29 July 2004
It is fun to get Iraqis out of Iraq. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, most ordinary citizens were not allowed to leave the country. They did not have access to outside news sources. Satellite TV and the Internet were the privileges of only the elite few. American music and movies, in the form of bootleg CDs and DVDs, did get smuggled in from Jordan. So Iraqis had an idea that there was this great big beautiful shiny world out there; they just had never seen it for themselves.
My first encounter with Iraqis abroad occurred this past December. I was lucky enough to get two weeks leave from the war and was back in Castle Rock visiting my parents. In an absolutely incredible coincidence, members of the Baghdad City Council were on a tour of Colorado at the same time. They were being led around by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Rice, a civil affairs officer (and former mayor of Glendale) with whom I worked in Iraq. I called up LTC Rice and found out that not only were the Baghdad City Council guys in Colorado, they were going to be in Castle Rock the very next day.
I drove down and met up with these folks at the Douglas County fairgrounds. For the rest of the day, I toured the town with them, most notably stopping at the county administration building and then the detention center. They seemed most impressed by the prison. It was so clean, and new, and professionally run. Where were the torture chambers and ten men to a cell? They seemed most perplexed by the fairgrounds. When one of the local fathers mentioned that this was where the rodeos took place, I explained to a visibly confused Iraqi what that meant. He paused and then whispered to me, “Did you say they wrestle cows?” I assured him that it was much more complicated than that.
The Iraqis were thoroughly enchanted by Castle Rock. Its natural beauty took their collective breath away. Had they been given the chance to go into the Super Walmart, I’m sure half would have fainted and the other half would have refused to ever go back to Iraq. There are no megastores in Mesopotamia and the sight of a shiny palace filled with everything would have been too much for these poor souls to handle.
A couple months later, it was my turn to play tour guide. I brought a group of Iraqis to Amman for a one week training course. These people had never been outside of Baghdad before. The Iraqi capital is a wrecked, hot, dirty city. Beauty and comfort are hard to find. Amman on the other hand is a shining city on a hill. (Actually, it’s spread over many hills, but I digress.) The Jordanian capital sports clean, level streets and handsome, white limestone buildings, and it enjoys pleasant weather all year round. There’s plenty of electricity for everyone and not a car bomb to be heard. It is a city of peace, tranquility, and fun; three things that Iraqis haven’t known in a long, long time.
So just getting them out of Baghdad made them happy. But I went a step further and put them up in the Four Seasons. (Thankfully, the hotel gave them a very discounted rate.) Each of them had their own room. Things like on-demand lighting, running water, and air-conditioning blew their minds. Then they discovered the Jacuzzi tub and terrycloth bathrobes. “This is called a minibar,” I warned them. “Do not use it.” When they saw the price of a can of Coke, they quickly understood why. “And don’t use the phone either,” I continued. “It’s a big rip off.” When it came time to check out at the end of the week, not one person had used anything from the minibar or made a single phone call. But they didn’t pass up any of the free stuff. The baggage search at the airport revealed that every one of them had loaded up on little bottles of shampoo, bars of soap, and even rolls of toilet paper.
Months later, I still get emails from these Iraqis telling me that this was the best trip of their lives. (Then again, it was the only trip of their lives.) For one week, they lived in luxury and peace. Their relaxed attitudes and big smiles were something I’d not seen when we were cooped up in Baghdad.
Hardships have descended again on my Iraqi friends. Amman, to borrow a line from Apocalypse Now, “seems like a thousand centuries ago.” The situation reminds me of another movie, Awakenings, in which Robert DeNiro’s character wakes from a life-long catatonic state, enjoys a few weeks of love and happiness, and then sadly relapses into his old, spiritless self. My Iraqi friends are fully aware of the cruel irony that just over the horizon, in a place less populated and poor in natural resources, their Arab cousins are at peace and enjoying life. For now, that paradise might as well be a million miles away. The dream is that someday, it will be just outside their front door.