[Note: having discovered an Internet source evidently unaffected by Basra's black-out, we now rejoin our regularly scheduled program...]
[FYI: if you're interested in a look at the on-the-job challenges police face here in sunny Basra, check out my latest piece in the Christian Science Monitor.]
[It's called the world's largest megaphone, and the New York Times has seen fit to lend it to me for its Sunday, July 31, edition. You can find it here--registration required--and my thanks to the Gray Lady.]
Standing behind the lectern in the convention hall, the Air Force captain spoke in short, declarative sentences, exuding an earnest enthusiasm as, kneading his field cap in his hands, he explained the process for bidding on projects up to one million dollars. "Remember," he cautioned in his flat American tones, "write your proposals in English--and no more than a single page, please!" The audience of some 200 Iraqi contractors--some of them women--nodded and jotted down the Captain's words in their notebook.
Not surprisingly, given Basra's dilapidated condition, contracting is big business. Not only for the city's numerous contractors, but also for the crooked politicians, parasitical religious parties and criminal gangs who take their cut from every construction job, creating a business climate that combines the accountability of Tammany Hall with the law and order of 1920s Chicago. And though the low-level contracts the Captain awards are not lucrative enough to attract big-league corruption, I thought he might provide some insights into perhaps Basra's biggest problem (far bigger, for example, than terrorism)--and so, when he finished his remarks and stepped off the podium, I buttonholed him for an interview.
Not that I didn't know anything about Basra-style corruption. In our travels across the city, Layla and I have fielded ceaseless complaints of extortion, protection rackets, employment featherbedding, nepotism, bid rigging, influence-peddling--it's impossible to talk to Basra businesspeople and not hear such woes. Mention, for example, the province's Governing Council and contractors will grimace, close their eyes and shake their heads. (One GC member oversaw a multi-million project to extend a street in downtown Basra; a year has gone by and so far no extension--meanwhile, the politician now lives in a $5 million home near the British Embassy.)
Then there was the highly-placed official in the Electrical Transmission Directorate who admitted to us that the government pays the notorious Garamsha tribe to protect high-voltage power lines from--well, the Garamsha themselves. A businesswoman complained that if you're not affiliated with a religious party, your low bid--even for projects involving international NGOs--will have difficulty finding acceptance. The owner of a cargo-hauling company described the port of Um Qasr as a veritable On the Waterfront-like scene of smuggling, theft and looting--which, when accused of complicity in the crimes, the former port manager blamed on--who else?--corrupt Americans.
And this, in fact, was the real reason I sought an appointment with the Captain: I wanted Layla to meet him. I am sometimes dismayed by my friend's willingness to believe the worst about America (working last year with British journalists corrupted her mind, I'm afraid), and while I can't always explain or defend Administration policies--are we in Iraq for the oil, and is that a bad thing?--I do want her to know that your basic Yankee "occupier" is an honest, well-meaning, straight-arrow Joe or Jane, trying to do the best job possible for the Iraqi people. Unlike, say, your average Basran politician.
So it was one recent afternoon--imagine sun so hot it burns the moisture from your eyes--we taxi'd out to al-Basrah Airport, where the Captain was stationed. He met us at the gate and drove us onto the U.K. base, deciding en route that because of the heat and our thirst, we might best conduct the interview in one of the two bars provided for MNF troops. Stepping into a crowded, sunny, air-conditioned room, we found the usual atmosphere: rap music; the low buzz of conversation from intermingling men and women; a large-screen TV playing a video of half-naked women cavorting around a fat, unattractive man; the smell of beer and cigarette smoke; the clik of pool balls on the felt. The only difference, of course, was Layla, her pink headscarf standing out among the Guinness pints and 16-oz. Buds like a WTU banner in a frat house. This was, I realized with a mild start, her first-ever visit to that symbol of kafr corruption, a saloon.
