Thursday, May 1, 2008

Working with the Locals

The other day I got a break from my usual job for a few hours by doing "escort" duty while some local nationals (i.e. Iraqis) did some construction work on our building. It's entertaining working with the LNs. The smalltalk always takes the form of an interview following the same pattern:
  • "How many kids do you have?"
  • None
  • [intrigue] "You're married, though?"
  • No, not yet.
  • [surprise] "How old are you?"
  • Twenty-four.
  • [shocked indignation] "Twenty-four and no wife, no kids?" [astonished Arabic muttering]. "But you have a girlfriend, right?"
  • ...[sigh]
I guess it goes to show you the value these people place on family. That doesn't even express it right, because it's not just that they value family ties more than modern Westerners generally, but that they truly value themselves less as individuals. A person's whole identity is defined by their family, and a man's worth in particular by the number and stature of his children. European family names began as patronymics (witness the proliferation of Andersons, Christiansens, Nelsons, Olsons, and Thorvaldsons with whom I attended college), but Iraqis proudly go through their adult lives being addressed by reference to their children: Abu (father of) Haydar, Abu Miriam, Umm (mother of) Marwan, Umm Zaynab etc. etc. etc. Apparently there's even an unfortunate nickname for an unrepentant bachelor: Abu Gha'ib, father of the absent. And I thought my family's hinting was bad.

But I digress. Apart from being heckled for my childlessness and bachelorhood, hanging out with the LNs is always rewarding. I experienced the legendary Iraqi hospitality when -- despite being right across from the chow hall -- the four workers insisted on sharing their meager lunch with me: a tiffin of boiled chicken, heated up with a cutting torch; another of lumpy sour something's milk; and of course, the flat local bread. Not particularly good, but not bad, and worth it for the cultural sensitivity points.


elephantschild said...

You know, we could learn something about valuing family....

Father of the Absent... ah, that's a good sense of humor the Iraqis have then...

Evan said...

I agree, on both points. The Egyptians have the reputation for humor among Arabs, but I think that comes from their dominance in media, and particularly in the strange slapstick that is Arab comedy. Egyptian humor is, in my experience, mostly wordplay and punning. Iraqis are (again, in my experience) the only Arabs whose sense of humor is more centered on irony, and is thus rather more compatible with Western humor and more comprehensible to Westerners.