NPR, apart from being a fairly liberal news source, runs a variety of human interest stories every week. One of these, “Story Corps,” features short dialogues between family members, coworkers, friends, and other people whose lives intersect to create surprises, triumphs, moments of healing, and new definitions. Today’s story, which depicted the unusual relationship between an American soldier, Paul Braun, who was stationed in Iraq in 2009, and his company’s interpreter, who was dubbed “Phillip” by their cohort.
Paul and Phillip became close through this contact and after his tour in Iraq ended, Paul helped Phillip come to the U.S. by sponsoring his visa. Phillip’s family hopes to join him here, but he must return to Iraq to collect them, which of course at this time is a risky and uncertain endeavor, as ISIS creeps slowly across the region and destroys families and communities.
“I love you brother,” says Phillip as the conversation closes, to which Paul replies the same. Paul adds something in Arabic, and then Phillip returns, in Arabic, “Habibi,” with such tenderness and fraternity that it brought tears to my eyes. The word means “my dear one” or “my friend” when speaking to a man.
Is there a thread of paternalism, neocolonialism in the fact that Paul befriended a local who acts in servitude to the American interests overseas? Certainly. (Phillip in fact comments that he once hated Americans for this reason.) Is it strange that in the synopsis online, Phillip’s Arabic name isn’t used? Of course. Are there many more painful, tragic stories compared to this one good one in a region where oil wealth has invited the sacrifice of local culture, let alone the possibility of self-determination, to seemingly unending conflict and massive corporate and imperialist geopolitical battles? Yes. This story doesn’t change those facts; perhaps it complicates them. But it also adds the important element that we often lose in mass media and in academia, through our impassioned speechifying (and blogging) and critiquing at a distance: the very real possibility of a powerful human story of connection in spite of all odds and differences. Brotherhood can still find us, however unlikely, sometimes.