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Thomas Friedman paints Iraq

(Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

(Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

In a July 14 column on the New York Times website entitled “Goodbye Iraq, and Good Luck,” Thomas Friedman informs us that he is in Kirkuk “tagging along” with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are at a meeting with 11 Iraqi provincial leaders, a sum Friedman explains has been dealt with by “local U.S. officials [who] have provided me a color-coded guide, identifying each Iraqi politician, their political tendencies and religious affiliation.”

The topic of discussion is which part of Kirkuk should be assigned to which color group. The 11 representatives—“seated on one side of the conference table”—present their  claims one by one via Arabic interpreter, until a Kurd breaks the succession with a joke in English. Friedman notes that it is his lucky day, and provides a transcript of the joke:

After Saddam was ousted in 2003… there was an elderly citizen who wanted to write a letter to the new government to explain all his sufferings from the Saddam era to get compensation. But he was illiterate. As you may know, outside our government offices we have professional letter-writers for illiterate people. So the man told the letter-writer all of his problems. ‘In the ’50s, they destroyed my house,’ he said. ‘In the ’60s, they killed two of my sons. In the ’70s, they confiscated my properties,’ and so on, right up to today. The letter-writer wrote it all down. When he was done, the man asked the letter-writer to read it back to him before he handed it to the governor. So the letter-writer read it aloud. When he got done, the man hit himself on the head and said, ‘That is so beautifully done. I had no idea all this happened to me.’ ”

Friedman then supplies a translation of the joke, as even Orientals expressing themselves in English require outside decipherment. Friedman’s rendering is as follows: “Everyone here has a history, and it’s mostly painful. We Iraqis love to tell our histories. And the more we do, the better they get. But with you Americans leaving, we need to decide: Do we keep telling our stories, or do we figure out how to settle our differences?”

An observer unfamiliar with Iraqi culture might have interpreted the Kurd’s joke to simply mean that color-coded representatives were embellishing their claims to Kirkuk. The untrained eye might have also failed to detect the reference to the Americans, or wondered why Friedman’s version of the joke was not funny.