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STATISTICS:
More than 50% of the Iraqis are now almost totally dependent on the distribution of food rations for their survival.
In Iraq, 28% of the female-headed households are in the lowest capita income quintiles, compared to 20% of the male-headed households in the same age groups.
Experience of a female soldier in Iraq
Gin Marie
United StatesGALLERYCONVERSATION
We went back out into town yesterday to do various things, and found ourselves parked next to a house with gorgeous red flowers tumbling over the wall. A large Arabic inscription decorated the second story, and sleek new tiles covered the façade.

The gate was gray metal with curlicues on top of it, blocking the little courtyard from view. A bullet hole pierced the gate post.

As we waited in the hot sun, the passenger opening in the gate started to open bit by bit. First it was just an inch, where it stayed for a while. After a while, it opened another inch. Four little fingers appeared on the edge of the gate. Then a dark eye. A woman's voice raised from inside the house, though, and the gate suddenly banged shut. A bunch of people were coming up the street, so I had to turn away anyway.

It was so hot, and we were wearing the usual uniforms—-pants, tee shirt, DCU top, vest, and helmet. After a while in that outfit you seem to move beyond sweating. You don't 'glow'—-you drip. You melt. You can feel the drops sliding down the small of your back, forming on your scalp. Sweat runs down your face, and because so much of your uniform is covered by the vest, it doesn't get touched by whatever air there is. I don't even want to know what it's going to be like when it gets to be a hundred and forty.

When I looked back at the gate, there were eight fingertips on the edge, and one dark eye peeping around it. I waved, and a little girl's face emerged. She was about ten, with curly dark hair and a heart-shaped face, wearing a purple velvet dress with a pink tee-shirt beneath it. She waved back at me, and I waved back at her. She giggled, then hid. Then she re-appeared and waved some more. Once we'd established rapport, she wouldn't stop waving, and raced in the house to get reinforcements. I heard giggles behind me as I turned back to the street to face a group of young boys who passed by, eyeing us stonily. Ah, sullen teenager hood, I remember it well.

I heard high voices behind me, and looked around to find the first little girl accompanied by another one and a boy. They all waved, then shyly stepped forward. I discovered that the first girl's name was Rania, while her shy older sister was named Rahel. I'm probably butchering the spelling. While I was being introduced to her brother, a sturdy boy named Usama—"bin Laden," he added cheekily—-another sister appeared, older and simply gorgeous. You know, sometimes you see someone and you wish you looked like that?

Anyway, this older sister named Raher—again, I'm sure I didn't spell that right—-and she spoke some English. She wanted to know when she could go back to the university. All the kids clustered around us, Rania fanning herself and looking up at us with sympathy. The sweat was just pouring down everyone's faces. Then I heard still another voice from the door on the porch: "Would you like some tea?"

It was the kids' mother, and looking at her made me homesick. She just looked like a mom. She was wearing a caftan with huge orange and purple splashes, and she just looked warm and sweet and gentle. She spoke almost no English, but by this time we're all good with the sign language. After a few minutes, Rania appeared in the door, clutching a silver tray with three little glasses on it. Here, tea is drunk in hourglass-shaped glasses with tiny spoons, often blisteringly hot. When we were introduced to one of the grand pooh bahs around here, he served us tea so hot I could have bathed in it. I still don't know how I didn't spit out just from pure self preservation. You have to wonder if there's a message there somehow.

This tea was hot enough to taste good, but not hot enough to be dangerous. When the mother saw that there was another soldier she'd missed, she hurried to fetch another glass. And so there we stood, four American soldiers, armed to the teeth and stifled with protective gear on a stifling hot day in Iraq, sipping tea at this lady's doorstep while her kids danced around our legs, and she beamed at us from the step.

Of course, once the tea was drunk and Rania had been complimented on her hostes-sship–and her mom on her tea—–the picture-taking began. We all had digital cameras, and I had my NCO snap one of me and the little girl, who by this time was hopping with excitement. The mother even stepped in after some urging, unbinding her hair and fluffing it so that it looked better. None of the girls or their mom were veiled, although the ladies next door were. They eyed me the exact same way the more conservative members of my Catholic school eyed me just before I got tossed out, so I knew what I was dealing with.

It was the sort of look that the self-righteous like to toss you so you'll know they're praying for you—and not envying you at all. Nope, they're above that, you heathen sinner. I always think of that line from Miss Congeniality when I run into one of these creatures. "She said they were Satan's Panties!" (Coming soon from Victoria's Secret…Or could they literally belong to Satan?) In a way, it's kind of touching to find that same type of irritations ten thousand miles from home. At home, I always wanted to slap the church ladies, and here I bet I'd want to do the same thing, too, only here it's got geopolitical implications.

Anyway, we did sort of exhaust the hand puppet conversation repertoire, and we had to get moving anyway, so we started to get ready to go. And then Rania came running up to me, waving her hand to show me she had something for me.

It was a rose. It was at that perfect moment, bloomed and fresh, and so fragrant it filled the Humvee. (There's another sentence I'll never be able to use again.) I was touched beyond measure.
What this little girl could see from her doorstep was a bunch of sweaty probably irritable Americans—and shell casings, torn branches, and debris from the battles. She wasn't touched by any of it, even though her house had been. It was us she saw, and she saw us as potential friends. The little girl trusted adults to do the right thing. Her parents must be the most amazing people in the world.

I got out of the Hummer and saw her mother standing at the gate, waving good bye. There are some gestures that are universal—-putting your hand on your heart ought to say something. She held her hand over her heart and said her name, which I simply cannot reproduce. But then she took my hand and kissed my cheek, and I remembered other days, in France, where cheek kissing seems charming rather than affected. She could not know that I had only just lost my mother, and that her caress made me feel whole for just one second. I could know nothing more about her than her kindness and her gentle eyes. I kissed her cheek and we stood there and smiled at each other, and then we had to go.

When you think of Iraq, don't think of terrorists or Saddam Hussein. Think of Rania and her mother's hospitality, of the American soldiers sweating on her doorstep and sipping tea from little glasses on a ninety-degree day. Muktada Sadr does not represent Iraq and no matter how many people he kills or attacks, he never will.
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