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From Shock and Awe to Culture Shock
August 6, 2008 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Leaving Baghdad: Culture Shock in America. Personal reflections on coming to America from Iraqi sculptor and blogger, Ahmad Fadam, who recently took up a visiting fellowship at the University of North Carolina. (Via the NY Times' Baghdad Bureau.)

Previous posts by Fadam on other topics (such as the war's impact on Iraq's recent history and culture) can be found here.
posted by saulgoodman (21 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
He is a bit vague on what exactly he found to be different from his expectations. Except that he was surprised that Americans were treating him so friendly.
But the same is often true for Europeans coming to the US. Or, for that matter, New Yorkers visiting Texas.
posted by sour cream at 10:47 AM on August 6, 2008


So it was great in Iraq before 2003. OK....
posted by A189Nut at 10:51 AM on August 6, 2008


He is a bit vague on what exactly he found to be different from his expectations.

It went on for so long repeating nothing but banalities of the sort you would expect from anyone writing a "how I faced culture shock living in a foreign country." He may have a future as Iraq's Andy Rooney.

He's just as vague and his observations just as banal in his Comparing New York with Baghdad entry.
posted by deanc at 11:50 AM on August 6, 2008


I thought his writing style was remarkably constrained and hesitant. He really didn't need to explain that he felt like he had to be on his best behavior, because it was obvious that he was struggling to be very careful and very conservative in his claims.

To me, this article is a good reminder of the problems associated with founding one's identity on one's nation of origin, but not much more.
posted by prefpara at 11:51 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


To be honest, I had some doubts because when I first came to the United States, I had this fear inside me about the way I was going to be treated.

Not so many beheadings of Iraqi citizens in the USA?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:57 AM on August 6, 2008


OK I've now read all of his handful of NYT blog entries (those while he was still in Baghdad and those now that he's stateside), because I very much want to hear more Iraqi voices, but unfortunately I tend to agree w/sour cream and prefpara: there is a strangely arid vagueness to his writing, a lack of specificity and an overall hesitancy that tends to swallow any memorable insights. At first I thought this might be a language issue: I assume he is writing in English (not in Arabic, and having that translated)? Perhaps also he is working hard to contain some anger here, which is understandable.
posted by ornate insect at 12:03 PM on August 6, 2008


I wish he'd actually given details on what culture shock he's experienced.
posted by mrbill at 12:19 PM on August 6, 2008


Yeah, that seemed to be 800 words of

"It's different here. I feel different here. My friend did, too."
posted by chimaera at 12:31 PM on August 6, 2008


I mean, his article comparing NYC and Baghdad opens with this:

"They are similar in some ways but at the same time very different."

I am disappointed more than I otherwise would be because I think the ideas he brings up are very interesting and deserve a higher level of discourse.

His article reminded me... When I was in elementary school, a few years after we immigrated, I remember that I would only mouth the pledge of allegiance because I felt it would be wrong for me to say the words, as a Russian. Now, the memory makes me uncomfortable. I no longer feel Russian. I'm there now, visiting my family, and I feel my foreignness in every conversation and see it written on the faces of buildings and cultural artifacts. I feel as American as I felt Russian, but I think (I could, of course, be wrong) that there is a meaningful difference between freely accepting the values of a country and feeling a loyalty that is based entirely on an accident of geography. Then again, perhaps I've just been successfully encultured?

Really, my thoughts on the subject are vague and ill-developed. I would love to see someone who has thought this through more carefully explain their insights to me in an engaging manner.
posted by prefpara at 12:50 PM on August 6, 2008


there is a strangely arid vagueness to his writing, a lack of specificity and an overall hesitancy that tends to swallow any memorable insights.

Fair enough, but a lot of the things that some of you see as weaknesses in the writing are actually what appealed to me most about this stuff (but I can understand why it might be a turn off to others). It's not particularly well written, nor does it offer any intellectualized observations or attempts to derive novel insights from his experiences either in Iraq or during the transition. Instead of all that stuff, it seems to me, you can just hear the conversational voice of an actual human being when you read this stuff, largely unrefined and more genuine than what you usually get. There might not be any particularly penetrating or profound insights here, but for me at least, there's the sound of an actual human being's voice in these words--it's like I'm just sitting next to Ahmad at a coffee shop or something and we've struck up a casual conversation and so there's no looming expectation that he's going to strike some sophisticated literary tone, deliver some intellectual payload, or really offer anything more than the unpretentious and relatively prosaic perspective of an ordinary human being who's been through something he doesn't quite understand and may never be able to understand. But to each his/her own.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:54 PM on August 6, 2008


you can just hear the conversational voice of an actual human being when you read this stuff, largely unrefined and more genuine than what you usually get.

