Cultural Sensitivity and The Greatest Generation.

In the mid ’70’s, my current boss, Warren Sawyer, was the country director of the Peace Corps in Iran.  While there, he and his family, including his wife Joan and my other boss, Debbie Nutter, lived next door to the Shah’s general.  They had to left the country right before the Iranian Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s succession of the Shah. Needless to say, things have been different in Iran since the time the Sawyers were there.  When they were there, Iran was experiencing a modernization made possible with support from the U.S. government and the dictatorial rule of the Shah.

Since Warren was there before the Revolution, I was naturally curious what he thought about the current situation in Iran.  I asked him last week what he thought about what was going and he suggested I come hear a lecture with him that very afternoon.  The lecture was being given by a woman who was previously an ESL teacher and volunteer in Afghanistan and Iran around the same time Warren was there.  It was being held at the Swampscott senior center.  He warned me that I’d be the youngest in the room by about 35 years, but that I should come anyway.

We showed up in time for a lunch, and as we waited in line I realized that I was, in fact, the only person in the room under 70.  Not to worry, though, Warren vouched for me.  Whenever I’m with a group of men that age, I can’t help but think of the military.  Thanks Tom Brokaw.  The were a friendly group of guys.  There was a high concentration of those navy blue caps with the gold emblems from their corps.  Other things of prevalence included fishing stories, an interest in how things work, tucked in shirts, boat shoes, hearty laughs, gold necklaces and a friendly air.

Things notably missing included:

– undershirts.   I swear, people older than 70 never ever wear undershirts.  Maybe it just seems too flashy to them, “When I was in the service, we only owned two shirts!  Why in heavens name would I need to wear two shirts at the same time?!

-fear.  It might be my connection of this age group with the military, but I had had the sneaking suspicion that somehow every guy in the room could beat me in a fight.  There is something about having lived through a war that never leaves a man.

-awkwardness.  I guess if you’re not comfortable with yourself after having lived through either WWII or Korea, Woodstock, disco, etc. then shame on you.

I enjoyed my turkey sandwich and lunch-time discussion ranged from unheard-of museums in Maine to steam engines to golf, sailing and talk about current events.  Call me old- fashioned, but I really enjoyed this conversation.  After lunch, our speaker came into the room.  She was clad in a full Afghani robe (including head cover, etc.) and was following a man in a similar robe-like garment (masculine) who was touting a 6′ long rifle. I think the audience really appreciated that rifle.  It sure was long.

Our speaker went on to share about the heart and soul of the Pashtun people.  The Pashtuns are a people who live in mostly in Southeastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan.  They are of East Iranian descent and are for the majority, Sunnis and follow an ancient, unwritten code of living and honor called Pashtunwali.  The majority of the Taliban are Pashtuns.  In fact, Taliban, she told us is a Pashto word for “student”.

She described the Pashtun people as being large in stature and being known as soldiers.  It was this people that the US supported with weapons (and who knows what else) in their fight against the Soviets.   Anyway, she talked about her time teaching English in a girls school and how warm and friendly the people were.  She was treated as a sister and was honored and welcomed in as part of their community.  She told us that we should know that the Pashtuns were a loving people     beautiful and creative love for fine detail and craftsmanship.  This, she claimed was evident in their fabrics and other hand-made goods.  At the very end of her talk, she pointed everyone’s attention to first the rifle, then the tunic that her partner was wearing.  “Doesn’t this fabric just show you an incredible attention to detail and love of the finer things?” she asked the crowd.  From the back of the room came the response, “He looks like a terrorist!”  The room erupted.  Hearty laughs filled the air.

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 2:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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