following November 25th Iíd be able to take my place along what would undoubtedly be a crowded main street in Riyadh or Fallujah and watch giant helium-filled balloons shaped like camels and Osama Bin Laden floating down the street. There would be moving platforms decorated in palm fronds and a pretty young woman wearing a hijab smiling and waving to the crowd. Actually, she would probably be averting her eyes and keeping her hands at her sides, so as not to offend the more conservative members of the congregation. Al-Jazeeraís morning show cast would be in a festive mood, covering the event. Their fat, jovial, dishdasha-wearing weatherman would be broadcasting live from the parade route, making little jokes and remarking how realistic the hostage beheading live-action float looks.
Then again, maybe there wasnít a Thanksgiving parade because thereís not a whole lot to be thankful for over here. The land is harsh, the living is rough. Stuffed goat and a handful of dates in a Bedouin tent isnít quite the same as turkey and cranberry sauce at Grandmaís house.
All sarcasm aside, most people have it pretty good in America. Weíve got a lot to be thankful for. Folks in the Middle East, Iím genuinely sorry to say, do not. Weíve got clean water and clean air. We have toilets that you can sit on, not those disgusting Turkish platforms. Our government is generally balanced and reform-minded. No one official can ever get too powerful. Our cops donít arrest us needlessly, nor expect bribes when we get pulled over. Children have schools to go to. No one will ever burn your house down for being a Methodist. We have plenty of great highways that are always getting repaired. These highways have wonderful rest areas on them that have reliable gas pumps, all-you-can-eat buffets and, again, non-Turkish toilets. Supermarkets are huge and full of everything you could possibly want to eat. Most people in the world worry about getting enough food; Americans put themselves on the South Beach Diet. You can kiss a girl in public without being arrested, and in many of our cities, you can kiss a girl in public even if you are a girl yourself. If you donít like your mayor or governor or president, you can write a nasty letter to the editor of your local newspaper who can publish it without wondering if he or you will be carted off in the middle of the night. When you turn on your light switch, the intended consequence does, indeed, happen. I could go on and on--though I could never say enough good things about those beautiful, clean, porcelain American Standard toiletsóbut you get the idea. Think of all the little pleasant things you do each day, all of the little conveniences you have in your life. Weíve all got problems and stress, but there are basic things that Americans need not worry about.
The same cannot be said of our dear Iraqi friends. Let us take just one example. Imagine everyday having to be afraid of getting blown up on your way to work. Think about that the next time youíre at a red light and you look at the guy next to you. Does he look shady? Sure he may be playing his gangsta rap music too loudly, but is his car about to explode? Thatís what these poor Iraqis have to live with every time they leave their house. Imagine every single day thinking about your own imminent violent demise. Freedom from fear is not something enjoyed by the Mesopotamians. That fact by itself makes me happy to be an American.
Folks in Baghdad still only get a few hours of electricity each day. The Tigris is the source of all drinking water as well as the destination for all sewage. There are no good grocery stores, no Super Walmarts. They canít travel freely. Roads are either blocked off by American soldiers or choked off by a huge herd of carbon monoxide spouting clunkers. People donít have jobs. Outside of the home, there is no place one can safely gather with friends to listen to music or see a play. They canít stroll in parks or go to the movies or dance the night away in nightclubs. Again, I could go on and on. But instead of doing that, lets consider the following famous passage from Thomas Hobbesí Leviathan, written in1660:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
This, without any modification needed, sums up the situation in Iraq. As one female Iraqi painter friend of mine told me, hers is a generation that knows not love, laughter, nor how to have fun. They know only tyranny and war. Their DNA is a double helix of suspicion and resignation.
Yep, we are lucky to be Americans. Actually, to say itís luck is to do a disservice to my genetic predecessors who made the decision to leave Ukraine, Wales, Slovakia, Scotland, and Germany to head to the land of opportunity. Had not these brave souls given up all that was familiar and risked everything, I could be working in a mine today outside of Cardiff or marching in protest in the streets of Kiev. Thank you, my dear ancestors, for saving me from such a dismal fate.
It used to be that only Peace Corps volunteers, career diplomats, missionaries, and aid workers saw just how bad most of the rest of the world really is. The war in Iraq has exposed over 200,000 young Americans to the sad Hobbesian way of life that is reality for most people around the globe. The Thanksgiving table, it turns out, is a pretty small one.