Hanging with the Hired Help (Iraq)

Jaider

Jaider

During much of the day and at evenings I spend downtime with Jaider, Josem and Sa’ad. The Colonel is generally out at those times and there’s nothing to do. No frantic scurrying to be done, chasing chai or this paper or that, when the Colonel curtly bellows out for it or rings the phone line that brings one of the men running. We sit around and watch TV or talk. The three men spend a lot of time on their cell phones. Josem had a thumbdrive filled with porn and he coerced me into the laborious process of downloading it onto my laptop and then using Bluetooth to send it to his mobile phone so he could watch it.

On TV they watch a lot of music videos (mostly Syrian and Egyptian, interspersed with American songs). There’s a Turkish nightly TV drama, overdubbed in Arabic, that they’re obsessed with (a cop show with a romantic interest, that could be described as a cousin of the U.S. series 24) and they watch a smattering of U.S. shows with subtitles (they all know who the Friends are, and Oprah and Dr. Phil). Jaider—who speaks a little bit of English and who is virtually my umbilical chord—is kind of king of the dipshits. He’s got a nearly shaved dome, he dresses either in camouflage jacket and pants or the pink button-down and black pants that is the servant’s uniform, and he smokes cigarettes endlessly (a common trait among Iraqi males).

The smoking reminds me much of Mexico and other places I’ve seen in the Third World. The floor is generally an ashtray and there is nowhere that is off limits (I’ve seen people light up in hospitals). Jaider spends a lot of time in the main hallway, right outside the Colonel’s door, and smokes those cigarettes while he watches TV. He’s the A-dog somehow and he passes work off to to Sa’ad whenever he can. I’ve seen him call Sa’ad away from work in the kitchen, to answer the Colonel’s plaintive ringing, when he’s doing nothing more than flicking through channels on the TV.

Sa’ad, meanwhile, is a slight and quiet man of 25 who speaks no English. He’s got a pointed face that recalls the caricature of a rat and his skin is the color of a light chestnut. He’s a diligent worker and obsequiously committed to the Colonel. The Colonel is a short, dark-skinned man with a charming smile and a quick laugh—he’s easy to like. But he’s also demanding of his hired help. He expects Jaider and Sa’ad to come running when he calls, and he’s not shy about berating them—in front of anybody.

I sometimes look at Sa’ad—the epitome of a frail, Third World servant-sycophant—and I wonder if he doesn’t sometimes entertain visions of a pole-axe working its way into the Colonel’s head. Unfortunately, our shared language skills don’t allow us the communication level for me to begin asking him about it. Honestly, I don’t suppose he’s even thought that deeply about it. He’s a poor man in a poor country, he probably has very little education, and I’m sure he’s ecstatic just to have a job in a country where the unemployment is staggering.

Several night ago, Jaider gave me some heartbreaking news. Sa’ad’s young wife miscarried. Due to language difficulties, I’d been under the impression that she’d already delivered a boy, a week before (I guess he thought I was odd and a little daffy the night I began showering him with congratulations and hugs for a baby that hadn’t yet been born). Jaider explained that she’d miscarried and Sa’ad had found out—by phone—an hour before. He didn’t go home though (these guys work for two or three weeks at a time—they sleep in the kitchen and the small dining room at night and are on duty all waking hours), he didn’t go home for another day. I found him in the kitchen where he was standing at the sink, staring blankly.

I pointed at my belly and made a gesture indicating roundness and there was no confusing what I was saying. In silence he nodded his head and started crying. I have him a hug and told him I was sorry (in English) and that was it. I couldn’t ask him if here was anything I could do or if he needed to talk. But that’s the Third World for you. Life comes pretty raw, without seatbelts or a safety net, and you take what you get. Sa’ad was back less than a week later and nothing more was said of the event.

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