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10 years ago. Spring 2003. I was teaching at the University of Nouakchott. That year, I was the only American, the only Westerner, on campus, although I was later joined by a Canadian woman (Hi Louise!) and an American couple. I stood out, on the campus and in the city in general. A blonde American, wearing long skirts and heeled sandals, with 3 young children usually in tow–I was always surprised when taxi drivers remembered me, but in hindsight I was perhaps a bit clueless.

We’d discussed it, of course, between us as a family and with other expatriates during our weekly beach trips. Friends from Norway, England, Switzerland, and Oregon tended to be on one side (against), while the majority of the Americans tended to be for the potential invasion. I officially decided I thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to state that, so that I could avoid later saying, “I knew it at the time” and everyone else saying, “No you didn’t!” But it wasn’t all that clear-cut. We got our news very second-hand then. Not everyone even had a satellite dish. We personally had an antenna on the roof, often blown off by the hot desert winds. We got two stations: Mauritanian television (MTV) and a German station that broadcast everything twice, once in German and once in English. Our internet connection was usually non-existent, and we used to do something called “flash sessions” to get our email, since connection was over $4/minute. (This was only 10 years ago but I feel kind of like grandma telling the kids how she used to take a horse and buggy to school).

At the French school, another American family reported a case of bullying over nationalities. Their son was thrown up against a wall and threatened. It was for this reason we discussed it with our kids, although they had no problems, not then at that school.

At the University, there were signs of unrest. Once as I was leaving after a class, I saw a large group of young men waving the Iraqi flag and forming up a protest. They were gathering in the middle of a road down which I normally walked to catch a taxi. I turned and went the other way before they saw me, feeling that was wisdom. One of my students told me, “Listen, if your country invades Iraq, don’t come to class. If something happens and you’re already here, don’t worry. We’ll protect you. But it’s best if you don’t come.” The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.

We did invade, of course. The administration instantly declared a “Spring Holiday” and cancelled classes for a month. By the time I returned, somewhat warily, things were calm again on the streets of Nouakchott, after demonstrators had burned tires (why does that make a statement? it’s never made sense to me) and had some fun smashing a few random items.

I didn’t know then that 10 years after, I’d be back in Oregon, living in the green and grey again after those years in the heat and dryness and the days of blowing sand, comfortable again in jeans and boots. I didn’t know that my days would be spent with those whose lives began to be torn apart on that day, filled with death and destruction, loss of limbs, loss of daughters, husbands, aunts and cousins, best friends from childhood. The stories haunt me now; the woman running down the street carrying her toddler and realizing that the child had been shot and killed and what she was carrying was a corpse; the man betrayed by a colleague and kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, riddled with bullets that left him paralyzed from the waist down; the children caught in cross-fire between 2 opposing armies and one panicking and running, running, into the street towards home and perceived safety while her agonized friend watched her die. These are stories of war, and are probably typical, although I don’t think they ever should be.

Why did they happen and what was accomplished? That is the question that I and apparently most of the media are asking. All week I have seen and heard news stories, many of them of the “where are they now?” variety. All of the stories are sad, although some of them have found some degree of closure. All carry terrible scars, mostly internal, psychological–whether they participated as American soldier or Iraqi civilian. My Iraqi friends are stoic, filled with black humor. I read of an appalling suicide rate amongst soldiers who survived the combat. And in the end, the why isn’t perhaps the most important part, but the how and where do we go now? I pray it is towards hope and healing, although there’s little in the history of this planet to inspire me.

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A few weeks ago, I was making lunch. I took up a roma tomato to slice, and noticed it had a bad spot at one end. I cut off about a third, cut 3 or 4 slices, and had an equal amount left. I tossed the bad bit in the trash and then realized I’d accidentally thrown the good bit away. It was sitting right on top of the trash can, atop a pile of perfectly clean papers that Donn had cleaned out of his car and should have put in the recycling. So I rescued it. I heard a sort of strangled sound and looked up to see two of Elliot’s friends, two teenaged boys, staring at me in abject horror. “You just took food out of the trash can?” one of them almost whispered.

