Boston, Logan, Jessie: these names sound like characters from a cheesy detective novel, and in a way they are, because there’s a mystery as to why so many of the Iraqi interpreters I met while patrolling with the Marines in al-Anbar Province, were risking their lives to learn more about Christianity.
I first saw an odd ring on the military interpreter’s finger sometime during an interrogation of a possible "bad guy". Bad guy was how the ‘terps translated a term that roughly meant religious fighter. Even in vocabulary, the nuance of faith had a warping effect on belief and conviction. I pointed to the carving of the praying hands Kent (not his real name) was wearing and asked if it was a Muslim symbol.
Don’t get me wrong, throughout Iraq there are not very many signs of religiosity, even in Fallujah, The City of Mosques, you’ll see fewer people prostrating themselves on prayer rugs than in Midtown Manhattan. But it’s a mistake to deem Iraq a "secular society." The veiled women often cover themselves from head to toe, Fridays are sacred and mosques are the traditional meeting places for the "community".
So, why was Kent wearing the ring with praying hands, hands that were not extended in submission, but folded in acceptance? Sure, there’s a beleaguered and dwindling native Christian community in Iraq, but they are few and far in between, like the Iraqis who are curious about Christianity. Another interpreter, Orlando (also not his real name) wanted to know if I had ever seen the Bible in Arabic.
I’ve been to half a dozen Muslim nations (twice that amount if you count the majority of Western European countries where Christians are a minority). Of all the rhetoric I’ve heard, "Islam is a religion of peace," "Muslims are abused in the United States" and my personal favorite, "Islam protects women," I’ve never heard any Muslim say, "The Prophet loves you."
In a strange twist of theological marketing, the winner of the brand that stands for intolerance goes to the religion that wants you to accept a Savior, instead of the Prophet who orders death to anyone who opts out of the flock.
Iraqis like Kent, an English major from the University of Baghdad, haven’t really had a choice about the religion they profess. If you are born and raised in most Muslim nations, it’s just a given that you’ve submitted to Islam. Kent told me he was fascinated by a God represented by bread and wine, his voice was hesitant, as if he wanted to confirm that he was getting it right.
In a country that once had a thriving early Christian community before becoming the seat of an historic caliphate, if you are not Muslim, well, you’ve got problems. In the Iraqi city of Mosul, Father Paul Iskandar Kahben, a Syrian Orthodox priest, was kidnapped, quartered (yes, that means cut in four pieces) and his body meticulously arranged for display to his fellow Christians.
Kent is afraid of a similar fate. As if working with the American military were not bad enough, he has a wife and child still in Iraq. This English professor turned military interpreter, turned Christian would like to come to the United States and he would really like to be open about his re-birth. In a humble voice that slightly echoes the disparate Americans he has met over the past four years, for many, the mystery of the inquisitive interpreters is more than a simple matter of translation.
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