Taking Iraqi Customs to Heart

Times Staff Writer

It won’t take long for friends and families of returning U.S. troops to notice how Iraq has changed the soldiers just as the soldiers have changed Iraq.

One change will be evident the minute Lt. Col. Michael T. Mahoney of Lompoc, Calif., and other GIs greet people in their hometowns. After shaking hands, it’s a good bet that they will press their right hands solemnly over their hearts.

They’re not having chest pains or overcome with emotion. Instead, the soldiers have adopted a vital ritual of everyday life in Iraq: Arabs place their hand on their heart after a handshake to convey sincerity and respect, to show that the greeting comes from the heart.


The hand-on-the-heart gesture has become second nature to many U.S. troops in Iraq. Even with his own soldiers of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Mahoney finds himself falling into the rituals that shape his interactions with Iraqis in the agricultural region north of Baghdad that he oversees.

“The other day a soldier saluted me and I went like this -- I said, ‘Salaam aleikum,’ ” Mahoney said, referring to the classic Arabic greeting, which means “Peace be with you.” “It’s a reflex.” Mahoney, the commanding officer of Forward Operating Base Thunder here, has worked hard to absorb Iraqi customs and etiquette. And for good reason: He wants to win the peace.

In addition to battling insurgents, Mahoney’s troops spend their days organizing city councils, rebuilding schools and power plants and paying courtesy calls to the tribal sheiks who are key figures in the landscape of postwar Iraq. For commanders, the countless contacts between U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens, even brief street-level encounters, are like skirmishes in a campaign for goodwill.

When Mahoney is invited to lunch at the home of a sheik, the strapping 41-year-old Californian is hyper-aware of his conduct. During a recent interview, Mahoney demonstrated the way he sits: straight-backed and attentive with boots flat on the floor, right hand gripping his left wrist in front of him. He calibrates his movements to express deference to local traditions.

“I’m paranoid about where my hands are, my left hand, and I’m paranoid about my feet,” Mahoney said. “I just don’t want to be offensive in any way.”

If that seems obsessive, the following imaginary scene shows the pitfalls of behavior that to American eyes might seem normal and even polite:


You walk into an Iraqi sheik’s home and give him and his assembled male relatives vigorous, iron-grip handshakes. You decline tea when it is offered, waving it away with your left hand, but accept a bowl of nuts with a thumbs-up gesture, and scoop a handful of nuts with the left hand. Then you cross your ankle over your knee, look around the room that is bereft of women and ask the sheik: “So, how’s the wife?”

As the cultural sensitivity training provided by the U.S. military makes clear, such a display would be thoroughly offensive.

To start with, handshakes in the Arab culture are gentle. The hearty, bone-crushing approach popular among Americans comes off as aggressive here.

“That means, hey, I’ve got you, I own you,” Mahoney explained. And a man never shakes a woman’s hand, even gently; the hand-on-heart gesture is the correct way to greet a woman.

It’s also impolite to refuse tea in an Iraqi home.

The left hand must be used with care because Iraqis reserve it for hygienic purposes; it communicates dirtiness and disrespect.

The right hand should be used for gesturing, touching objects and handling food and utensils, according to U.S. and Iraqi experts.


The thumbs-up gesture in Arab countries means roughly the same as raising a middle finger in the West. The sight or touch of the soles of the feet is an even graver insult: Jubilant Iraqis who whacked the fallen statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes last April were subjecting the tyrant to the worst humiliation imaginable.

Finally, the entrenched conservatism of the Iraqi countryside protects women with walls that are both literal and figurative.

Mahoney and his command staff have grown close to many Iraqis -- sheiks, contractors, officials. The tradition of hospitality results in many invitations to meals at their homes. But the U.S. officers very rarely meet or see any wives or daughters. The women cook in an adjoining room, but young men serve the food.

Even the most innocent mention of a wife or daughter could be interpreted the wrong way, said Nahida Kareem, chairwoman of the sociology department at Baghdad University. Especially coming from a foreigner.

“A typical Iraqi, if you ask him about his wife, will say: ‘Why do you ask? It’s none of your business,” Kareem said. “Only close relatives can ask about women relatives.”

Such generalizations apply mainly to the countryside and to devout Muslims, not necessarily to more Westernized urban families. Still, U.S. commanders have drilled their soldiers about the need for extreme sensitivity.


“If it’s a woman that’s come [to the base] for professional reasons, they can communicate with them,” Mahoney said. “Otherwise, don’t even look at them.”

Cultural change moves in both directions, however. On one point even the most hidebound sheik has had to adjust: Female soldiers are present throughout the ranks of the U.S. military. Iraqi men in positions of authority have had to accept the fact that U.S. women will dine with them, converse as equals and even give orders.

The sheiks are trying to adapt to such transformations, Mahoney said. “As long as we are trying, they are trying,” he said. “Everything, everything, everything, is about one thing: respect.”