Diplomacy By Facebook: Day 3 in Iraq by Steve Clemens
Sunday in Iraq is the beginning of the workweek so when we drove to the University of Kufa in the morning there was a myriad of students present. We met with Dr. Azar, a dermatologist I had met in Minneapolis when he was part of the inaugural Sister City delegation in 2009. He showed us his laser and UV equipment he uses in his practice and told us a lot about medical schools and research happening at the University which promises to be in on the cutting edge of graduate education in Iraq and ultimately in the Middle East. Later in the morning several of us were asked to do PowerPoint presentations about some of our work and passion in the Twin Cities. But what really grabbed me was the enthusiasm of the young students who are eager to meet us and share their dreams and goals.
And they ask about connecting with us on Facebook. When I asked Mohammed about connecting with me in this social media revolution, he spelled out his name so I could find him and “friend” him. I searched that evening finding at least a dozen men, most if not all Iraqis, with that same name so, being 62 and of a generation which has to ask our offspring how to do things computer-wise, I asked Mohammed if he’d send me a request thru Facebook to be my friend and then I could just say “Yes!”
However, to the chagrin of both of us, when he brought in his laptop and connected to the wi-fi network here at the guest house, he typed in my name only to discover we were already friends! Apparently thru Sami Rasouli he had befriended Luke Wilcox, our (only) staff member at the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project when he traveled to Najaf last year to improve his Arabic. When I received a “friend” request in Arabic several months ago, I forwarded it to Luke asking if he knew who this person was before saying yes. Luke assured me the person behind the unintelligible (to me) Arabic scrawl was someone I’d want to connect with.
The problem for me was when I searched for Mohammed on my computer I couldn’t find him because the only name on his account was in Arabic and I don’t know how to begin to do that on my laptop. Furthermore, I confessed to my new friend that I’ve probably let some of the paranoia of the FBI infiltrate my own mind. After all, the homes of several of my friends in Minneapolis were raided by the FBI several years ago under the preposterous claim that they were giving “material support to terrorists”. Preposterous most of all since none of them have much in the way of material resources that they haven’t already poured into their anti-war and justice advocacy work. Because of their continued experience of being under suspicion (and threatened serious legal challenge) I’ve probably been too cautious in reaching out to others who speak a language I can’t comprehend.
But now that I’ve met Mohammed face-to-face and discover that he is not only on the faculty of the College of Pharmacy at the University, teaches computer science, and helps the Muslim Peacemaker Team with communications, he is also a great guy and fun to hang out with. He already has show my fellow delegate Joan how to better maneuver on her Facebook account and promises to help me as well.
And I’ve met Ahmed, friended him on Facebook, and he tells me about his exciting work in planting trees to not only beautify his nation but also help protect its environment. After I met him our first night, he had already sent me a “friend” request before I got back to the guest house that same evening. When I saw him the next morning at the souk in the “old city” section of Najaf, he smiled and told his buddies that he and I were already [Facebook] friends – as well as also being on track to becoming more than just friends in the virtual world. We hope our delegation can schedule some time to plant trees with him and his organization before we leave Mesopotamia.
At the University presentations, Deborah, one of our delegation spoke out clearly about wanting to empower the voices of women in our world and it was fascinating to see several young women crowd around her afterward – and then another group of female students came by to talk with her as we were finishing our lunch at a campus restaurant/hangout. I’m grateful to witness their enthusiasm especially when women are so “covered” and often out-of-sight in much of this conservative Shia culture.
Several other young people inquire if any of us are on Facebook, hungry for relationships with these unarmed American visitors. Citizen-to-citizen diplomacy is greatly facilitated when we discover not only that we like each other but also we share so many similar dreams and challenges.