Monday, July 16, 2007

Sons of Bitches and a Look In The Mirror

July 2

Left: On the wall: Son of bitch number two.

Today the PMRS mobile clinic went to a village near Bethlehem named Abu Njem. We waited until 9 am for Dr. Nisreen to come to the office; when she didn’t show up they called her and asked if she was coming in to work today. She said she was trying, but the army had blockaded her village to all traffic again, and there were no taxis available because the road to the village had been blocked at its entrance. We went to the road where it had been blocked, waited for her to walk to the clinic van, picked her up and headed out.

When we got to the village we set up in some kind of community center. It was decorated with all sorts of Fatah posters, pretty much all of which had a picture of Arafat or of Abu Mazen. There was no electricity when we got there (there was no clean water at all), so patients who needed blood work just had to sit around and wait. The electric came back on after a few hours.

We saw the same sorts of simple primary care cases: chronic diseases in the elderly and infections in children. I was with Dr. Ibrihim, but Dr. Nisreen also saw quite a few ob/gyn cases.

Dr. Ibrihim and I saw patients in a large room, the one pictured above. At one end of the room was a picture of Abu Mazen staring off into space like an idiot, and at the other end was a picture of Arafat smiling like a buffoon. When we were packing up, Ismail, the guy who drives the clinic, came in, pointed to both pictures, and asked, “Taraf?” (“Do you know them?”).

Aiwa, Abu Mazen oo Abu Ammar,” I said (Abu Ammar was Arafat’s street name).

“Yes” he responded, in English. “Son of bitch, and son of bitch”, he said, pointing to each picture and smiling.

Aiwa,” I said, laughing. “Kulwahad son of bitch.” (Literally, “Yes, everyone is a son of a bitch”, but I think he understood that I meant “they’re all sons of bitches”, meaning Fatah’s leaders.) He laughed, lit a cigarette and walked out of the room.

At home we were all sitting around watching TV. On al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya (the two major Arab satellite news stations) there’s a commercial that runs quite often now for an organization that, as far as I can tell, is called “No Terror” in English and “al-‘arhab” in Arabic (I don’t know what al-‘arhab means or if I’m even transcribing it correctly). They have a website at It appears to be an Arab Muslim organization dedicated to using the Koran to show that terrorism goes directly against Islamic principles of law and conduct of warfare (which, as anyone who has read the Koran knows, is true).

The commercial starts off with a man being led to a plastic chair in a dark, drab room; you see this through his eyes. You can only see the very bottom of the screen. Then a masked man with an assault rifle, a keffiyeh around his neck and a black mask lifts a hood off the man’s face and screams “Sunni!”

The camera cuts to a market that I assume is supposed to be in Baghdad. Everyone is well dressed and healthy, and every single person whom the camera focuses on is smiling. The camera stops on a middle-aged man walking with his wife and children, one of whom is on the man’s shoulders. The screen goes black and white, you hear the disembodied laughter of a child, and then the terrorists show up.

They drive into the market in a gray BMW. Several men jump out, all dressed like the man with the rifle mentioned above. They start firing in the air, and the camera cuts back to the man in the dark room. Two men are standing at his side, one holding his head up by his hair. The man who screamed “Sunni!” at the beginning of the commercial is standing over him.

The man, now tied to the chair, is being tortured. His torturer screams, “Inti sunni ow shi’ite!?” (“Are you Sunni or Shi’ite!?”). Terrified, the man doesn’t respond. The interrogator strikes him, repeating the same question after each blow and becoming angrier and angrier. The man whimpers in fear, unable to understand why this is happening to him.

The camera cuts back to the market. The terrorists, having gotten out of their cars, are now firing randomly at people. The camera cuts back to the room, where the torturer is now obviously ready to kill the man in the chair.

Inti SUNNI OR SHI’ITE!?” he screams, now at the top of his lungs. The camera cuts back to the market. The terrorists kidnap two or three men, throw them in the trunk of the car and in the back seat, and then tear out of the market, firing in the air on their way out. The tortured man’s wife stands up with her children, looks around and screams “Tariq? Tariq!?” (Tariq is a common Arab name.) She becomes hysterical, and her children start to cry. The camera cuts back to the room.

The two men force Tariq to his knees. The man who was beating him loads his rifle and points it at Tariq’s head; the barrel of the gun is waving around wildly, as if the man can’t contain his hatred for whatever Tariq might be. “Sunni ow shi’ite?” The man asks one more time, much calmer now. The camera cuts to Tariq, the barrel of the rifle pressed to his forehead. He finally answers “Iraqi”. The man in the mask executes him.

The commercial is propagandistic, of course; Baghdad isn’t exactly full of happy, well-fed middle class families whose only worry in life is hooded terrorists who hate life itself. But it’s interesting to think about. This seems to be an attempt by some Arabs to force other Arabs to see the consequences of what's commonly called "Arab terrorism" or "Muslim terrorism". The consequences of terrorism (as practiced by Arabs) are shown in all their brutality; the modus operandi of Iraqi terrorists is exaggerated for effect and simplified for impact. There isn’t an ounce of sympathy for the murderers, not the slightest indication that these faceless monsters might be human beings. They are one-dimensional tyrants, vicious, brutal, fanatical, violent, irrational and wild. They inspire nothing but contempt.

Every time I see that commercial, I always end up thinking its American counterpart could simply never be shown. The major mode of illegitimate violence Arabs engage in is what we (correctly) call terrorism, on display nowhere so much as it is in Iraq today. The major mode of illegitimate violence we engage in today is incorrectly (or perhaps incompletely) called war. The consequences are largely the same, even if the methods differ (although they are often identical). The only difference is that our violence is more lethal, and by orders of magnitude.

Imagine a commercial shown on CNN that took the essentials of the Iraq war – the drive to control Iraqi oil and Iraq’s strategic space, and the human disaster that has followed – and simplified them for a one-minute commercial. The commercial would start with a child born in Iraq in the mid-1990s. She would be born with anencephaly and other neural tube defects, caused by our use of depleted uranium shells during the Gulf War and our subsequent refusal to remove the spent munitions from Iraqi soil; treatment was made impossible by our imposition of sanctions. The camera would show the child’s grotesquely distorted features, show her mother wail in horror after giving birth to the dead child, and show her father go berserk with a desire for revenge. The commercial would cut to George Bush Sr. delivering his most infamous line: “What we say goes!”

The commercial would go on to show the dismembered bodies of children strewn about Iraq, one of whom would lie next to a piece of metallic shrapnel that says “Made in U.S.A.” American soldiers would be shown abusing Iraqis, calling them “Hajjis”, breaking down the doors of homes in the dark of night and throwing terrified families around like so much garbage. Maybe there’d be a brief rape scene. And maybe then they’d flash back to the National Security Council meeting in 1945, when it was decided that the US would seek to control the Middle East’s oil at all costs and for the rest of time. In the end, the man whose child was born without a brain would be kidnapped by American forces, tortured just like Tariq was, and then handed over to a governmental death squad. His wife and the rest of his children would be rounded up, and they’d all be executed together.

Just imagine anything even remotely like that being allowed on American television. A commercial that forces us to look at the consequences of our violence, just like this “No Terror” commercial forces Arabs to look at their own violence. It makes one wonder what good freedom does in a society that chooses not to use it.