The conversational voice of a real human being would be peppered with vivid examples, jokes, interesting novel information on what it's like to be from Iraq. This contains literally nothing of the sort. I could have written this, and I haven't been within a thousand miles of Baghdad.
posted by nasreddin at 1:07 PM on August 6, 2008


really, nasreddin? you must not talk to the same ordinary people I do. in my experience, the practice of including vivid examples and descriptions in writing and speech--and for that matter, using concise, clear language--are all habits drilled into people educated in writing workshops and academic settings. in fact, very hard habits to drill into writers. i've never once met an ordinary person who normally used language even half as concrete or descriptive, for example, as that famous Williams' poem about eating someone else's plums, and that's usually billed as an ordinary language poem.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:19 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bleh. I read this to see how Fadam liked Chapel Hill and was sorely disappointed.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:53 PM on August 6, 2008


I also wanted some specificity, you can't say, "I have been seeing things and learning about things that no one in my country will believe. Some of it is so beautiful and some is so crazy that even I, the one who saw it, cannot believe it." and then not provide an example of what you mean.

SaulG - I disagree with you. People tell funny or interesting stories about their experiences all the time and most have not been in writing classes. Writing is a greater challenge because the person isn't in front of you and you have their facial expressions, body language and gestures and voice to help out. But people tell great stories all the time.

In this article, we don't even get an attempt at description, just "it's really different". His tone is so sincere that I wanted to know what he meant but I only ended up feeling like he was shrugging his shoulders instead of trying to get a real point across.
posted by shoesietart at 2:08 PM on August 6, 2008


saulgoodman--I think you may be over thinking this a bit. After all, people in everyday conversation--the world over--do talk about specific things: they talk about their job, their family, how their favorite sports team is doing, their vacation, the food at a particular restaurant, a TV show or movie they've recently seen, the upcoming election, a celebrity they've just read about, a recent wedding they've attended, a spouse's promotion, a recent birth or death, a mutual friend's new apartment, the weather, a divorce, a diet, a new fad, etc. I'm guessing, for example, the food was a culture shock to Fadam, since presumably Baghdad has few supermarkets, and many people buy most of their food in open-air markets: the first time he went shopping in suburban Chapel Hill was probably a bit disorienting.
posted by ornate insect at 2:19 PM on August 6, 2008


i've never once met an ordinary person who normally used language even half as concrete or descriptive

I have to agree with the others above that "ordinary" people quite often tell colorfully vivid stories. Short on novel insights or literary craft, to be sure, but with authentic texture and detail to put the reader into the speaker's shoes; the shoes with cinnamon chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the heel; the ones that were like the ones Monica wore on her date with the taxidermist; the ones that always cause a major blister and are probably the wrong size, etc., etc.

This essay, to me, read like a page from "!Aventuras En Espanol II!" about Juan and Pillar drinking refreshments at the beach and commenting plainly and favorably about the warm sun and plentiful people doing the same thing in different verb tense.
posted by applemeat at 9:16 PM on August 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


I have to agree with the others above that "ordinary" people quite often tell colorfully vivid stories.

It's irrelevant what I think, of course, but I would agree with the statement that "ordinary" people sometimes tell colorfully vivid stories. But often the fact that someone tells vividly colorful stories marks the fact that he or she is not an "ordinary" person in the sense I mean, but perhaps an otherwise ordinary person with an extraordinarily vivid imagination, a temperamentally heightened attention to detail, a touch of eccentricity, or somewhat above average native intelligence.

Can it really be denied that it's common for ordinary men (especially within working class families like the one I grew up in) to pride themselves on how little they speak for non-utilitarian purposes? Reluctance to speak idly is a core feature of a certain commonly held masculine cultural ideal. Men who talk too freely and articulately with others about their experiences or ideas can arouse a lot of hostility and scorn in some communities. Plus, unless someone can demonstrate otherwise, it's hard for me to believe that more than 5 out of 10 random people stopped on the street, if asked, would be able to tell a colorful and insightful story drawn from personal experience with the qualities needed to meet the expectations being set here.

I like the plain-speak in these posts. Reminds me of first reading Hemingway. My first reaction was, "Ugh! a third-grader could write more elegant prose!" Then later I realized, no one has ever written more elegant prose. (Well, maybe Raymond Carver.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:06 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Then later I realized, no one has ever written more elegant prose.

???
posted by nasreddin at 11:17 AM on August 7, 2008


I meant Hemingway, nasreddin, not Fadam, in case it's that ambiguity your responding to. And yes, Hemingway's prose is extraordinarily elegant in my opinion (particularly because, to me, elegance almost necessarily connotes a certain economy of form, though by that particular standard of elegance, a lot of writing I like as much or even more than Hemingway is just so much overwrought treacle.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:55 AM on August 7, 2008


I meant Hemingway, nasreddin, not Fadam, in case it's that ambiguity your responding to

Yeah, that was it. You could absolutely make a case for Hemingway, especially his short stories.
posted by nasreddin at 11:58 AM on August 7, 2008


nada y pues nada y pues nada...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:19 PM on August 7, 2008


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