I was gentle. I didn’t mock them (to their faces). I didn’t tell them about people who dumpster dive. Instead, I washed off the offending bit, just to appease them, although they were definitely unappeased, even when I ate it myself so they wouldn’t have to worry about getting it served to them. I explained, but to no avail. Apparently if their mothers threw away a perfectly good third of a tomato by mistake, there it would lie, undisturbed, even if it landed in a nest of clean receipts from gas stations.

The other day, I had to buy a new mop. I was looking at those Swisher mops and wondering if they were any good. I asked the girl working at Target. “Yeah it works great. I used to have one, but I didn’t like it,” she told me. When I asked why, she said, “After you mop the floor, you have to take off the towel, and you have to touch it, and it’s really gross.”

I know you’re thinking, but these are young people, who have never raised children, changed diapers, dealt with toddlers who have no concept of trying to make it to the bathroom before anything unfortunate happens. And you are right. But I think this is symptomatic of something larger. I wrote once, years ago now, about a time I saw a mother who wouldn’t let her daughter drink from a drinking fountain because it was “dirty.” Even before I lived overseas I wasn’t too uptight, but living in the desert definitely stretched me, to where I am more worried about wasting food than I am about possible germs that might be on perfectly clean paper. Years of drinking three rounds of sweet mint tea from tiny glasses that aren’t washed between rounds, only rinsed, or shaking hands with children who live in tents with no running water and very little daily hygiene, changes your perspective. The concept of double-dipping just isn’t going to gross out the person who’s bought fly-covered meat with the hoof still attached from an outdoor vendor who’s sitting in the baking sun, or taken a large bite out of a sandwich only to find half a locust baked into it. (I’m still grossed out by goat intestines though, just so you know)

That said, there are times when even I want to whisper in a strangled voice, “Please tell me you didn’t just do that.” There was the time I watched L dressing a salad. She sprinkled on lemon juice and olive oil and salt, then plunged her unwashed hands in to mix it. (No problems) Then she lifted out a strip of lettuce, touched it to her tongue, nodded, and dropped it back in the bowl.

Two weeks ago, I was visiting L and her 2 year-old niece, an adorable child with enormous eyes and a head of tangled curls. The child had a cold, complete with husky voice and nasty cough. We were sitting in L’s room, eating Doritos from the enormous stack she keeps underneath her bed, when the toddler pointed to a bright shiny pink lip gloss. “She loves it,” explained L, applying it to the child’s lips. The child then pointed at me, and before I could stop her, L had put the same lip gloss on me. I didn’t say anything, but in my head I was staring at her in abject horror. I knew I was going down, and sure enough a few days later I woke up croaky myself. That was also the visit where the child wanted gum so L just gave her half of what she already had in her mouth. Ew.

But I sometimes have a hard time straddling the two worlds. It’s not uncommon for my Iraqi friends to eat from a serving bowl with the same spoon they are using for their own private plates. I don’t care–I’ve had years of training–but the scary thing is that I may be getting too relaxed. Surely it’s only a matter of time before I move from grossing out the sensitive teens to grossing out my friends, to where I forget and plunge my own personal spoon into the guacamole, and double and triple dip my chips.

hands

(I made a Mauritanian dish the other night and we all ate on the floor, with our hands, for old times’ sake)

So where do you fall on the germaphobe scale? Do you freak out if other people double-dip, or take a drink from your glass? Or does it require something more like sharing lip gloss with a 2 year old to bother you? Have I ever grossed you out?

On Friday, one of my friends had a baby and another had a miscarriage. I wasn’t there for either of them. I was across town with another family, who were being presented with their new home from Habitat for Humanity. There was a ceremony, and a lot of Iraqi food, and a hot wind blowing around the yard.

It was a long day.

We spoke on the phone with both of them. A couple of days earlier, I’d spoken to the new father-to-be. “It’s happy for my wife, but a funeral for me,” he said. I laughed. “I don’t believe you at all,” I told him. “I know you’re really happy and you’re going to love that new baby daughter of yours so much!”

When he called, I didn’t hear my phone so he left a message. “You are right–I’m so happy,” he told me. We saw the baby the next day and she is gorgeous; tiny and perfect and welcomed by her grandmother, who recently arrived from Iraq, as well as aunts and big brothers and friends. I sat and held her while her big brothers and some of their friends tried on the enormous (on them) bright blue gloves left so temptingly in reach in those full boxes on the wall. I cringed as I saw a small child take off the gloves and thoughtfully put them back in the box.

