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Off to War: Cultural, ethnic differences affect work atmosphere

Michael Wiehagen

Issue date: 10/3/08 Section: Opinion
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It has been a great September. This month marked Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting (from dawn to dusk) to memorialize the presentation of the Qu'ran to the prophet Muhammad. The Second Battalion moved to a schedule of working evenings and early mornings, and sleeping days.
As their advisers, this marked a slow period for us. We would go over in the mornings and the evenings to visit and observe the training that was taking place and then join our counterparts for conversation and chai (tea). It was good and relaxing.
Since this month was sluggish, this is a good opportunity for me to talk about one of my additional duties, which is managing the six local national interpreters that we have working for the team. Their names are Diego, Jimmy Dean, Jack Attack, John Francis, Johnny Appleseed, and Shrek Diesel. Of course, these are just the aliases that they go by. Their real names remain a secret - if their identities were known, it would expose them and their families to needless danger in their hometowns…kind of like superheroes.
Diego, Jimmy Dean, Jack Attack, Johnny Appleseed, and John Francis are Yezidis, while Shrek is a Sunni Arab. At times, this difference in ethnicity can cause a strain between the five Yezidis and the one Muslim. The Yezidis are, understandably, mistrustful of any Arab since they were attacked and faced harsh prejudice under Saddam's regime. But, for the most part, the six interpreters get along just fine and manage to remain professional through it all.
The Yezidis are an interesting group. Much like Judaism, Yezidism is a religious group and an ethnicity. Yezidis are found in only two small places in the world: the Sinjar Mountain region on the Syrian border and in small pockets around Russia. Much of their religion is shrouded in mystery, and much of Iraq considers them to be devil worshippers and mystics.
The men I work with are neither devil worshippers nor mystics. They are hesitant to talk about their religion, but they always get a good laugh out of the misperceptions the world has of it. One rumor concerning the Yezidi religion is that if you draw a circle around a Yezidi, he cannot move out of that area. While it is true that the circle does represent a holy shape to the religion, if you draw one around a Yezidi, he will give you a strange look and move right along.
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