Monday, March 8, 2010


I work with several Iraqi and Iranian doctors, as well as doctors from Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They enjoy telling me stories of growing up in their countries, what their family lives were like and what is was like going to school in their home countries. Talking with them has been a real education for me so, I thought perhaps I would share some of what I have learned with folks who perhaps don't know a great deal about those mysterious places in the Middle East. Before I go any further, let me say this is not about politics, so please don't misunderstand me. I don't completely comprehend the complex politics of the Middle East, and for the purposes of this post, they are not relevant.

Until 1920, the country of Iraq did not exist. It was created out of the spoils of the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was carved up and France was given mandate over Syria and Lebanon, while Great Britain was given mandate over Jordan, Palestine and Iraq, of which Baghdad is the largest city. The roots of Baghdad go back to 1200 years B.C., but in the 8th Century A.D., it became an important centre of commerce and education. One university, Bayt al-Hikmah, attracted scholars from all over the world, where students translated Greek manuscripts, preserving them for all time. It was home to great philosophers, scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, scientists and religious leaders. They studied the works of Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates. While Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Baghdad was the centre of a rich, intellectual civilization. Today the museums in Baghdad house thousands of priceless ancient artifacts, but the museums have been closed to the public since the invasion in 2003 in order to protect the treasures.

Baghdad is built on the banks of the Tigris River -- one of the four rivers from the Garden of Eden -- and it has a population of approximately 7,000,000, almost the size of New York City. Baghdad has existed through dozens of sieges over the centuries, and it will survive the current one as well. Iraq is a country with a very different culture from ours. We in North America do not fully understand it, nor are we expected to understand it. The doctors with whom I work tell me of their religious traditions, their family traditions and their cultural traditions. Their customs seem so foreign to me, as my customs are foreign to them. They bring to the office wonderful things to eat -- kebbabs, bamia, falafel, dolma, and delicious pastries made with phyllo dough, pistachio nuts and honey. There are special dishes for special feasts, and some of the recipes go back 10,000 years. I find the Iraqis to be very warm, generous people and they love to hug. All I can think is how unfortunate it is when we all have so much to share, that we should spend so much time in unecessary hostilities. We here in North America can be somewhat naïve at times, and often we don't know as much about the rest of the world and the people who inhabit it as we think we do.


Wolynski said...

Whether you liked it or not, this is political. People all over the world are the same in spite of what the government says - they're not out to kill us.

What if America was judged by Timothy McVeigh and all the other murderers?

Beautiful post.

Jo said...

Wolynski, yes! One thing I have learned through blogging, and meeting people from all over the world is that, the more different we are, the more we are all the same.

JeannetteLS said...

Absolutely. Wonderful post, Jo. In the states, the war has sent so many people from the Middle East underground at times, afraid to admit their culture in a public venue, and how can we blame them? When the Iraqi invasion occurred, I was at Stanford University at a banquet. My colleague and I listened to the Emcee announce the invasion as casually as he announced dessert, and she reached behind her as I reached for her hand as well. I turned to the gentleman beside me, who was looking down at his plate.

I said, and I am not sure why, "I am in a minority here just now. This news terrifies and enrages me. Are you all right?"

He looked up at me, with tears in his eyes, and said, "I am from Turkey." And the gentleman on my other side said, "I am French."

And all I could think was, this is an awards banquet and we should be CELEBRATING this wonderful mix of cultures. Instead, my table was nervous. All I could think then to say was, "Not all Americans judge other people by what position their government takes with respect to our own."

You are so fortunate to work with people from other cultures. Sometimes I feel as if people have trouble just dealing with someone of a different OPINION, let alone culture.

I didn't mean my response to be overly political--I just hate how the politics can so easily interfere with understanding and enjoying one another.

Thanks, Jo.

Jo said...

Oh, Jeanette, my goodness what an interesting story! Thank you for sharing it.

I remember sitting in my living room, watching the tanks rolling over the bridges of the Tigris River, and feeling sick to my stomach. All I could think about was how frightened the little kids must have been, with all the explosions going on around them.

