â€œYou married or single?â€ Ali asks me bluntly. I am in Iraq wearing a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet â€“ I do not feel feminine at all. I am not surprised when I am greeted as â€œsirâ€ in all my gear so his question takes me off guard.
â€œWhat?â€ I ask. I have just introduced myself to this man.
â€œAre you married? With husband? Or single.â€ He asks pointing at the gold Claddagh ring I wear on my left hand.
â€œOh, Iâ€™m single,â€ I reply and immediately add, â€œI have a boyfriend,â€ which is a lie. I bought the ring in the Shannon Ireland Airport on my trip to Al Asad Airbase, Iraq.
â€œWhere are you from?â€
â€œIndiana. Well, California now.â€ I answer not sure of this manâ€™s geography skills of the US.
â€œAre all the women there as beautiful as you are?â€ He asks leaning close to me, making me extremely uncomfortable.
â€œYeah. Iâ€™m pretty average.â€ I answer and take a step back.
Ali and three other men from Baghdad have driven across the desert to deliver 6 pick-up trucks, 2 SUVâ€™s and 2 vans for a six month lease. US Military contracts are going to Iraq companies more and more frequently because of the Iraq First Project, which promotes and helps rebuild the Iraq economy. This is my first Iraq First Project contract and while I see Iraqi soldiers around base my interaction with them is very limited.
â€œIn Iraq the culture is different. The women stay home. Make babies. You make babies after Army, No?â€
Heâ€™s already asked where I went to school, what for, why I joined the Marines, how much school cost, how much a house and car cost in America while waiting for the other men to get badges from PMO (Provost Marshalâ€™s Office) to be on base. After all the normal questions heâ€™s asked â€œyou make babies?â€ takes me off guard.
â€œNo. I donâ€™t make babies.â€ I tell him.
â€œBut you have boyfriend. You make sex with boyfriend?â€ He asks looking up to me. He is shorter than I am (at 5â€™ 11â€ this is normal), wearing dress slacks and a striped collared dress shirt. He looks like an average middle-aged, businessman. In America this question could be considered sexual harassment, but Iâ€™m not in America.
â€œDo you have more than one wife?â€ I boldly ask to divert the question. I donâ€™t
particularly want to talk about my sex life (or lack thereof) with this man.
â€œI have one wife and a young friend. Do you marry boyfriend and make babies
and cook? Thatâ€™s what my wife does. She takes care of the children and house.â€ He asks, putting the spotlight back on me.
â€œI donâ€™t want babies. I donâ€™t want to get married either.â€ I say firmly.
â€œWhy not. You make good wife, no?â€
â€œNo, I canâ€™t cook and I donâ€™t want babies. Iâ€™d make a terrible wife.â€ I answer smiling. I realize that his bluntness comes more out of the communication barrier than rudeness. I feel less threatened by this man now and he stands back, respecting my personal space.
In order to be on base, contractors must have a background check. This is done using a retinal scan because many of the contracted workers have worn off their fingertips. They also must be escorted by a military escort. There is a Major and a Sergeant escorting the men with me. The Major leads the way back to the trucks and the Sergeant walks behind them. They are more cautious, walking with their hands on their weapons and watching the men closely. I figure the men have been searched and checked by the MPâ€™s (military police) and the only threat they pose to me is making me uncomfortable by talking about making sex.
We climb back in the caravan of vehicles and drive to the flight line in a slow procession. The Major takes the long way for ease of the trailer and so we would not drive by the squadron spaces and aircraft on the flight line. I wonder if I am naÃ¯ve or if these men really are a threat. This is their country and they are prisoners of this war being treated as though all Iraqiâ€™s are insurgents. These are men trying to put food on the table. Then again over 4,000 US servicemen and women have died in this war.
We make it to an area suitable for unloading and pull over. As his men offload the vehicles Ali approaches me again. â€œSo, if your boyfriend says I love you?â€ He holds out his hand signaling my response.
â€œIf I love him Iâ€™d say I love you too.â€ I say.
â€œAnd if he says I want to marry you?â€ He asks.
â€œIâ€™d say no and then leave.â€ I say matter of fact.
â€œWhat!â€ Ali looks as shocked as I felt when he asked â€˜you make sex with boyfriend.â€™
â€œI donâ€™t want to get married so Iâ€™m not going to,â€ I explain bluntly.
â€œBut you love him.â€ Ali says trying to figure out why I wouldnâ€™t marry a man I love.
â€œThat doesnâ€™t mean I have to marry him.â€ I squint in the sun. Even with $160 Oakley sunglasses the sun burns my eyes. None of the Iraqi men are wearing sunglasses. I wonder how strange this must be to him. A woman in the military who refuses to marry and make babies that is signing a $125,000 contract. I wonder if he thinks women in his country will do this some day or if it is just the â€˜American way.â€™ One of his drivers starts an SUV and inserts a cassette tape. An Arabic song starts blaring.
â€œThis song is about a man who is chasing his lover. â€˜Habibiâ€™ do you hear that â€“ it means my love. She is leaving with another man and he is saying â€˜come back to me my love.â€™â€ I listen to words I donâ€™t understand about a culture and a place I donâ€™t understand.
â€œYou really not want to marry?â€
I laugh. â€œNo. Really, I donâ€™t want to marry. Iâ€™d say no.â€
â€œIn my culture if the woman does not answer the question it means â€˜yes.â€™â€
â€œSo, Iâ€™d definitely have to say â€œNo.â€
We both laugh as the sun slowly starts to set over the bleak desert landscape.
The Major recruits a couple Marines to test all the cars engines, lights, radios and VINs as I sign the paperwork and shake his hand to acknowledge the business agreement. I forget that in Iraq they do not shake firm, but barely grasp the hand. I doubt after our conversation that he is offended by my American-ness. This is his country, his culture and I respect that, but Ali also respects that Iâ€™m American and my culture is different and Iâ€™m not dancing on egg shells not to offend him.
We caravan back to the gate and the MPâ€™s take their badges. The Major and I get out to say goodbye. Ali shakes the Majorâ€™s hand, â€œNice doing business with you.â€ Then he takes my hand and winks, â€œdonâ€™t forget me and what I said.â€ I smile and wave at the drivers all smiling and staring at me from the cab. I jump back into our truck. How could I forget this man? The Major drives back through the gate and onto base as the setting sun lights up the sky like a plate of melted crayons â€“ orange into yellow into pink into lavender into blue into desert.