By Hugh Martin
27 August, 2012
Hugh Martin in Jalula, Iraq.
On our first raid in Iraq, I bounded up a long staircase, turned a corner and found myself face to face with a young Iraqi woman cradling an infant. I nearly knocked her over, and she leaned hard against the wall to let me pass. A black abaya covered her entire body, and a white scarf concealed her head, only revealing part of her face: shaking lips, small nose, her eyes wide and white in the dark. The infant, wrapped in a blue shawl, was asleep. After lowering my rifle, I backed away, and ran onto the roof where the other men searched for weapons, remnants of improvised explosive devices - the things we'd come to look for.
During my 11 months in Iraq, we were wired, not surprisingly, to take everything - the people, the buildings, even trash on the road - as a threat. As far as Iraqi women went, we did our best not to look at them, talk to them or, certainly, unless we had a female soldier with us to do so, search them. We were warned about female suicide bombers and others who would pose by the side of a road as if they needed help, only to detonate an I.E.D. when soldiers arrived. Although it may have been necessary in Iraq to keep our distance for safety and take all of these things as a potential threat, today, at home in the United States, I am still, like many returning veterans, programmed to view anything related to Islam - mosques, turbans, burqas, abayas, even long beards - with suspicion and fear. But there was something else related to Islam that always seemed sinister, even threatening, to us as soldiers in Iraq: the impenetrable language on billboards, spray-painted on highway overpasses, on road signs and in newspapers. For me, sometimes a sentence resembled the skyline of a city, a small ship on jagged waves of a sea - this was a language that I found beautiful, but that I still feared: Arabic.
Through our interpreters, we knew some of those messages were death threats: "Kill Americans," "Die Soldiers." It should be no surprise, then, that many of us found all of the language, directed at us or not, as ominous as an imam's voice blaring each day from the loudspeaker of a mosque. Before Iraq at Fort Bragg and Fort Polk, the training force would incessantly blast mosque prayer music as we simulated raids, patrols, and firefights; when that music was turned on at night, we immediately prepared for some sort of attack or threat. During our classroom training for Iraq, we practiced basic greetings in Arabic, but also commands like "la tataharruk" ("Don't move"); "irfa yedayyick" ("Hands up"). But after a few weeks in the country, we realized that our accents and pronunciations ruined any chances that the Iraqis would understand what we said. When we tried speaking Arabic, people just usually looked confused. Rather than practicing pronunciations, we did what was effective for the short term: we pointed our rifles when we needed someone to move, kneel, sit, raise their hands - anything. In short, when someone didn't understand us or didn't do what we wanted, we pointed our weapons, and it always worked.
Last year, as a graduate student in the creative writing program at Arizona State, I audited Elementary Arabic 101. I'd been home from Iraq for almost six years. Besides wanting to read and speak the language, I wanted to stop seeing it as a skyline, a boat on waves. Plus, as I wrote more prose and poetry about my time in Iraq, I wanted a more basic, thorough understanding of the few words and phrases I did know and had used.
In our class of about 20 students, the majority were from Middle Eastern countries: Qatar, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories. Our teacher was from Kuwait, and each day she wore the traditional hijab with some form of abaya, covering all but her face and hands. The first few days, I felt as if I didn't belong, and when we went around the room and announced why we were taking the class, I was greeted with curious stares when I said that I'd been in Iraq as a soldier and that now I wanted to learn to read and write the language. I was nervous and hesitant; I feared that some students would feel animosity toward me, maybe even hatred.
I sat in the front row, kept quiet and copied the notes on the board. When our teacher wrote those first letters in blue Sharpie and had all of us, in unison, pronounce their sounds, I had an immediate, very sudden feeling of comfort, of ease. She wrote those first few letters, and the long U shape with a dot beneath became "ba"; the half circle with the dot above became "na." There was something assuring, relaxing, about finally deciphering these symbols that for so long had seemed meaningless and even hostile.
