U.S. soldiers in Iraq have to operate in a culture where it’s legal and routine to own an AK-47, family honor is restored through revenge, and showing a boot sole could start a riot.

“Showing the bottom of your feet is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger,” Yvonne Pawelek, a Fort Lewis culture specialist, told a group of soldiers last week.

Her audience at a Fort Lewis theater included several soldiers new to 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. They are weeks away from joining the rest of the unit already in Iraq.

One of them, Pvt. Scott Miller, said cultural training was among the most useful classes they were getting before leaving for the Middle East.

“It’s a lot different than here,” the 24-year-old from Tennessee said after the training. “A lot different.”

The success of U.S. operations in Iraq could hinge on how these young soldiers interact with the locals. It can be harder in a place where the OK sign is obscene, pointing with a finger is a sign of contempt, and people don’t share the Western concept of personal space.

“When someone is talking to you they are going to get right up into your face,” Pawelek said. “It’s going to drive you crazy. But you need to understand it’s just a different concept.”

The soldiers will be in Iraq during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this year near the end of September. Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk.

People take this very seriously, Pawelek told the troops, and soldiers shouldn’t eat in public or make light of it.

“It would be really inappropriate to say something like, ‘wow, what a great way to lose weight,’ ” Pawelek said.

Soldiers might see Iraqi men walking down the street holding hands or kissing one another on both cheeks. It’s just a sign of friendship, she said. Troops are warned not to withdraw if a man greets them with a hug and kiss.

“If the president of the United States can walk around holding hands with the king of Saudi Arabia, you can get through this situation,” Pawelek said.

She said hospitality and an incredible generosity are also part of the culture; soldiers are told not to praise an Iraqi’s possessions too much. He might give them to the soldier, and a gift would be expected in return.

The soldiers learned about Islam, its history and sects.


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