Boris Fishman

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New York Diarist: Ambassadors At Large

The battle for Iraqi hearts and minds continues, and, several weeks ago, the battlefield was a conference room in New York at the Institute of International Education (IIE), which administers the Fulbright grant program. After a 14-year interruption, exchanges with Iraq resumed in early 2004; the second annual class of Iraqi grant recipients had just arrived for an orientation session before scattering across the country for a semester of language study. One of their handlers, a State Department public affairs adviser, explained their mission: to work toward their masters degrees, which are the academic purpose of the two-year program; to explain Iraq to Americans; and to explain the United States to Iraqis upon their return. For many Iraqi Fulbright students, the latter task may prove formidable: It’s unclear how well some will be able to explain the United States, even after two years here, or how willing their countrymen will be to listen.

Among the 16 new arrivals — another 18 would be coming in the following weeks — were a Kurdish moderate Islamist from Irbil interested in American literature and a Shia from Basra who will study propaganda in an effort to limit political influence over Iraqi journalism. But, for now, they were simply trying to get a sense of their new home from a young man and woman from the first Fulbright class, who had been brought in by the organizers to lend perspective after more than a year in the States. “How long does the culture shock last?” one of the new arrivals asked. “Fifteen days?” Hani, one of the two first-years, suggested. (Names have been changed for security reasons.) There was a low sigh of disbelief from the new Fulbrighters, who, having arrived two days earlier, apparently had seen enough to be skeptical. “Fifteen days or fifteen months?” a young woman in a head scarf smirked. “Avoid seeking out other Iraqis and Middle Easterners,” Fardous, the other first-year, advised. “But, if you want to speak intimately with someone,” another young woman asked, “who do you turn to?” “Most of your friends will be different from you,” Fardous cheerfully reassured her, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t confide in them.”

As Fardous acknowledged privately later, however, few of her fellow first-years have learned this lesson. Alienated by their perception of American society as excessively permissive, she said, they are essentially waiting out their terms inside cliques of other conservative Arabs and Muslims on campuses across the country. “If I say I went swimming with friends,” Fardous told me, “the only thing they want to know is if I was dressed modestly. And, if they see a girl kissing on the street, they don’t differentiate between girlfriend and prostitute.”

“In Iraq, they’re not used to different people,” Hani added. “Even the old professors who got their degrees in England — they’re looked at differently. The Fulbrighters who have had a negative experience, they didn’t start from scratch. Just because my father says you’re a bad guy, that doesn’t mean I have to believe the same thing. But they feel, too much, their difference.” Fardous mentioned a 2004 Election Day flight from Boston to Washington, D.C., for a group of Iraqi Fulbrighters that was canceled at the last minute. “The guys in the group decided it was because they were Muslim,” she said. “But it was because of the weather! They are misunderstanding of American culture. They feel America is too open. So they don’t mix.”

There was some giddiness in the IIE conference room, especially when Hani summed up U.S. gastronomic opportunities: “The food here — you will get used to it.” (As for avoiding pork, Fardous told the new Fulbrighters, widespread abstinence by observant Jewish people had made life easy: “If you see ‘K,’ for ‘kosher,’ you know you’re OK.”) For the most part, however, the new arrivals — all but one of whom were unable to reveal their destination to anyone outside their immediate families because of the danger it would pose to their relatives–seemed anxious about adjusting in a country where, apparently, you could call a professor by his first name but not hop on and off a city bus at will. “What about our conservative impulse?” the young man who had wanted to know about culture shock asked, alluding to the Iraqi habit of “keeping your distance” when confronted with unfamiliarity. Fardous explained that Americans were accustomed to foreigners; that some people liked you precisely because you were different; that the United States gave you a chance to discover that you might share more with a foreigner than with a fellow Iraqi.

Hani and Fardous seem to have understood the United States on its own terms, if not necessarily embraced the culture wholesale. “I expected to find a perfect society,” Hani told me. “But you meet good guys and bad guys. But they are open to new ideas, and, if they have a counterargument, they will wait until you finish. So open your mind. This man may say something against what you believe, but give him a chance. It won’t hurt you.” When the Kurd from Irbil asked whether Hani looked forward to returning to Iraq, he said he was eager to: “I have some things to change, starting with my own family,” he said, referring to the unequal role of women in it.

One wonders what kind of ambassadors the more disenchanted Fulbrighters will make after returning to Baghdad and Basra and what influence their experiences will have on the political culture the occupation is trying to foster. But the fates of Hani and Fardous–the ostensible triumphs–are even more worrying. What kind of change can they hope to make if they, as well as their successors, are unable to reveal their whereabouts to anyone but their parents, and if I have to use pseudonyms in this dispatch? Will they even make it in Iraq? “I do have culture shock,” Fardous told me, riffing on the earlier question, “but with Iraqis, not Americans.” Will they become the “superfluous men” of twenty-first-century Iraq, their promise stifled by their country’s inability to appreciate their message? Forty years from now, will they be “the old professors who got their degrees” in America?

Published
July 11, 2005