In the summer of 2011, I was at a small café on Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi drinking Vietnamese coffee with the writer and Vietnam veteran Bruce Weigl. I'd made the short flight up to Hanoi while teaching creative writing at the National University of Singapore. This was one of Weigl's many trips back to Vietnam and after that first time returning, in 1986, he had worked on learning the language, translating the work of soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army, and even adopting a Vietnamese daughter. In his memoir, "The Circle of Hanh," besides recounting how he returned to Vietnam to adopt his daughter, he also meditates on his ambivalent relationship with the country: "This was the country I had invaded as a boy," he writes. "These were the people I had helped bring to grief. "
Although Mr. Weigl called Hanoi his second home, it was strange being there among the crowds of people, the lines of motorbikes - this country where, roughly 40 years prior, he had been an invader, an enemy. He explained how after the war, America and Vietnam - like it or not - would be linked forever. He never had to return, never had to learn the language, never had to translate the work of those whom he had tried to kill and who had tried to kill him. But like many veterans, Mr. Weigl did go back to feel whole, both to the physical country and in his mind: "During that first trip back to Vietnam I'd caught glimpses of the boy I had been in the war: here and there a fleeting shadow would pass."
Just as Weigl could have never imagined during his time as a soldier returning to Vietnam, I have trouble imagining a return to Iraq. Just like Vietnam, America and Iraq will be linked for a very long time, if not forever. After spending only a few hours with Mr. Weigl, and after reading all of his work over the years, I decided that I had to at least take an Arabic class (which I could audit for free because I was a grad student). I had nothing to lose.
That night in Hanoi, walking the city with this Vietnam veteran, I wondered if in 40 years I would sit and drink chai on the Tigris in a Baghdad cafe. Would I try to translate the writings of insurgents, members of the Mahdi Army, members of Al Qaeda? Would I sit in that Baghdad cafe with a younger American veteran who had just recently returned from the war in __________?
Running late to class in my third week of Arabic, I jogged up the angled staircase, past the drinking fountains, then turned the corner. My classroom was four doors down the hallway. As I glanced up, I almost smacked heads with a girl - all I saw were her large brown eyes dilated in front of me. Both of us jumped.
The encounter was eerily similar to the one I'd had that night in Sadiya: her body was covered completely in a black abaya and her head in a black hijab, and a purple veil hid her whole face, except her eyes and the upper bridge of her nose. In this hallway, it was common to see women in traditional Muslim dress because many of the Arabic classes took place on this floor. But for that second, not only was I startled from almost running into someone, but the sudden sight of her veiled face so close to my own caused a slight tinge of nervousness, even fear. In my conscience, I sensed that a vague "danger" signal was going off, and felt wrong for being so close to a woman dressed in traditional Arab garb.
"Excuse me," I mumbled and stepped to the side. She looked to the ground and passed. Not surprisingly, within seconds, the fear vanished and I felt guilt for having it. My palms were sweating. It'd been more than six years since I'd returned. In some ways, I thought I'd grown, matured, simply gotten over this prejudice, this fear I had had that was so clear on that first raid in Sadiya when I came face to face - the first of many times - with an Iraqi woman in her own home. I knew this cautiousness and suspicion had been necessary in Iraq, but now, back in America, I had to trick myself out of it. This fear seemed to rise from the subconscious: an instinct, not a choice.
Seconds later, as I swung open the door and walked into class, the 20 or so heads of my peers glanced at me. Six or seven girls, including my teacher, looked up in the clothing they wore every day: heads covered with a hijab, only their faces visible. I avoided looking at them because I felt that this prejudice radiated off of me. The white, bearded male, the Iraq veteran - his suspicion and fear of traditional Muslim dress clear in his eyes. Obviously I imagined their thinking this, knowing this, but was it just all in my head?
One afternoon while making copies in the English Department offices (I'd taught English Composition to freshmen), a group of four men and two women walked into the large office with the English dean. The women wore hijabs, and everyone, including the men in slacks and blazers, had darker skin and black hair.
"These are some visitors from a university in Iraq," the dean told our administrative assistant by the door. The dean explained that she was showing them around campus; I couldn't understand what for, but they were in town to visit. Since returning to the States, I had spoken to an Iraqi only once at an Iraqi-American Organization meeting on campus. Still, I always had a desire to talk to Iraqis because I wanted to hear what they thought about their country, the progress or lack of it, their perspectives on everything; and because I had spoken to so many Iraqis, in a uniform, a ballistic vest, hundreds of rounds across my chest, a locked and loaded rifle in my hands, I wanted to talk to them as a "civilian," as an equal.
