Jera is from Iraq, a Kurdish medical doctor to a small town in the north of the country. Farid is from Iran, a young med school graduate who lives in the capital, Tehran. We attend afternoon lectures together at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The course itself is an amazing trip. In the morning, we do rounds at local hospitals, learning to diagnose and treat all manner of conditions with needles and massage. After lunch, the classroom is full of students, mostly licensed doctors, from all over the world. We are grouped by language fluency, and each table has a translator to convey the lecture being delivered in Mandarin. The Chinese classroom model is quite different from my western background. It is non-stop flow of information. Like drinking from a firehose, you really need to focus to absorb as much as you can, knowing that you can’t possibly get it all. I filled a pile of notebooks by the end of the semester. The course itself was a wonderful introduction to a highly evolved system of healing, but the experience of sharing months with all these global friends opened my eyes to a much wider world.
Jera, Farid, and I spent lots of afternoons exploring Shanghai. I had been there a year already, and was getting fairly ok with the language, so I ended up as tour guide on our little expeditions. Walking the city with visitors, you never quite know how they see it, filtered through their unique background. For me as an american, I was exposed to people of all origin, but only in the context of America. These friends were from different worlds. It came through in the funniest ways. One day on a trip downtown, Farid suggested McDonalds for dinner. Not my first choice, but why not? He walked in and ordered, I was next, and I turned to see Jera, seemingly lost at how to proceed. McDonalds had yet to reach his corner of the world. This was a novel experience, and he stood smiling with a big grin on his face, like a kid at a carnival until we came to help him choose.
Later, as we walked through People’s Square, I was telling a story, and noticed that my companions were not there to listen. I turned to see them both 20 paces back, fixed and staring at a young couple making out on a park bench. Neither of them had ever seen such a thing out in public. My eyes didn’t even notice, but they both grew up in the heart of the Muslim world where these things just don’t happen. Even Farid, from the glitzy capital of Persia was caught by the sight. I went back to gather them up, stop their gawking, made a little apology to the kids, and we moved on. Pretty much every day went like this. Eye-opening for them… and for me!
The next week, it was just Jera and I sharing a meal. He says quite casually “I think I’ll take another wife when I get back to Iraq.” Wait, what? Really? Of course I was curious. He explained that it’s quite alright to have another wife, another family, as long as you understand and respect the rules. 1. Hierarchy. Wife and family number 1 always come first. 2. You must be able to pay the bills, the house, the cars, the kids… If you can play that game successfully, you are welcome to it. Honestly, to my mind it didn’t seem that attractive, but to him it’s a meaningful next step. He went on to explain that he would be the only Chinese medicine practitioner in the whole region. He expected to make good money. Wonderful:) Again, I learn so much just from these causal little exchanges.
Later that week, I get a call from Jera near midnight. He is apologetic for the late hour, but wants to ask a favor. I’ve been studying and working with this guy for 6 months already. Watched him through Ramadan, observing his devout adherence to daylight fasting. Seen him pushing needles into all kinds of places on strangers in the hospital. He has been the picture of calm. But now, he’s anxious in a way I’ve never heard. Turns out he just spoke to his wife on the phone. She, the kids, and the whole village are planning to evacuate, headed to the Syrian border in search of refuge. The US has invaded Iraq, and no one knows what’s coming. Jera is delicately asking if he can make a video call on my computer to see his family before they go. Seriously?! Of course! I invited him over, set him up, gave him some space, and got to meet the wife and kids over an MSN chat. What a poignant moment to reveal the senseless brutality of war. Here, my dear friend’s country was the target (again) of my country’s attack. What can you say? What can you do, but just support, just love, just wish them well as they head off.
The family was later peacefully reunited, and Jera’s business is booming. As of this writing, he still has only one wife. Yet as of this writing, my country’s military is still dropping bombs on Baghdad…