By Gabriel Benn
Northern Iraqis meet Southeast DC “Iraqis”
A good friend of mine, Lisa Pegram, gave me the heads up on a rare opportunity to bring my students to meet a delegation of Iraqi students here visiting the States on a 4-week tour. This particular meetup was part of a 2-day series of workshops around leadership and cultural exchange through Hip Hop.
So I bring my students to the Meridian mansion in NW to meet the Iraqi students, and they were immediately impressed with the surroundings, as we all were. Now as for quick background information, many of the Ballou students who attended the trip call their SE DC neighborhood “Iraq”, due to its violence and third world-type conditions, so to meet a group of students from (the real) Iraq made this meeting even more ironic.
After presentations by our SHARP team led by Toni Blackman*, US Hip Hop Cultural Ambassador, and Baba Ras D of Revel Youth Shine, all of the students were given multiple opportunities to bond and work together in a series of creative, interactive activities that everyone seemed to enjoy thoroughly. At this time, the session director adjourned the students for lunch. The students walked out to the main hall to begin digging in to the food — and if I thought there would be a culture clash before then, I had NO IDEA…
The lunch prepared for us was a 4 pack of those huge, 8-foot Subway subs along with all the condiments. The Iraqi students began to poke around at the sandwiches, basically to see what was inside of each one*.
At the very sight of the Iraqi students picking up the tops of each sandwich and moving on to the next, our DC students were taken aback and stood frozen in amazement. At first, their initial reaction was to pass on this whole lunch thing and not eat anything at all. “Mr. Benn,” one of the students called out to me, “they are TOUCHING all over the sandwiches!!! We can’t eat these!!” To briefly explain, this is a textbook example of “hood politics” coming into play. See in the hood, the rule is simple: with regards to food, if you touch it, it’s YOURS. You don’t touch any food that you do not intend to eat yourself. As we had to explain to our students later, in Iraqi/Arab culture, it is customary to not only eat with your hands, but to freely share food in a communal manner. As I told one student, “Today is the day that you will have to dig deep, put all that to the side, and just enjoy the experience.” Our students managed to pull it together, and lunch went great.
In the afternoon session, I introduced myself to the group, and handed everyone a Boondocks title of the HELP series to begin working on an activity. The particular activity I chose was based around a statistic that the Washington Post published a couple of years back, stating that the death rate in Washington, DC is very close to that of wartime Iraq. The “DC” Iraqis and the actual Iraqis began an interesting discussion about this stat, and then each wrote a response in the workbooks.
One young Iraqi girl, who didn’t talk much in the session, seemed saddened by the discussion. She didn’t want to share her response to the group, but here is a portion of what she wrote*: “I thought Iraq was the only place like Hell, I never thought that the US had that problem too…”
Shocking , on many levels.