The previous evening, we spoke to our other friends on the phone. They’d just gotten released from the hospital and were home, resting. Although we know Arab culture says you go then and there, we suggested that we come the next day. The husband agreed. “She is finally resting,” he said, relief in his voice. Sometimes the habits of your own culture are hard; this is true no matter what culture you come from.

We were really impressed with the husband, so thoughtful and caring, worrying only about how his wife was doing, willing to do whatever necessary to help her no matter how uncomfortable it made him, putting her needs above his own. We weren’t surprised; it fits what we know of them. But it was beautiful to see.

They were having such a difficult time. No one knew what to do, including us. None of us had faced this situation before and America is far more regulated than Iraq, where cemeteries are basically free according to our friend. They called the mosque, which initially said they couldn’t help because the fetus wasn’t viable–she was only 12 weeks along but had seen the baby on an ultrasound, heard the heartbeat, wanted a small spot of earth where she could visit. We called around too, quickly found a church willing to help but needing to check legality before definitively saying yes. Eventually someone from the mosque called back and agreed to help.

We visited them after leaving the hospital to see the newborn, stopping on our way for a picnic with two other families. That is, the original plan had been to have a picnic, but the baby (2 months old) was sick, so instead we spent a gorgeous fall day crowded into a small apartment, feasting. Our hostess had managed to out-do herself yet again. It’s okay though–it was both lunch and dinner, so my calorie intake didn’t climb through the roof, unless we want to think about the log-shaped baklava. Let’s not. It was really good.

We left the picnic a little early so we could go visit the friends who’d had the miscarriage. I didn’t tell them why we were leaving early, pinning the blame on Elliot who has college application essays to write and Ilsa who is taking AP classes. It took some nudging to get Elliot to fuss about his homework. But I didn’t know if the couple wanted everyone to know just yet.

Later, I asked her about it. “That was so thoughtful!” exclaimed her younger sister. Arab culture tends to be rife with gossip, but I didn’t think people minded because they’re so open with me. I’m finding out that they don’t want me to share certain things though. (Question: so is this blog lame? I do change names and some details, and for this particular post am being pretty darn vague. On the other hand, I am sharing other people’s lives with you. Discuss in comments.) It turned out I’d made the right decision not the share the events with the families at the picnic, even though they are all friends. Whew! It doesn’t always happen like this. So often I make the wrong decision, it seems.

She’s doing okay. Obviously she’s still grieving, but she has other things in her life to look forward to. We talked privately with her husband, and we all agreed that her life has had so much turmoil and sorrow already that something like this would hit her especially hard. You tend to think “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (and yes, I know you’ll be hearing that ear worm for the rest of the day–you’re welcome) and while that can be true, it’s also true that you get weary of being battered by life. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you simply weakens you for the next thing. She’s surrounded by people who love and care for her though, and she’s in a safe place. I have high hopes.

Donn and Elliot were recently looking through old photos and he posted this one to facebook. Looking at it, I was unprepared for the flood of memories it produced. I had all the normal “my BABY is now a stinky hairy man!” emotions of a mother of a soon-to-be 17 year old male, but mostly I remembered the circumstances in which that photo was taken.

We’d just arrived in Mauritania. Elliot was 5. Colleagues met us at the airport—we’d been traveling 2 days at that point, and Ilsa was covered in airline food (she was barely 4, poor thing), and I still remember that hot dry air sucking the breath from my lungs as I stepped to the open plane door and went down the steps, and I wondered, “Can I do this? Am I going to make it?” It was only April, 10 p.m., the air filled with dust and smoke and still hotter than Portland usually gets in August.

None of our suitcases arrived with us. Colleagues met us at the airport, all smiles, sweeping the twins into their arms. They took us first to their house, where they fed us spaghetti, and then to the apartment where we’d stay while we looked for our own house. The apt had been rented by a single male who’d come for a year-long internship and would be leaving soon. He was the type of single male who is clean and neat and just does things a little differently than your typical woman, like lining the bedroom with wires to dry your clothes on. Since none of our luggage had come, we ran the washing machine (located in the kitchen) and it flooded the kitchen, the soapy water full of little dead bugs. We squee-geed it right out the back door onto the balcony, which seemed very strange to me. Who knew you did it like that? In my American kitchen, that was not how you cleaned the floor.