I bought everyone a round of orange juice, and we set to talking. In his mid-to-late thirties, prematurely balding, the Captain told us he was born in North Carolina, and currently lived in Ohio with his wife and two kids. ("That's the hardest part about being out here," he told us, "being away from my family.") He'd been in Basra about a month, during which time he'd awarded some $19 million in contracts, ranging from a few hundred bucks for printers, to a million-dollar police station renovation project. He operated on his own, he said, relying on common sense and past job performance records to select Iraqi contractors. He did not use a translator--one reason he asked for Iraqis to complete their bidding forms in English.
This last point was important. Layla and I have heard numerous stories about how, on big multi-million dollar projects, Iraqi translators and engineers--which the Americans, British and non-Iraqi NGOs are forced to use because of language difficulties--often accept bribes from companies to steer contract their way. Since most Westerners don't know Arabic, and must rely on the translators and engineers as their eyes and ears, the funding sources are rarely the wiser. "In my case," said the Captain, "there's just me, my database and Iraqi companies. No chance for corruption there."
I'd wanted to introduce Layla to the Gary Cooper side of America, and I felt I'd succeeded. Instead of the evasive, over-subtle, windy Iraqi, fond of theory and abstraction, here was a to-the-point Yank, rolling up his sleeves with a can-do spirit of fair play and doing good. "I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.
Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. "How do you know," she began, "that the religious parties haven't put a woman's name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors." Pause. The Captain looked confused. "Religious parties? Extremists?"
Oh boy. Maa salaama Gary Cooper, as Layla and I gave our man a quick tutorial about the militant Shiites who have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola's Florence. The Captain seemed taken aback, having, as most Westerners--especially the troops stationed here--little idea of what goes on in the city. "I'll have to take this into consideration..." scratching his head, "I certainly hope none of these contracts are going to the wrong people." Not for the first time, I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a U.S. soldier--call it The Naive American--who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?
Collecting himself, "But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?" the Captain countered. "I mean, I've always believed that we shouldn't project American values onto other cultures--that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?"
And there it was, the familiar Cultural-Values-Are-Relative argument, surprising though it was to hear it from a military man. But that, too, I realized, was part of American Naiveté: the belief, evidently filtering down from ivy-league academia to Main Street, U.S.A., that our values are no better (and usually worse) than those of foreign nations; that we have no right to judge "the Other;" and that imposing our way of life on the world is the sure path to the bleak morality of Empire (cue the Darth Vader theme).
But Layla would have none of it. "No, believe me!" she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. "These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn't your apply your own cultural values?"
It was a moment I wish every muddle-headed college kid and Western-civilization-hating leftist could have witnessed: an Air Force Captain quoting chapter and verse from the new American Gospel of Multiculturalism, only to have a flesh and blood representative of "the Other" declare that he was incorrect, that discriminations and judgment between cultures are possible--necessary--especially when it comes to the absolutely unacceptable way Middle Eastern Arabs treat women. And though Layla would not have pushed the point this far, I couldn't resist. "You know, Captain," I said, "sometimes American values are just--better."
He and I then spent a few minutes wrapping up the interview--he truly was a decent, well-intentioned guy--during which time Layla's attention drifted toward the activity around her. She seemed interested in the pool game, and a dart contest caught her eye, as did a pair of women soldiers drinking at a side table. It wasn't until 45 minutes later, when she dropped me off at the hotel (remember, maaku Engliziyya bit-taxsi), that I asked her opinion of the bar. She shrugged. "Maybe some people in my culture might consider it corrupt, but I just saw people doing everyday things that their religious values allow. Nothing wrong, nothing corrupt--at least there."
I thought about pointing out the multicultural tolerance and relativism in her attitude, but wisely refrained. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson reminds us, and if he'd lived in Basra, he'd've added--the djinn of Islamic extremists, as well.
Yours from the land of the no-show employee, back-door pay-out, paper corporation and unbalanced books (but don't you dare wear too short an abiya!)...