Yesterday I received an email from Paul Boutin of Slate, asking me to call him, to discuss whether Salam Pax is a real person. I fully understand why journalists have to be skeptical. There’s a ton of liars out there, and the Internet is the perfect vehicle for con artists.
This morning I received several emails asking me the same thing: is Salam for real?
Full disclosure: I have a tendency to judge things and people immediately, and then to draw back. I immediately felt that Salam was for real. But…after that, I had my doubts. I never thought that he was a CIA front. Would the CIA have been clever enough to think up a hip dude who speaks quite good English and German?
I went though a period suspecting that he was a Mossad agent. Really. When I rejected that theory, I suspected that he was a Lebanese in London with an intimate familiarity of Baghdad, having a fine old time at my and other people’s expense. I pictured him and his friends posting this stuff from London, laughing uproariously at the stupidity of those gullible Americans. I’ve had my doubts, so I can’t blame anyone else for having them.
But over the past six or so months that we’ve been corresponding, my doubts have evaporated. Completely. OK, there’s a chance this could be a hoax but I’m willing to look like an asshole and say that my doubts have totally evaporated.
I expressed this to Paul and gave him several reasons:
1. He sent me something from Iraq. I did not save the outer envelope. I did keep it for some weeks but in the end, I decided to toss it. I don’t read Arabic, so I can’t prove that it came from Baghdad. Even if I had kept it, and even if I could get an Arabic speaker to verify that it came from Iraq, would the hardcore skeptics believe that it was sent by Salam?
2. Salam and I exchanged numerous emails about the history of the Jews in pre-1948 Iraq. He told me that in the Iraq in which he grew up, they were never spoken of, nor referred to in textbooks. He showed curiosity, so I gave in him info about where the surviving synagogue is. He wrote to me with details about their former residences which I know to be true from other accounts. I wasn’t tricking Salam into telling me things I already knew to test his truthfulness, I was letting him tell his story and each time he did, I became more convinced he was telling me the raw truth, of someone who knew he had been lied to about an important part of his country’s history and who was trying to comprehend it. Did you ever see the movie, The Nasty Girl?. It’s like that…only in this case, Hitler’s still alive.
3. Here’s the kicker. In December of last year, there was a sickening attack in Israel, within the “Green Line.” This was upclose and personal sadism, not the impersonal desperation of the suicide attacks. Not to go easy on those, but to my sensibilities, this was much worse. I was literally sick about this for three days and I think a tight-lipped hostility seeped through. He could have taken it personally but didn’t. He wrote me a very gentle reply. He signed his family name. (Which I won’t write here. Obviously.) I was very touched.
The blogosphere has been pretty hard on Arabs and I have chimed right in. One of the things that us Yank-bloggers have had the most sport with is the fact that, Arabs have an “honor-shame” culture. This is supposed to be alternately risible and terrible, especially juxtaposed with our Western, rational-fact-based-transactional-impersonal culture. I mean, they’ve got narghilas, we’ve got cruise missiles, which culture is superior?*
I think that human beings are more than the sum of their parts, and that all societies are more-or-less composed of all these qualities. In any case, I have a big honor deal going on in my own life. I experienced the 9/11 attack as (among other things), a huge diss. Our honor was impugned. We had to avenge our honor to be whole again.
So, when Salam responded to me as he did on that occasion, giving me his full name, he was saying, “Here. I extend my sympathies, on my honor, with my family name.”
I don’t need any more proof than that.
I have misgivings about writing this. Salam wrote me he expected to end up one day as “pasta sauce.” I would not want to endanger his life in any way, and feel that I may be contributing to it. But…he’s continuing to blog away, so I feel that I must vouch for what I feel is true, even if I don’t know it.
Blog on Salam! One day, I’ll take that drive from Jerusalem to Baghdad and buy 1,000 tiles!!
Now, if only I had a nice, big kitchen to line them with. I hear that land is cheap in Baghdad.