When our clothes were clean, we hung them round our bed (weird). We stirred briefly at the dawn call to prayer, unused as yet to the loudspeakers near our windows, then slept deeply till noon, when our new friend knocked at the door to take us to lunch. He’d brought us clothes to borrow from various people, including a family with small girls who live near us now in Oregon and are good friends, though at this point we hadn’t met them.

But our own clothes were bone dry, another mystery. How could they have dried in the NIGHT like that? It was a good introduction to the Sahara, where clothes hung on the line at 8 will be dry by 10.

We began to settle in, adjust. Donn and Dave spent a lot of time at the airport, where eventually most of our luggage showed up. We began to learn where we could buy what, and I realized that I could feed my family on what was available there. Every morning Donn would walk to a tiny storefront in a garage of a house nearby and buy bread, and we’d eat bread and jam and coffee for breakfast. The kids loved the mango juice in small bottles. We all hated the milk.

Donn and Elliot went to the market together on our 2nd or 3rd day, ostensibly to buy things for the house. They returned with a tea set, a large Senegalese drum, and a robe (dra:a) for Elliot. Not my idea of necessities, although that tea set got a lot of use. Elliot had a Coke and came home wearing his robe, saying “Salaam A’lauykoum, Mom!” as he walked in the door. We were so excited to be there, and so scared and overwhelmed at the same time. Mostly excited though. There’s nothing like your first overseas move.

I don’t even know where to start.

So I was all ready to post a silly happy post, about my crazy day where I left the house at 8:30 and didn’t really return to relax or anything until 11:30. Er, p.m., that last number, and a.m. the first. I really am not that impressed with myself when I only put in 3 hour days. Actually, that would be so rare that I would be impressed. Bring on the 3-hour days! Whither afternoon naps?! Let’s bring back the obligatory nap of childhood.

So, as you all know by now, I review books over at 5 Minutes for Books. Last Saturday I got Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West in the mail, and looking at the accompanying info, I realized the author would be at Powells tonight (Thursday)(ok so I’m a little late posting). We decided to go as a family, which meant everyone had to read the book quickly. In real life, that meant Elliot and Ilsa finished it and I mostly finished it, but with homework and dance team and work and managing to avoid doing laundry, we didn’t all get a chance to read it.

Frankly, if I’d read it first, I might not have let Ilsa read it. But then author/journalist Blaine Harden quoted from Elie Wiesel’s Night: A teenager should know no more violence than he gets from literature. His point is that growing up in the North Korean camps, Shin didn’t even know that literature existed, but I also took the point that my teens are plenty old enough to know what goes on in the world.

The book looks at the gulags in North Korea, through the eyes of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in Camp 14. His parents were given to each other in a “reward marriage” which meant guards allowed them to spend 5 nights a year together. I don’t think his mother loved him, and a result, he didn’t love her or even know what the word meant. His life contained no love, mercy, kindness, dignity. All he knew was hunger and competition for food, and the rules of the camp, which taught him to snitch and then stand by as other children were beaten to death. After he informed on his own mother and her escape attempt, the guard took the credit for the information, and Shin was kept in an underground prison for 8 months and tortured unbearably. He was 13.

The description of the camp is nearly unbearable to read. But, frankly, even more heartbreaking is his description of the painfulness of learning to live free. He spends time with a Korean-American family in Southern California, and the more he learns of how loving families interact with and treat each other, the worse he feels about the kind of son he was. He feels incredible guilt because he’s survived and escaped, and there are tens of thousands still in these camps. “I escaped physically, but not psychologically,” he says at one point in the book.

I don’t want to review the book here–I will link my post at 5MFB when it goes live. (Um, when? I guess check back on Tuesday, which is when I’ll recap what I read and reviewed this month) But I want to reiterate that I think this is a tremendously important book to read. I’m not sorry I had my teens read it, even though parts of it made me want to close my eyes and not breath, or scream and rage at the injustice of it all. It’s heart-breaking. But the thing is, we read Night and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; we view those as hard but important and even necessary; but this is not like that. This isn’t history–this is current events. You can go on Google Earth and look at these camps, which the North Korean government denies exist. (Note: I’m sort of quoting Harden at this point. I have not, for example, gone on Google Earth to see for myself)

So you should go read this book. It’s only 200 pages. 3 of us, with normally full lives, managed to read it in 5 days.

