Monday, April 18, 2011

On the Road--Odessa

On the road trip we ended up in Odessa for a night. Mr. Spherical Model has some Iraqi engineers being trained in oil industry equipment and systems for several months, and he wanted to drop in and visit them. So I got to meet with them for a while and learn a little about their country and culture: Mustafa, Sajjat, Abduljabbar, and Hayder (I may have messed up their names).

Some of them were old enough to remember life before and after Saddam, which is something they note with many contrasts. Among the big dictators, they said, Saddam Hussein was worse than Hitler and Stalin; while they killed many of their own people, he killed one in five. It was never safe.

Hayder said he had a brother who left Iraq around 1991, after the first Gulf War, and ended up in Canada. This brother had a friend who wrote about the evils of Saddam’s rule in some publication, and one day on the street in Canada a truck came up and ran him down, killing him. The assumption was that it was the reach of Saddam Hussein even beyond the borders of a free country; the perpetrators were never found or prosecuted.

Many of the Iraqis are educated; these four are engineers, some with quite a lot of experience. But during Hussein’s rule they could not learn English, so dealing with the rest of the world was difficult. The government owned all the country’s resources, and they were hired to do work they were told to do, and that was all. Now they are learning English, improving their training, traveling and working with people from around the world.

Parts of the country now, they tell me, are quite safe. Basra, in the south, is considered very safe and stable. In the north, where there is still some fighting, things aren’t as safe. However, they made sure I understood that practically all Iraqis are in favor of the current post-Hussein government and want it to succeed. Those fighting are from other countries, mainly Saudi and Iran, who are fighting each other on Iraqi soil.

They are sometimes astonished at the cost of things here. For what it cost to go to an emergency room recently, they could have visited a doctor five or six times. (Mr. Spherical Model is giving them insurance cards; that was one of the purposes of the drop-in visit. And he explained about going to a doctor or clinic instead of a hospital.) Sales tax is another little culture shock; you see a price and think you have enough to pay, and then when you check out you find out it costs more. Personally, I think there should always be both the price and the price you pay on everything.

One little nagging detail is that their current government is so new, not everything is up and functioning. Electricity is spotty. They get maybe four hours a day. It was hot here today, about 95 degrees, and we really needed air conditioning. I don’t know how they can survive with only an occasional dose of cool air. I asked what they do, and they said, “We drink hot tea,” because there’ no cold water.

Driver’s licenses are another glitch of a government not fully up and running. Over there, when a license expires, they don’t worry about it; they just drive without a license, and that’s acceptable for the time being. But since they’re in the US, without a driver’s license, they can’t rent a car. And in Odessa that is very limiting. No driving to Carlsbad Caverns for a tourist weekend. No going much of anywhere. And they are here for months at a time without their wives and children, so passing the time is a challenge. Restaurants that meet their (mostly vegetarian) needs is also a challenge, but they seem content to do their own cooking.

They have been hearing about tornadoes on the news, which devastated some parts of the Midwest and North Carolina (oddly enough) this weekend. They wondered why we don’t build all our building of cement and have steel plates that can come down over the windows whenever there is a threat. I don’t know if we can adequately answer that. It’s too expensive, and concrete isn’t that attractive. And if a tornado hits, it’s like an explosion, so maybe nothing can do more than mitigate damage. You just get in a sheltered room and hope it doesn’t hit. “Like being bombed,” they said.

Their openness, friendliness, and willingness to learn and meet with the world was very encouraging. Mr. Spherical Model says he thinks they are fairly representative, at least of southern Iraqis. I hope that is true; I believe it is.

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