Bridge to Nowhere

Whenever I am driving long-distance, one of my favorite thing to do is to listen to "This American Life" podcast. Most people in North America are familiar with Ira Glass' weekly installments. To a newcomer eager to understand the American society, I would recommend him/her to that Chicago Public Radio production first.

Today I'd like to discuss one of the episode called "by proxy". This episode strikes me as a compelling illustration of the importance of proper channel of communication between different cultures, a recurring theme around here.

The act II of the episode is called "Kill The Messengers". It's about Glass' conversation with Bassim, an Iraqi interpreter for the US army. Bassim believes he is a regular guy except for two things: he speaks English well and that he believes that the American presence in Iraq does not have to be detrimental to his country. He speaks in a very matter-of-fact manner with a gentle tone. He is aware that interpreting for the US army is a situation that could potentially become complicated but worth the effort.

Things were fine for a while, Bassim said. He understood quickly that it was in everyone's best interests that he did not translate everything words for words because the context would not allow it. For instance, one the military officer would be adamant about cigarettes not being discarded in the streets and would follow his co-workers, the Iraqi policemen, and ask them to pick up after themselves when they threw cigarettes away. Bassim would translate the order but he would say to the policemen instead: have pride in your country, don't litter. Not as a direct order but as a a suggestion. Bassim agreed with the content of that order, he wish people would use ashtray more often but he also thought that maybe cigarettes butts were less important than creating a real bond between soldiers and policemen.
Bassim would also choose to not translate jokes made at the expenses of the soldiers by local policemen. No point in getting people aggravated.

In many ways, Bassim was one of the reason things were OK to a certain point, putting out one potential fire after the other, literally. He thought of explaining to the officer that if he were more lenient on the cigarette issue, he would be perceived as less of an occupant and more as a coworker. He thought of telling Iraqi police that the US soldiers are here to help.
Then the Abu Ghraib photos went public and his life slowly turned into hell.

He was seen as in his own words: "as worse than the enemy", a traitor to his people. After receiving threats to his life, Bassim asked the army for advice. They listened to him carefully and offered that he stayed on the base during the day and that at might, they would send him back home with protection. That's when Bassim realized that he reached a dead-end. To be seen with the army at night would be a death sentence not only to him but also to his whole family.

Failure to establish proper communication channel is partially what led to this impossible situation for Bassim. He and his family eventually had to leave Iraq for Europe, taking with him the hope for a positive American outcome in Iraq.

The bridge that was Bassim's work in that region went up in flames. Those bridges are fragile but I think they are important and they need more support. A knee-jerk reaction to cigarette butts or not knowing when to be strong and when to let go is not a trivial matter. When most current events are now public, scrutinized to death and instantly polarizing, it is, in my humble opinion, the essence of a functional world.

it seems to me that whoever becomes the next president of the US of A needs to have a full grasp of that concept and re-establish those bridges. It is yet to be seen which one will come through but it is the base of Obama's appeal overseas. So far, Iraqi bloggers are skeptical, at best.

In 2005, my cousin wrote to me and asked how I liked living in a country where phone conversations are taped and where the Geneva Convention is all but an afterthought. How could you, he asked. In a way, my cousin's question pushed me to blog. To me, his opinion was the common narrow view of the whole picture, the usual rehashing of opinions heard in the media abroad.

What I saw here on 9/11 were upset people but I also witnessed a professor's call for tolerance and wisdom at a spontaneous gathering with students and staff, one hour after the twin towers went down.

What I see today is a website that strives to reach out to the globe, a forum to explain one's identity to the many others in their own words, an effort to build bridges.

What I see as well is the understanding that it's difficult to fully grasp a culture if you are not physically there yourself. My opinionated cousin has yet to come visit. He is the proverbial "Will Hunting describing the Sixtine Chapelle through art books":

A few weeks ago, I was discussing with a fellow Malagasy the political landscape in Madagascar and the introduction of English as an official language. He told me: "Well, since you are in the US now, you've got to be a strong supporter of Ravalomanana and his pro-US policy". I then realized that building bridges is a complicated process that everyone may not agree with, and that's quite alright.

I guess what I tried to illustrate in this never-ending post are four things:

1) Explain why I mostly blog in English when I write about Madagascar and vice-versa.
2) Explain why I care enough to lit my 1st cigar in 8 years if Obama wins ( McCain has become too temperamental and trigger-happy ( Georgia/Ossetia) to build any semblance of bridges).
3) Remind myself to never assume that people in the same vicinity or similar line of work would think along the same lines.
4) Last but not least, express my gratitude to the bag packers of the world for going places to places (see links) and solidify those virtual bridges ( and also hopefully attenuate the future damage caused by "Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa"...ugh...).

[The title of the post, "bridge to nowhere" is only time I will acknowledge that McCain picked a VP from Alaska this week. I really have nothing to say about that except...huh ?! ]


  1. I feel like you and I are thisclose to starting the Church of Global Voices ;)

    But in all seriousness, thank you for that perspective. Frankly, it sucks how narrow most people's views are of the rest of the world (and that goes both - rather, many - ways). I've heard the same narrow mindedness from California to Boston to Morocco and from every other point and GVers are of the rare breed working to dispel that thought process.

  2. @ Jillian,
    1st rule (of GV Church):
    No Drama allowed.
    2nd rule:
    No rules allowed (except for 1st rule) :)

  3. 0.5th rule of GV church - spread the word.

    It's hard for people living in areas with low cultural diversity to understand different points of view. I've always been a proponent of international exchange programmes for students so that they have a chance to live in another culture (and not only UK - USA).

    UK has a lot of experience in Iraq with previous wars and such. They seemed to do a much better job in the Iraq conflict than the US. Maybe they just had quieter neighbourhoods to patrol... or maybe their attitude was different. The US should have shared their experiences.

    Anyway I'm sure the whole of Southern Africa will be partying if a son of Africa becomes 'the most powerful man' in the world.

  4. @mosi:

    I think most of the world will be boogeying down if that were the case comes November. Problem is more than 1/2 the US seem to think that the rest of the world is wrong and should mind it's own business :).

  5. yeah... if you're the sole superpower I guess you can afford to do that. the people who do know about foriegn policy seem to do a good job with US interests abroad though. It's just their idea of not saving any money that's getting them into trouble now. All of the credit is financed by Asia.