I’ll be back soon with a normal post. In the meantime, here is a photo of Elliot getting my copy signed. Why did I take a photo? Because he can get school credit (not academic credit, but he has to put in so many hours of extracurricular stuff) for this. I totally support this.

The date of the reading coincided with the date of our arrival in Nouakchott as a family for the first time. 11 years ago, we started this life of being global nomads. Even though we’ve been settled in the US for a year and a half now, even though I stayed in the same country for the entire calendar year of 2011 (and very depressing that was), we still view ourselves that way. Live overseas for long enough and you basically ruin yourself for normal everyday life in your home country; you will always be a bit of a misfit. But I’ll leave that for another post. To celebrate, I made couscous for the first time since we left Morocco. It was awfully tasty. It was ready just when we needed to leave for the reading, so we scarfed down some hearty snacks, and ate it at 10 p.m. Which was sort of appropriate.

It’s not nearly as pretty as Khadija’s was, but then, she’s had more practice.

During our time at the beach, I mostly took a break from the news, although I did hear about the Iraqi woman bludgeoned to death in California, which had me worried about all my Iraqi friends worrying about it. It was nice, though, to take a few days off from photos of starving people (Mauritania et al) and tanks rolling through neighbourhoods and indiscriminately killing all (Syria). I do realize how blessed I am that I can opt out of these horrors; for those living in such a world, no such breaks are possible.

However, as I read the Hunger Games books (I’ve finished the second one, Catching Fire, and am now reading the 3rd, Mockingjay. Yaay, I’m on my computer again and can do links), pictures from the news kept appearing in my head, as I read of  bombs destroying buildings and targeting hospitals, and the desperate poverty of the districts. I recently read an interview with author Susanne Collins, and she said the idea for the trilogy came to her as she switched TV channels and saw images of the Iraq war just after watching reality TV. As I read, I can’t help making comparisons to actual war, actual starvation, and actual privilege. It’s sobering. I read about the  decadence of the Capitol, where at parties, people drink ipecac so that they can vomit and eat more.  I couldn’t help but compare life in America, where people spend billions on their pets every year, to the family that lived opposite our house in Mauritania, in a tent, and took my kids’ torn and stained clothes and broken toys and were not just gracious, but thrilled.

When we moved, we gave them our faded cushions and broken water heater (they wanted it for a table) and basically doubled their possessions. They used to knock on our door and ask for a bucket of water–their allotment for the day.

The Hunger Games are also a reflection on reality TV, and how it can desensitize viewers. I have a memory nagging at me, from a comic strip. I think it was Bloom County, back in the 80s, and they’re watching TV and can’t figure out if it’s a movie or the news, and someone says, “Please tell me if I should be enjoying this!” At the movie the other night, the mostly-teen audience applauded one of the killings, and I could understand it–the girl was horrible, about to kill Katniss and mocking her too. But still. Elliot started to join in the applause and I stopped him.

One thing I loved about the books is they show the toll that participating in something like that would have on you, even if you won, if you survived and were “the victor.” I actually ended up loving the books, which I didn’t anticipate. But they leave you thinking about them, about implications, about how reality TV and violent movies affect how we view the world, about how we’re all connected as people, about violence in general and the different justifications used to allow it.

So Elliot wrote a short essay. He’s entered to win some sort of scholarship, and the first round is basically a popularity contest. It doesn’t make sense to me. If I was going to give $5000 to help some kid go to college, and I assigned them an essay topic of “The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned in my Life,” I wouldn’t make winning dependent on getting other people to “like” your essay. But what do I know? I don’t give away $5000 scholarships either.

His essay isn’t really all that connected to the topic of this post, but it is, a bit, in a way. Anyway, it’s short, only one paragraph. There are a few typos, but give him a break. Please go vote for him. Just click this link.

