Saturday, August 06, 2005

understanding the unknown

The most eloquent series of words couldn’t ever accurately describe the feeling you have when you hear a falling mortar just seconds after one has impacted less than thirty meters away. No matter how hard anyone tries to explain it, you’ll never know what it is like to hurriedly scramble to the base of a palm tree, put your arms over your head and wait for that falling round to hit. Some experiences, no matter how hard you attempt to grasp and understand, cannot be fully comprehended until you experience them yourself.

I sat last night at BDOC, the Iraqi Army’s Base Defense Operations Center, reading Lolita In Tehran by Asar Nafisi. I found the book at Iraqi In America. Azar Nafisi, who now resides in the U.S., used to teach literature in Tehran. The book is the story of how she and several of her most dedicated female students would secretly gather at her home and read and discuss literature that was banned by the Iranian government. The book offers an in-depth window not only into the oppressive nature of post-revolution Iran, but how difficult life can be for women in extreme Islamic cultures. The world Azar Nafisi showed to her small group of students, much as the world we try to understand through her well articulated writing, are worlds almost incomprehensible to each other. Azar explains:

I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novels provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that “readers were born free and ought to remain free."

Later on it is described what female students went through when entering the university.

I would first be checked to see if I have the right clothes; the color of my coat, the length of my uniform, the thickness of my scarf, the form of my shoes, the objects in my bag, the visible traces of even the mildest makeup, the size of my rings and their level of attractiveness, all would be checked before I could enter the campus of the university, the same university in which men also study. And to them the main door with its immense portals and emblems and flags, is generously open.

As hard as I tried to imagine an oppressive environment like this in the U.S., at one of the schools I went to, I just wasn’t able to fathom it. We can try to put ourselves in a situation like that, but until it is reality we can’t ever come close to understanding.

A book about Iranian women secretly reading literature might seem like an odd choice for a twenty-two year old American Infantryman. I suppose it’s interesting to me because I have spent hours upon hours talking with male Iraqi soldiers, translators, farmers, business owners, students, teenagers and kids about their lives both past and present. But, I can only recall two times I have spoken directly to Iraqi women. Having been here eleven months, that just goes to show the differences in our cultures.

I’ll never forget driving from Camp Buehring in Kuwait through the desert to the firing ranges before we came into Iraq. I’d seen deserts on maps and could have given you the Webster definition of vast. Looking out into the wide open emptiness of the Kuwaiti desert and seeing nothing for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, was the first time I could truly comprehend the vastness of the desert.

Sometimes it just isn’t possible to truly understand and comprehend certain experiences, places or emotions from watching or reading about them. I’d seen mortar attacks in movies and documentaries and read about them in books. Until one is falling on you, you just can’t understand.

Walking through a crowded market in Baghdad. The first time I heard a mosque’s call for prayer. Waking up to outgoing artillery. Jumping out of a Blackhawk into sector. Helplessly hearing your friends taking heavy fire three clicks away. Low crawling through the mud in the rain to get on a roof before the power comes back on. Watching a mother scream and cry while leaning over her wounded son. Experiencing Iraq.

I guess what I am trying to say is if there is one thing I’ve learned this year, reading may serve as the foundation to education. However, the void of comprehension and understanding can only be filled by experience. I suppose that once you reach a suitable balance of the two, you begin to realize just how much you don’t know and just how big this world can be.

We as American’s are extremely fortunate to have the freedoms and opportunities we do. We live in a place where dreams are obtainable and anything is possible. No matter what our race, gender or beliefs we are treated equally and with respect. Hopefully we never truly understand how great we have it.