vrijdag, februari 25, 2005

Dutch, Iraq and the U.S.

I've started the next round of Dutch classes. Did I mention, many months ago when I started the first course, that learning Dutch is obligatory for all new residents here? Well, it is. That's probably a good idea. I mean, if you're going to live in a country you should learn the language, right? The classes here are free. Which is a good thing. Weddings are expensive. (I know I keep saying that, but the reason I keep saying that is because it's really, really true.)

I started lessons on Monday and go 4 days a week, 3 hours a day.

There are about 17 or 18 people in this class. Several speak English, but I'm the only native speaker. The home countries of my classmates are: Colombia, Estonia, Russia, Spain, Iraq, Canada (French Quebec),Turkey, Brazil, Italy, Burundi, Greece, Iran, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia. The class is even more diverse than my last class. In that one, almost everyone spoke English. Here, most do not.

We are slowly getting to know each other. I have a CD that goes along with the lessons we're studying, so I burned a copy for a couple of people in the class that asked for it. The guy from Iraq is having particular difficulty with the class, so he asked for a copy. I gave it to him at the beginning of the class yesterday. He's probably in his mid-fifties, and speaks French, but no English.

He came up to me during the break and thanked me for the cd. I told him it was no problem.

He then started telling me that his family decided to leave Iraq for awhile because they knew they were in danger there. Fighting had broken out all around them. On the night they left their city (very close to Baghdad) for the airport and finally the safety of The Netherlands, American forces came from out of nowhere and gunned down the majority of his family, as well as several close friends who were seeing them off. He looked straight at me and said that his family was Christian and wasn't involved in politics. He also said, more quietly, that his city was mostly Christian.

He then, just as quietly, asked me how my country could do this to someone who didn't care about politics.

He didn't cry, and didn't appear to be as angry as I sometimes get when I'm cut off in traffic. He was resigned; searching. Searching for some kind of an understanding.

My French is a little rusty, but I wouldn't have known what to say to him even if we had been talking in English. I was on my way to get a cup of coffee, and was completely unprepared. Trying very hard to focus on the reality of what he was asking me, I said the only true thing I could hold on to, which was that I could find no answer to his question. Twenty-four hours later, I still don't have an answer.

I wanted to continue on as though we were having a perfectly normal conversation; maybe compassionately ask him about what his family had been like, or his life, or . . . anything. Anything at all. Alternatively, I desperately wanted to leave and go get a cup of coffee that was just the right temperature, with just the right amount of sugar and cream. But instead we just stood there next to each other for several minutes. I heard only the silence between us, there in the crowded hall with students all around who weren't paying any attention to us at all; laughing and shouting to each other about boyfriends and dates and caught up in their own gezellegheid.

This man who had been a relative stranger just moments before eventually looked at me with the smallest of smiles and said he was très fatigué all the time, so learning a new language was difficult just now. Eventually, he thanked me again for the cd and we walked back into class.

Last night, I told Ian about this while we were taking a lesson for our wedding dance (life is stranger than fiction). At first, I remembered the Iraqi classmate being more hostile than I do now. I didn't think he blamed me personally, but last night I still stung from the violence his words evoked. My initial response was to feel guilt and defensiveness about what my country had done/is doing in Iraq. Until yesterday, I hadn't felt that guilt as a physical force.

Today, I remember my classmate's pain and quiet despair.

His pain did not feel the same to me as the pain I see displayed by others on the nightly news. Today, I remember that TV does not capture the actual, continuing, human cost of violence and war. I sometimes forget this. On TV, bad things happen to actors I will never know or meet in this play called life. Yet, when I'm unexpectedly confronted with one of these actors in person, I can't convince myself that there is any real difference between me and the stranger.

I imagine going to an airport with my luggage and my family, watching in terror as an invading uniformed army guns down my family and friends, then listening to those in uniform explain their actions on television as being necessary in order to keep the world safe from terror.

In my mind, I can see and understand this. But except in nightmares, what part of it makes any kind of sense at all?