 

Aicha likes America, which surprises her a bit. When she first came, she panicked if her young son got out of arm’s reach. “I just didn’t know what was safe and what wasn’t. It was all so new,” she told me. This makes sense to me. The twins were about the same age when we first went to Mauritania, and I had no reference point to know what was okay and what wasn’t, whether people would kidnap sturdy blonde toddlers, whether people would feed them hard candy that might choke them, whether people were glaring at them or smiling. I’ve also heard from others of people who got their refugee visas to America but were afraid to come. One man told me he put off the decision for months. He likes to watch movies and he’d watched a lot of American films, and he thought we were a violent people, our streets full of high-speed car chases, our cities full of explosions in slow motion, our banks constantly under siege and filled with hostages. He expected everyone to be packing heat.

That was last January, when Aicha panicked about her son. Now she puts him on a school bus and sends him off to Head Start without a care. “I don’t worry about him,” she tells me. He went to a preschool in Baghdad, but she says she took him there herself and called every day to check on him. Helicopter parenting? Not exactly. “The teacher would yell at the kids and beat them, and it upset him,” she told me. “The other kids were very rough and sometimes he’d get hurt.”

She’s relaxed and settled into life here. She was in my summer ESL class, and when I asked her what was something she liked about America, she said “Freedom.” That sounded a little too much like the perfect sound-bite to me, so I asked her what she meant. Societal freedom, it came out, like the right to show a bit of hair underneath your scarf without all your neighbours gossiping about how immoral you were getting, or the right to hold differing opinions without threat. The ability for women to get out on their own without being constantly criticized by their families.  Aicha wanted to study medicine at a university in another city but her mother wouldn’t let her go. She has a degree in computer science from the local college instead. The thought of a society that expects parents to let children travel, to fulfill their dreams, to become what the child wants to be instead of what the parents choose–that is breathtaking for her. She feels free and unjudged as she walks the streets to nearby shops or waits for a bus to take her to the community college, where she’s continuing her English studies. Ironically, since she’s invariably dressed in a long robe and headscarf, she is probably garnering a lot of attention. But the stares slide right off her back. And indeed, I am learning that the long robe is invisible to her, like my daily wear is to me. We went down the Columbia River Gorge and hiked in to some falls, and she scrambled across the creek and up an enormous boulder to the top, where she posed proudly with her purse over her arm for some pictures, wearing her long robe, her black socks. Although not a wisp of hair showed, she was smiling broadly.

(I also asked what she didn’t like about America. She said all the dogs and how people kept showing her the bottoms of their feet on the bus. Dogs are considered unclean, and most Muslims I know are scared to death of them. And of course, showing someone the sole of your foot is a great insult. She knows the Americans aren’t insulting her, but it still feels rude, just like I know she’s not insulting me when she insists on using her middle finger to point to words, but it still feels a bit strange)

She is also relaxing as she learns how inaccurate American television can be. She was surprised at how Ilsa talks to me, how she checks in with me about her plans and asks permission to go places. “I thought she could do whatever she wanted,” she says, breathless with the newness of it all. (She, too, has believed American television, especially bratty kids on sit-coms) She asks me advice on parenting, and presents hypothetical situations. What would I do if Ilsa, at 14, told me she was in love with a boy at school, whose parents I didn’t know? What would I do if Ilsa wanted to go to college far away, not another city in Oregon, but a university in another state? Do I care what Ilsa studies or does Ilsa get to choose? We have some great discussions.

Ironically, she may have to leave the Land of the Free because of societal norms back home. Her husband’s mother is sick and demanding he return, since he’s her favorite, out of her 11 children, 10 of whom are still local and could look after her just fine. I’m annoyed. On the one hand, I don’t fault her–I can’t imagine never seeing one of my children again. But she already worked through this when they left last year. Why would she bring her son and his young family back to a place where their lives will be endangered because of where they’ve been living?  And my heart breaks for Aicha, who loves her new home even while she is still adjusting to the strangeness of it all, and who longs above all to be free to make her own choices.

I am reading a fascinating book which posits that we would all be better off if we had hookworms in our guts. Somehow, this would help prevent, or at least reduce the occurrence of, such diseases as diabetes, allergies, and Crohn’s Disease. In The Wild Life of Our Bodies, author Rob Dunn looks at how we’ve gotten rid of bacteria both harmful and helpful without distinction, and makes the case for some people who have introduced worms into their super-clean and sterilized American intestines, often with good results.

