2008 Contest Shortlist

Flashed in Fallouja, Iraq

Gotta keep your sense of humour whatever you’re exposed to…

Back when it was just another angry Iraqi city and months before it became the major flashpoint in U.S./Iraqi relations, I toured Fallouja.

I was investigating war damage at a water treatment plant, several weeks after President Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished,” when a man exposed himself to me. He had been brushing close against me as I walked along the narrow sidewalks that separated the water treatment ponds, the folds of his shoulder-to-ankle robe commingling uncomfortably with my long skirt in the 115 degree heat. I pulled my purse in front of me, defensively elbowing space between us.

Later, while I was interviewing the water district manager about her staff’s heroic efforts to keep the water flowing during the first onslaught of war, this strange man squatted unobtrusively in a doorway, caught my eye, and lifted his dishdasha, displaying how Allah had been very, uh, generous to him.

I was shocked! And awed…

Talk about weapons of mass distraction! What’s a white girl in a war zone to do? Being flashed in Fallouja isn’t covered in the human rights’ handbook.

I knew from his quietly creepy behavior that he was violating standards. But, should I speak up and risk offending my hosts? The town was already pretty edgy. Later that afternoon, I would be warned that Falloujans had vowed “to kill an American a day” in retaliation for the U.S. troops’ gunfire exchange with locals who had taken refuge in a school. Schools are revered in Iraq, and our blanketing one with bullets had further ignited this rebellious community.

But, I was always taught that bullies bank on us staying politely silent.

“That man exposed himself to me!” I pointed at him as stiffly as he had to me.

My male translator looked at me, confused. This gentle man, whose religious practice kept him from even touching a member of the opposite gender, repeated something in Arabic to the water treatment workers gathered around us. Meanwhile, in the confusion, the exhibitionist had lowered his dishdasha and skulked out.

Well, I had no idea I would cause such a stir! Workers ran after the man, mortified that his aberrant behavior might reflect on them. They made such a fuss with their apologies, I began to feel guilty.

“It was no big deal,” I offered, rolling my eyes. “Really, it was no big deal,” I lied.

I guess one of the men understood my double-entendre, because he burst out laughing, easing the tension.

We lose so much in war, and humor is right there with truth among the first casualties. Standing in battle-scarred Fallouja, a stranger and I started the rebuilding by bonding over a very worn pun, proving that when we’re brave enough to laugh at ourselves, what really gets exposed is our humanity.

Kelly Hayes Raitt