Saturday, May 08, 2004


By William Fisher

This is a story about Fallujah and the Americans, but it begins in Egypt.

In the first few months of my three-year stay in Cairo, telephone service was a constant and frustrating nightmare. When you picked up the phone to make a call, back would come a recorded (in Arabic, of course) message, “you are not authorized to make this call.” When (and if) the phone rang, it would disconnect immediately.

I finally decided to take time off from my work to present myself at the ‘Central’ – the phone company office – to let them know in no uncertain terms that I was their paying customer and that I expected the service I was paying for.

When I asked Said, my driver, to take me to the phone company, he enquired about the problem. I told him. His response: “Let me handle it.” My suspicion was he would handle it ‘the Egyptian way,’ promises would be made, but in the end nothing would get done. But I played along.

We arrived at the Central and Said asked to see the head man. He mentioned that he had with him ‘an American manager’ interested in technology. In minutes, we were escorted through an enormous hall lined with telephone switching equipment, and into the boss’ office. The office was a huge room littered with old cups of coffee, ashtrays piled high with ancient cigarette butts, files covering the floor, and an IBM computer and a stack of huge Dickensian ledger books hiding the surface of the boss’s desk.

From behind the ledgers emerged a large man with a beer belly. Said addressed him. With my half-dozen Arabic words, I understood him to be introducing both of us. This was followed by much smiling and shaking of hands. Said must have introduced me as Donald Trump or Bill Gates, because the boss and his underlings all seemed embarrassingly deferential. The boss’ name was Hesham.

Said and Hesham started talking. Coffee arrived. I heard Said mention the name of the village where he was born. (I learned later that Hesham was born a quarter-mile up the road from Said, and they had many friends in common.) A broad smile covered Hesham’s face. Little pastries arrived and there was more talking and more coffee. Then Hesham rose and beckoned me to come with him. He led me down the rows of switching equipment, explaining the whole setup in Arabic while Said translated for me into English.

I asked some questions that stretched my technical knowledge to its limits. Hesham answered them all. Back in his office, more coffee. None of this gringo Nescafe; this was real coffee, and I was now totally wired with caffeine. After five or 10 minutes more of seemingly rambling conversation, Said gave me the funny glance he always used when he needed to be in charge.

He rose and I rose with him. I shook Hesham’s hand and thanked him for his time and hospitality. As Said and I headed for the door, Hesham said (I later learned), “what’s your friend’s phone number?” Said wrote it on a slip of paper. Hesham took the paper and went down the rows of switches. He stopped and summoned one of his underlings to climb up one of the very tall ladders to the switch for my phone number. He pulled it out of its socket and handed it to Hesham. Hesham examined it and suddenly looked very embarrassed. He barked a few commands at the technician, who went away and returned in less than three minutes with a box from which he took a shiny new switch, which he put into its housing.

We all shook hands again, and Said and I headed out.

Back at my apartment overlooking the Nile, I discovered I had a twenty-first century telephone, including overseas service with English-speaking operators, and directory enquiry announcements in both Arabic and English.

What does all this tell us about Fallujah and the Americans? If we’re listening, it tells us volumes. It tells us that different people living in different cultures have very different ways of approaching and solving problems. It tells us that being seen to be humiliated is more an affront to some people than to others. It tells us that people have very different senses of time and pride and priorities.

It would be simplistic in the extreme to think that, given American missteps over the past year, any number of cups of coffee at the telephone exchange would now make us welcome in Fallujah. The US finds itself in ‘major combat’ yet again. Not even Nostradamus could predict whether that might have been avoidable. But it now seems clear that the US has managed to squander whatever goodwill it may have had just after President George W. Bush declared the end of ‘major combat.’ It also seems clear that America’s failures can be attributed in large part to the absence of any credible strategy for winning the peace and to its inability to anticipate the kinds of problems it was surprised to find itself facing. And at the tactical level, the US Coalition Provisional Authority and the American military have seemed totally clueless about how to get things done in Iraq, especially in the ‘Sunni triangle.’ It is unclear whether the CPA and the military acted out of built-in biases, or!

lacked the crucial fingertip knowledge of the society, or simply failed to call on or listen to, those who had it.

For the US, Fallujah is already lost, regardless of the military outcome. But if the band of Saddamist generals can miraculously cobble together a force that is successful in returning a semblance of stability to that beleaguered city, we Americans can learn a critically important lesson from our failures. But only if we’re listening.