I am thinking about this as I watch Leah, an Iraqi girl, make a salad. Her mother has already cut lettuce in strips and added finely-cut cucumber and tomato, then drizzled it with olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of salt. Leah plunges her unwashed hands into the salad bowl to mix it. Then she touches a bit of lettuce to her tongue to taste the dressing. It’s okay, so she drops the lettuce back in to the bowl with the rest of the salad.

When I invited M and W over to try Mexican food for the first time, they ate guacamole with the serving spoon then put it back in the bowl. Their daughter takes the sugar spoon, takes a big bite, and puts it back in the sugar. I don’t throw it away later.

This is far beyond the double-dipping which is so decried at American parties. And it happens at every meal. Dishes are served in medium sized bowls, placed every 2 or 3 people, and you just take your spoon and dip it in the nearest bowl of yogurt or lamb/okra stew or hummous, take a bite, and then use the same spoon to take a bite of something else. No problems!

Fortunately I have lived overseas so this amuses me more than bothers me. In Mauritania, meals were served in a large common platter, and we all gathered round and scooped up the rice and meat with our hands or a bit of bread. When tea was served, you always had to have three rounds. It was the height of rudeness to leave after having had only one or two cups. The cups were always rinsed in between rounds, but the same water might be used between all 3 rounds, and certainly there was no soap involved.

I have written before on my view that America has become too regulated, in our attempt to control anything bad that could possibly happen to any of us, ever. (Click on these links; I really liked those posts) It’s strange to watch people fussing over small things like their kids (gasp!) sharing a coke, between a brother and sister; it feels false, like a silly thing to worry about when some people have real problems.

So, you are thinking, I am probably in total agreement with The Wild Life of Our Bodies? Um, no. Not entirely, although I should mention I am barely halfway through the book yet. (Do you read nonfiction more slowly than fiction? I do.) The problem is that I have had worms, and giardia, and other intestinal visitors, and they did not make me healthier. They made me miserable, albeit a bit thinner. And while it is true that none of us have allergies or Crohn’s, I have a friend who raised her son in the dirt-laden sands of Nouakchott and he nonetheless developed severe nut allergies.

The thing is, there will always be something. We have beat the odds overall as a civilization has developed; we are safer and live longer, in general, than at any other time in history. But this world is still broken, imperfect. We are not going to win. We’re still mortal, and just because we’ve beaten the flu and the measles, it’s not surprising that we are now at higher risk from allergies or autism. Even if we ingest hook-worms and that helps, we’re still at risk of a car accident, or random freak tsunami. The world is ultimately not controllable.

So I’m all for not fearing a few germs. I enjoy eating with my Iraqi friends and sharing all our colds and coughs with each other. I would even posit that I’m healthier than a lot of people, in spite of not currently having any parasites that I’m aware of. But I’m under no illusions. We’re not the ones in control.

I am sitting on Suzi’s couch. “Tea or coffee?” she says to me, heading into the kitchen.

“Oh anything,” I say.

“I don’t have anything—I’m sorry,” she says. “Only tea or coffee.”

I suppress a smile. Tea it is, then.

***

We squish on the couch—like most refugees, their furniture is other people’s cast-offs, and couches are often missing springs or have broken frames. We tend to fall towards each other, but I’ve learned over my years in the Arab world that my comfort space is much larger than theirs. I’ve learned to relax, ignore their hand on my knee or their elbow in my side. And really, once you get used to it, it’s a nicer way to be.

Suzi spends the morning showing me pictures of Iraq on her computer—former Iraq, she specifies, not current. She shows me ancient monuments, a modern city with streams of traffic, a waterfall in either the north or south of the country (she gets directions mixed up). We try to find her old house on google earth but we can’t get it to work. “And now…” she pauses, lost for words. “Terrible?” I offer. She nods. “Every day I cry,” she says. She hasn’t seen her family in 5 years; they’ve never met her youngest.