What in heaven's name has been done to their country, and for what???

lovelyprism said...

It's so nice that you can see the good in people and places. The news is so full of negativity and that is all some of us know about these foreign places. It's amazing how many of us live in our own little world and don't know enough history to appreciate someone else's world.

Firefly said...

I have an interest in history (special ancient history) and archeology. You just need to compare Egypt and Iraq and be sad. Egypt is cashing in on the tourist trade through its history while nobody can dare go to Iraq for fear of their lives. In the mean time the history is lying dorment for nobody to experience and enjoy.

KathyB. said...

Right on Jo! I enjoyed this post and learned something too.It is always enlightening to actually KNOW someone from a different country with a different view of life.

kenju said...

Good post and a wonderful part of the world; politics notwithstanding.
In college, I was fortunate to make friends with a group of students from Iran, and one from Jordan. I loved hearing about their countries and culture. We truly are all the same - except when fanaticism rears its ugly head.

Eternally Distracted said...

From somebody living in the Middle East I can honestly say that I have never in my life felt safer or been surrounded by such lovely people. Thank you for your post - the world needs more like you :0)

Brenda said...

I love reading all of these wonderful comments here Jo. Thank you for putting together this post. I really agree with Wolynski's true.

Jo said...

Charlene, I know! I didn't like the way Iraq was depicted in "The Hurt Locker". It is much more than that.

Firefly, yes, Iraq is a country rich in heritage and it is being ruined. It's a shame.

Kathy, I don't think many folks in North America know much about the Middle East at all. I would love to visit Iraq because it would be such an experience -- but not right now.

Kenju, yes, and the fanatics can live on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, can't they? :-)

Eternally Distracted, I didn't know you live in the Middle East. How interesting! They are lovely people, aren't they?

Brenda, I don't think North Americans often realize what an interesting place the Middle East is...!

Katy said...

Wonderful post Jo! and something we need to be reminded of. There are a lot of things wanting in my hometown - good weather, decent public transite- but one thing I love is meeting all the people who come to work here from all over the globle. Okay, now I'm craving domalies

Land of shimp said...

I really enjoyed this post, Jo. It makes a point that really is one we all need to take to heart, and absorb. Myself included, at times.

The Persian history is also truly fascinating. A few years ago I took it into my head to casually study Persia, and was astounded by all I didn't know! How advanced these civilizations were. It's a rich, beautiful history.

We tend to deem anything different from our own ways as being somehow peculiar, or threatening. There's more to any person, any people, any country than the worst thing their government ever did, but since that is the thing we are likely to call to mind when meeting an Iraqi, an American, or a Canadian (etc. etc.), we make the assumption that it somehow applies to that individual...and the truth is? It likely does not. Same thing goes with our understanding of other cultures. Whatever broad spectrum assumption we have from a thirty second clip on the news is not wholly definitive of anything.

What's funny is that we've all experienced it, Jo.

You've encountered the strange, "What it means to be Canadian!" views that some in other countries seem to hold, and you know it doesn't reflect Canada. How about how inaccurate those "facts" are?

We do all encounter the assumptions made by others, and it never feels good to be on the receiving end but we turn around, and sometimes do it to others. People from Islamic countries do not hail from a violent, turbulent culture without merit. Americans are not, as a whole, ignorant and xenophobic. Canadians don't all strap on snowshoes to trudge through the frozen tundra to the igloo where they work.

The other funny thing is that the world turns out to be a fascinating place, with a lot of intriguing, and truly lovely things in it.

I think I've made this point here before, but in the movie Milk Harvey Milk tells the gay men around him that they must come out, so that people will see beyond that label. They will see their coworkers, their neighbors, their relatives...they will see people.

Whenever we meet someone from a different place, a different culture, a different anything, it helps to remember "Person" first, and "whatever preconceived notion" not at all.

Jo said...

Katy, yes, and some baklava with honey. YUM! And yes, it is interesting to meet people from all over the world, isn't it?

