Op-Ed: In Iraq, a lesson for post-Sept. 11 America

September 9, 2011
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By Sam Taylor, Special to the Gazette

I met a man from Kurdistan while serving as a chaplain’s assistant for the North Carolina National Guard in southern Iraq in 2009. He was working as a translator on one of the bases where I spent time. He assured me it would be OK to use his real name, but still, I don’t feel good about that risk. He was one of the most optimistic, positive people I have ever met. It can be a strange thing to meet someone who carries so much light with him in a place like that. The base was a grim place, all concrete walls and sun-blasted sand. The only thing growing was a patch of grass under a broken pipe outside one of the latrines. The local Iraqi folks and the soldiers were all tired, run-down, scared and angry. But this fellow wore his hope like a shield, his love of his home like cool shade.

He would come to my office and tell me about the Kurdish people, his people, and about where he came from in Kurdistan. One day he noticed the icons I had hung up over my desk there. After taking a moment to admire them, he turned to me and asked if I was a Christian. I paused a moment and said I was, but tried to assure him that I had absolutely no problem with anyone else, that I thought everyone had the right to their own faith.

He saw my fluster and laughed and said, “Oh, no, please don’t worry. You know, one of my moms is a Christian.”

“One of your moms,” I said, just barely managing not to add, “That’s pretty progressive for this part of the world.”

He went on to explain that his father had two wives, and that they were his mothers. He loved them equally, he said.

I asked, “So, and it is entirely OK if you don’t want to answer, was it ever weird in your community have a Christian mother?”

He gave me a look and said, “Why wouldn’t it be OK? She’s my mom.”

Then he told me one of the most amazing stories I have ever heard.

There was a village near where he grew up in northern Iraq, and its population was predominately Muslim folks. They were having a problem with wild pigs eating their crops. It had reached a point where there were serious questions about hunger and how the community was going to survive.

There was another village about a mile up the road, and that one had a population that was predominately Christian. Many families had members in both places, and just about everyone knew everyone else, so they came up with a plan.

The two villages switched. The group of folks that was more comfortable eating pork moved a mile down the road the one way, and the group of folks who needed some crops moved the other. Both communities had their needs met, and after two years, when the wild pig population had been reduced significantly, everyone moved back home.

What touched me about the story was the way he told it, that he didn’t present it as a great victory of the human spirit or evidence that his people were all saints or better than some other group of people. Instead, he spoke about a situation where there was need, and the only reasonable response was to find a way to have that need met.

In a place like Iraq, a place torn apart by violence and destruction motivated by a series of feuds and injustices and acts of violence stretching back through so much of our species’ history, deciding to recognize the value of the other person, to work for their benefit no matter the politics or arguments or past hurts that might stand in the way, is as great a victory as I can imagine.

After 10 years of struggle with the pain, the fear and the insult of the 9/11 attacks, I hope that our nation is ready to find a way to recognize all of our mutual needs and be ready to be creative in a search for ways to meet those needs.

Sam Taylor, who recently moved to Jamaica Plain, served in the U.S. Army National Guard in 2003-2010 and was deployed to Iraq in 2009-10.