This is what I’ve been noticing a lot lately, as the clouds lift and the sun shines in Oregon—the terrible unrelenting pain my Iraqi friends carry. I’d noticed manifestations already, in the countless trips to the clinic, for unspecified aches and pains. Beka bled for a year, she told me. Eve gets back aches. When they came for lasagna, while her husband and Donn were off discussing art and photography, it all came spilling out—stories of gunfire strafing her house, of death threats specifically against her because she wouldn’t allow a militia access to her roof so they could shoot her neighbours in the street. Her husband having to argue for her life, while she was frantic about whether or not he would return. They all carry such a burden of memories with them. I want to help them lay that down, but there’s not much I can do. I listen as they shape their mouths around unfamiliar syllables, struggle to find words, occasionally lapse into their own language out of frustration.

I read this article recently and found myself nodding in recognition.

“It is estimated that some 4.5 million refugees have been uprooted from their homes since the Iraq conflict began in 2003 and escalated in 2006… approximately half of whom are children and adolescents. In many cases, they are neither able to go back, nor forward with their lives, as experiences of torture, kidnapping, severe violence, and grief continue to fill their lives.

The lack of psychosocial support means that Iraqi refugee families are left unaided to cope with the trauma they have faced in Iraq…Insecurity and hopelessness due to an uncertain future all have a significant impact upon the family unit, which in turn affects the health and well-being of the younger generations of Iraqi refugees.”

The article was focused specifically on the diaspora in Syria and Jordan (and can you imagine fleeing war in Iraq and being in Syria now?) but I found it very applicable to my friends here.

I’m not going to write two reviews for every book I read. But I happen to have read two very intriguing books in a row. (Although this afternoon I kicked through a nice, light murder mystery. It was fun but I’m not going to double review it.)

Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing is writer Alan Paul’s story of moving his family to Beijing and living there for 3 ½ years. His wife was offered the position of chief of the China bureau for the Wall Street Journal, and they both felt it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

Naturally this book appealed to me. When my kids were still preschool age (ok, technically Elliot was in Kindergarten), we moved them to North Africa. I could relate to so much of the expat experience as he described it, including the driving (and how it’s kind of fun, in its own death-defying way) and his 3 blonde children being petted and admired and photographed everywhere they went. Paul and his wife, Becky, approached their time in China rather as Donn and I did our overseas time; they wanted to embrace it to the full, learn language (uh, we were only semi-successful at best at this although in our defense we did teach English, which insulated us somewhat), travel the country, escape the expat bubble and really immerse themselves into local culture as much as was feasible.

One big difference was that his wife had a job with an international company and an expense account, so their Expat Land (his term for it. Love it!) was different than ours. We worked for a small humanitarian company that paid the same no matter what rent we paid or where we put our kids in school. His expat experiences were more in the English-speaking world, putting his kids in a British school and going to their baseball games. Our expat experiences were more mixed; we had friends who spoke French and Arabic but no English (well, everyone speaks at least a little English…), and we didn’t get invites to embassy parties. Still, like him, we spanned at least two worlds; our English-speaking friends were Scandinavian and Turkish and Korean and American and British, our local friends might have had roots in Sudan or Libya or a small mountainous village in Morocco.

The title of the book refers to Paul’s band, and the heart of the memoir really is him finding his wings as a musician. Although he was sort of a musician and sort of a writer (and more successful at both than I am, for example, although he felt his career was “meandering” before they went overseas), it wasn’t until he left his own culture that he found the opportunity to really succeed at both. Some of this was no doubt the freedom one has to reinvent oneself when one arrives in a new place, and some of it was the opportunities that arrive when you are one of a few (native English speakers, for example, or expats who have experienced a particular culture). Regardless, while I enjoyed that aspect of the book, the parts I really enjoyed were the parts I could most relate to. They came home for the summer and everything was familiar and strange at the same time. They went back to China and everything was dustier than they’d remembered. They wanted to stay; they wanted to leave. Their friends were constantly moving on.

They experienced things that were magical, incredible—some of their trips to the interior, for example. Their kids will have great memories. (I don’t know why we always say that. It’s true my kids have great memories of growing up in Africa, but I do too, and my memories are better…that is to say, more accurate.) And Paul’s band, composed of him, one other American, and 3 Chinese musicians, gave him an in to the culture that was unique.

It was a fun book and brought to mind the question I’ve been asked countless times: why did you move overseas? There are many answers to that question, but I would agree with Alan and Becky Paul’s reason: it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It broadened our vision exceedingly; it changed our lives in countless ways; in some ways, it defines us.

Read my actual review of Big in China here.

June 2019
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