Alane, "...the world turns out to be a fascinating place, with a lot of intriguing, and truly lovely things in it." I could not have said that better myself. And yes, it has shocked me to see the rest of the world's preconceived notions about Canada -- particularly during the health care debates in the U.S. That's why I laughed when I saw the closing ceremonies for the Olympics. Canadians know how to laugh at themselves and poke fun at the rest of the world. They dragged out every stereotype from Mounties to moose, and it was wonderful...! Good for Canada...! *heh*

Blue Ridge Mountains said...

My husband and I lived in Saudi Arabia for eight years...before the time of all the trouble. Knowing first hand the people from the middle east and defending them sometimes gets me in a lot of trouble. It's worth it.

Jo said...

Blue Ridge, yes, my experience of folks from the Middle East is that they are lovely, warm people. There is some sort of a disconnect between North Americans and them, that is unfortunate.

Russell said...

I join in with the rest of the commenters and agree that there is much good and much to be learned in this part of the world.

I confess that it makes me uncomfortable that a pretty vocal and radical group in that part of the world want to destroy us and believe that by so doing their will go straight to heaven.

Again, like most Americans, I really do not know much about this part of the world. But it is a two way street.

I hope the leaders in that part of the world are willing to work with the rest of the world to find peace for all of us.

There is much beauty and history there and that part is incredibile.

Grandma Yellow Hair said...

Enjoyed reading this very much..I need to have my kids read it also..
I am glad you share it with us

Mia said...

Somebody once said Americans can't find a country on the map until they've invaded it.

The so-called Middle East is an incredibly beautiful place. But you can only go to 3 of its countries with an Israeli passport and even with a European passport you might have trouble getting into some if you have a "Jewish" name. The political is unavoidable.

Deedee said...

As usual Jo, very well said. I personally wish we could all say to hell with politics and just realize, we are one world and one human race.

jeannette stgermain said...

So true, Jo! Although I love living on this side of this ocean because of its entrepreneurial spirit,I sometimes also smile because of it's "island" mentality, or center of the universe view.
Also, it's really had to find accurate news about the rest of the world!!! But I have to say, the rest of the world is guilty of that as well!

Laurie said...

Wonderful post, Jo! Sadly it seems human nature always sets up "us vs. them" situations. I remember in the early 60s German and Japanese people were the "thems". I was blessed to live in a neighborhood with a German-American and a Japanese-American family (war brides). My life is so much richer for the time I spent in their homes, learning about their cultures as a young child. I am not comfortable living in a world where everyone looks, talks, thinks, or believes just like me.

TomCat said...

Hopefully the US will do better than the foreign policy of the last ten years. We need to learn that controlling oil is not the be all and end all. Perhaps then we can learn to respect others' cultures.

Smalltown RN said...

Wonderful post JO....both educational and inspirational...thank you....

Jo said...

Russell, yes, the Middle East has a rich culture that is centuries older than ours in North America. We do have a lot to learn from them.

Maggie, yes, it's good to teach our children about other parts of the world, and other cultures.

Mia, "Somebody once said Americans can't find a country on the map until they've invaded it." Unfortunately, there is more than a little truth in that. They don't seem to be interested...

Deedee, politics and religion are the great dividers, sadly.

Jeanette, yes, North America is a bit isolated. On the continent of Europe and Asia, they are all connected, and much more inter-connected.

Laurie, yes, in Vancouver we have a huge diverse population of people from all over the world, but sadly they don't always get along with each other. People still seem to stay within their own cultures.

Tom, perhaps the rest of the world sees the Americans as being exploitive, much the same way as the British Empire was in the last century.

Mary Anne, yes, we do have some interesting people living here, don't we?

Alicia said...

Thank you for this information. I think we fear that which we do not know or understand. I hope you keep giving us insights into Baghdad. Their customs, their goods, their traditions.

Jo said...

Alicia, yes I might do a post about Tehran, Iran next.

Paula Slade said...

Very nice post Jo! This world needs more understanding and tolerance for for foreign cultures that have contributed much over many centuries.