November 10, 2006

Name:  SPC Jami Gibbs
Posting date: 11/10/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url:

They are eagerly waiting for us when my partner and I arrive at 0900. Soon they will be on their way to visit relatives in our hospital. They wait in a holding tank of sorts; a fenced and barb-wired section just outside the processing area. I am initially intimidated because I notice immediately that there are far too many of them for the two of us to handle. The escort rule is 10:2. Ten Iraqis for every two guards. If you add even one more Iraqi to the group, then another guard is required. We strictly adhere to this rule. If not everyone gets to take a trip to the hospital, too bad, so sad.

It amazes me how different each Iraqi visitor is. Some of them could easily be mistaken for American. These are the ones who have neatly pressed pants, tucked-in button-up shirts, and gold watches dangling from their wrists. On the other hand, there are the stereotypes. The women in long black robes. The men in pure white. The headdresses that seem to come in all sorts of colors and patterns. I am embarrassed that initially I can’t distinguish one from the other. At first they all seem to be a flash of dark skin and dark eyes. I find myself relying on their clothing for identification. I say to myself, "Okay. There are two women wearing black. One man in white. Four are wearing jeans. One has that shiny ring on his hand…".   I do this for accountability, to keep track. I do this because otherwise they seem to blend in with the patients or translators or the mass of civilians working on the base.

The translator at the gate wears a black ski mask. He's been outfitted in an American desert uniform (less any rank or identification) and effortlessly switches between Arabic and English. Even though I would not remember his face, the Iraqis will. Or at least a particularly vengeful one would. So, he takes every precaution to disguise himself from someone who may feel he's being a traitor. Thus, he is the "masked translator". And for his efforts and the danger, he gets paid handsomely.

The translator hands me a list. Written in Arabic and English are the names of the first ten visitors. Even in English, the names are barely pronounceable for me. All I can do is count to be sure that there are ten names listed and ten people standing in front of me. As each one approaches me and stops so that the others in the group can move through the gate and catch up, I greet each one in Arabic the best that I can. "Salam alaykum!" (hello). I tested out "Good morning" in Arabic a few times thanks to the suggestion of E: "Besach el nur!" But I got mostly blank stares or laughs. The laughing was fine by me, since it helped to relax them a bit. And at least they saw that I was trying to use their language, even if it was totally incorrect and sounded silly!

I motion with my hand to move forward, and the group responds immediately. They all walk in a straight, steady line and follow my lead.  My partner takes up the rear.

Before we can take our group to the hospital, they must get badges.They exchange their Iraqi identification or passports for a military pass. This is no easy task. The process of getting a temporary pass can be tedious. The Iraqi IDs are flimsy and prone to deception. They all appear to be hand-written and laminated. A small picture of the individual is surrounded by the squiggles of Arabic. Half of the IDs seem to be falling apart at the edges, as most laminated IDs tend to do after a while. I can imagine how easy it would be to make a fake. But the Sergeant in charge of issuing temporary passes seems to be a master of knowing if it's authentic or not. He is friendly and speaks some Arabic, but isn't afraid to show his authority if he perceives any deception. He studies each one for several minutes at a time. He looks at the ID then at the Iraqi. He turns it around and stares intently at it. He asks where each one is from (in Arabic of course) as they step up one-by-one to his counter. He jokes by saying he’s from Diyala or some such Iraqi town. It's particularly funny since he's a towering black man in an American Army uniform. This makes the Iraqi laugh and gets a nice chuckle out of me too. On one occasion we had to escort a gentleman out of the compound. Apparently his ID wasn't adequate. But he left without much fuss.

As each person steps up to the ID counter, I try my hand at pronouncing their name, and check them off on the list that the masked translator gave me. They respond well to hearing their name, and if I butcher it, they politely correct me. I have them point to their name in Arabic just to be sure I have the right one, and match it up with the English equivalent. I wave the next person up.

Each ID is emblazoned with ESCORT REQUIRED. They wear them around their necks like VIP backstage passes at a concert. One last count. One last vain attempt to remember faces and we're off. We load them up in a civilian vehicle, a little Euro van.

In every group that I took while working this duty, I noticed that the atmosphere in that van was always somber en route to the hospital. The silence was absolutely deafening. It was only a few miles to our destination, but my partner and I couldn't stand the stillness. Eventually, when our small talk with each other didn't suffice, we would turn on the radio. Often it would be a news station. I became very aware that each piece of news had  "Iraq" or "Al Qaeda" or some other Middle Eastern reference in it. For some reason, I felt bad putting this on with ten assorted Iraqis in tow. As if they were hearing rumors we were saying about them behind their backs. Or, since most of them couldn't speak English, as if they were only hearing their names in a foreign conversation and it would make them anxious. Remember that Cosby Show episode when Cliff couldn't understand his wife when she spoke in Spanish? He said, "I just listen for my name."  For some reason this kept popping into my head. I imagined the Iraqis hearing the news on the radio as, "blah blah blah Iraq blah blah blah Baghdad." And I wondered if they thought we were saying something bad about them.

On the route to the hospital, we pass by a couple of flag poles that wave the Iraqi and the American flag.  They are both blazing at the exact same height, the exact same size. The silence in each group always breaks momentarily when we pass by this. It was never louder than a whisper, but it was noticeable in the general silence of the van. Even if they were speaking in English, I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to make out what they were saying, because their voices were so hushed. But I liked to think that they were pointing out the flags to each other. I can't be sure of it, but it's nice to think that someone was noticing that both of the flags were flying together.


Your story is going to stick in my mind. I live near a corrections facility, (jail) and some of the prisoners are allowed family visits. You describe the exact mood of the family members visiting brothers, husbands, and fathers. Despite the difference in langauge, culture, and situation, you nailed it. Thanks for your post!

This story impressed me as well, I can't imagine a hospital visit here being the same as a visit to prison.

You're an engaging writer, I hope you post more in the future. On your comment about learning the language, I wonder if someone has already told you this, but it's "sebach al nur", not "besach". Also, this is the response side of "good morning", the first person to say it should say "sebach al khair". Best wishes, Tanya, a high school teacher in NY

Really really moving. Thank you.

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