I didn't want to interrupt the conversation, but I felt it was an opportune moment to practice my Arabic. Holding a stack of papers, I walked toward the group.
"Assalumu alaykum," I said, which roughly means "peace be upon you," the most standard greeting. All of their faces turned toward me, as if they'd heard their names called for the first time in a new place. They seemed shocked but smiled.
"Wa-alaykumu salaam," all of them said, touching their hearts with their right hands, a motion to indicate their sincerity.
"Ismee Hugh," I said.
They nodded, and at this point I blanked and couldn't think of anything else to say in Arabic. I knew how to ask "Where are you from," "What is your job" and much more, but I went blank. There was silence as they leaned forward, waiting for me to speak. The scene, of course, became awkward. I explained, in English, how I'd been a soldier in the town near Jalula and Sadiya. I had to repeat the names of the towns carefully, slowly: "Jalula," "Sadiya." Immediately, they shook their heads, repeated the names of the towns, pronouncing them better than I ever had. They knew of the towns, but that was all.
I gathered the papers in my hands and said "Goodbye," though I knew "ma salaama" was the Arabic, and walked out the door. Part of me was happy that I'd tried to chat, but it all felt futile. Six years ago, I'd been part of an invasion of their country; now, I wanted to make "amends" or be "friends" by attempting to speak some Arabic in the copy room at a university. I wanted them to tell me it was O.K., to tell me they understood why I (we) were there.
Sometimes, I think I just wanted to develop a new relationship with anything related to that word I'd heard thousands of times: Iraq. Maybe having a normal conversation with them in their own language would help replace all that negativity, that bad emotion - all of it piled up in my mind from training and my time there. I thought of those T-shirts I'd seen hanging from vendor stands all around Hanoi; they'd read "Vietnam: A country, not a war." Maybe I was doing just that: trying to change the Iraq in my mind from a war to what it really was and is: a place, a country.
As each class of Arabic passed I became more comfortable with the language. When our instructor would walk in the door, in unison we'd say "Assalumu alaykum." She'd take attendance and we'd each say, "Na'am," ("yes"). Although I studied two or three hours each day, I still struggled. Two friends I'd made, both Palestinian, helped with my pronunciation and penmanship. Outside of class, I'd begun receiving tutoring by a student from Qatar (he was fluent but had to take the class as part of his major). I had the feeling that those in the class from Middle Eastern countries respected that I wanted to learn the language, learn more about the culture, develop a better understanding.
I'd spent so many days and nights in Iraqi towns having conversations in broken English; I could only imagine the trust and relationships I would've built by practicing Arabic with the locals, going over the alphabet, practicing the sounds. Not unexpectedly, so much of the training and preparation had me fearing everything related to Iraq, to Islam, to Arabic; now, for a semester, I had relearned Iraq through its language.
Since that afternoon in the hallway before class, I haven't had an immediate encounter with anyone in traditional Arab dress. I know I carry this phobia; I know it's derived from my training and my time in Iraq. The prejudice and hatred I brought back with me will take years and years to completely disappear. It's gone on the surface, but still it's deep within me, surfacing like a flash as I nearly bump into a Muslim woman in a hallway. Besides this awareness, there has been one small change: when I look back through the hundreds of photos and hours of video I took while in Iraq, some of the scenes are now different: on shop windows, the sides of buildings, road signs, and cars, I no longer see the jagged, long, circular shapes and figures; instead, I find myself slowly reading, right to left, each letter, trying each sound in my mouth, my throat. It's no longer something mysterious, something I fear; it's now a sound, a letter, a word, even though most of the time, I don't know the word's meaning. At least now I can say the sounds.
Hugh Martin served from June 2001 to June 2007 in the Ohio Army National Guard as an M1A1 Tanker. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and was stationed near Jalula, roughly 90 miles northeast of Baghdad. His chapbook of poetry, "So, How Was the War?" (Kent State University Press, 2010) was published by the Wick Poetry Center, and his first book, "The Stick Soldiers," won the 2012 Poulin Prize from BOA Editions and will be released in March 2013. He has work forthcoming in The New Republic, Michigan Quarterly Review, and War, Literature, & the Arts. Mr. Martin is a graduate of Muskingum University. He completed his MFA at Arizona State University, and is now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He lives in Oakland, Calif.