Lately I’ve been questioning the validity of a lot of written works that we assume are factual. If one has access to an oral, first hand account I wonder if it is more credible than a second hand, studied or scholarly account. I think sometimes slight misunderstanding are codified; even if they result from justifiable ignorance.
With this blog partially in mind, I asked my father today, I think for the first time, to explain to me the history of sectarian divisions in Iraq. My father went to college in the US and studied political science. I know he has some personal biases, but I know him well enough to know what they are.
I’m not saying that my father is more reliable than scholars, but I do think that his understanding is much more nuanced. My father was born in 1938, but his father was born in 1902. My grandfather (who I never met) was a contractor. He used to do business with the British, Jewish Iraqis non-Jewish Iraqis- both Shiites and Sunnis.
The Shiites viewed Jews and Christians as dirty. Supposedly when my grandfather’s Shiite business partners went to my father’s house, they would not even drink a glass of water, because my family was Jewish. My father attended a Jewish school. If a Shiite teacher wanted to reprimand a student, (a socially acceptable practice at the time in many places) they would grab the student’s ear with a piece of paper to avoid dirtying their hand. The Jewish schools still hired Shiite teachers. My father did not find it offensive; it was an understood cultural difference. What I find so striking is that it did not bother anyone or obscure relationships.
Objectively it sounds crazy to me. But subjectively it makes so much sense. Some cultures tolerate things that sound outrageous. Not to say that Female Genital Mutilation is so acceptable, but when a mutual understanding is acceptable and not harmful to relationships, I see no problem with it. I think the story is kind of beautiful. Can these sorts of stories ever really be conveyed publicly?