About That Time I Did Professional Arabface

I've mentioned before in comments that I once had a job where I, for lack of a better term, worked in Arabface. There wasn't any makeup involved, but that didn't matter. You don't have to paint your body to be doing it. I figured it's time, though, to do a full post - my thoughts on this are still not entirely settled.

So background. Background's important. I needed a job for the summer the year I graduated high school. I didn't have any luck applying at places in town (a good friend of mine at the time told my mother and me that most of the restaurant owners in town probably wouldn't hire me anyway because they don't like Latinos). So I went most of the summer without a job, until my dad came home from work with an idea.

My dad's in the army. At the time he was a Master Sergeant, and he heard about this program called Civilians on the Battlefield. Essentially, I would role-play a civilian in training scenarios for the soldiers - most often so the soldiers would be able to practice not making asses of themselves so they'd know things to avoid doing when they got deployed. Over the three years I did it, three different companies held the contract (and none of them were the one I linked just now) to run the program on his base. The last one I worked for was named All Native Systems.

So he took me in and I applied and interviewed and got the job. Now, the first year I did the job the company I worked for didn't have costuming - we just wore jeans and t-shirts. The job paid well and hours were plentiful - I pulled a lot of overtime (like, 30 hours a week overtime) and made around $5000 in the one month I worked that summer.

We'd run a number of different scenarios, sometimes as Iraqi civilians and sometimes as wounded soldiers. When working as Iraqi civilians we weren't supposed to speak English, but we never got any training on speaking Arabic. So there were employees who had been born in Iraq but whose families had immigrated to Michigan after the Gulf War - the contract labeled them as FLS (Foreign Language Specialists) and they did all the talking, and would teach us basic things to say to soldiers.

We had a number of scenario sites, most of them out in the woods but one outside the base's training FOB (Forward Operating Base). We had "houses" - three-walled, roofless facades and busted up cars hanging out in the area - and that was pretty much it. To pass the time between scenarios (and sometimes there was a lot of time - I did an 18 hour day my second summer doing the job because the convoy managed to get itself lost on the backroads and fourteen of those hours were spent waiting), we were encouraged to bring books, music, and portable DVD players, and so on. Also camp chairs, so we could sit down.

The job had its ups and downs. We got substantial raises when each successive company took the contract, but we saw a great reduction in hours as well. Overtime didn't exist starting in year two. In year three there was so little work that sometimes we went more than two weeks between scenarios, sometimes for as little as two hours of work before we had another week of nothing. All told, in my second two years, I almost made as much money as I made in the one month I worked the first year.

There were good parts. One of my very early scenarios was getting into the FOB and going through search. The guy in charge of us had run out of dummy contraband to hand out, and the CO for the soldiers doing the search wanted more people coming through, so he gave me his knife. I got the good idea to clip it behind the button on my jeans, and I went through the search and came out without them finding it. Not sure what to do, I found the highest ranking person I could, pulled it out, and asked her "What do I do if I got this past the search?" I wound up going through search a few more times before they could find it - they still couldn't feel it at first even when I showed them where it was.

The best scenario I ever did, though, was a day in what they called the Shoot House. Basically, they'd stick a couple of us in different rooms of this three-story concrete house thing, and hand us a wooden dummy AK. In the other rooms would be paper cutout targets representing hostiles (and some paper cutout targets representing nonhostiles. The soldiers were supposed to come in, secure us actual people, and then proceed to the next room and successfully ID and take out the hostiles without hurting the nonhostiles, and so on.

Anyway, I got my dummy AK and I figured I might as well see if it was possible to hide it. Couldn't stuff it down the back of the busted up recliner in the room, nor could I hide it anywhere else on the ground - there just wasn't any furtniture besides a small table and the recliner. So I sat down, did some reading and writing, and then I looked up. There was a slight gap between the wall and the ceiling right over the door the soldiers would come through. So I took my gun, jumped up, and jammed the barrel into that gap. It stuck out parallel to the ceiling.

By the time they came in, the game was afoot. There were three of them, and their commanding officer watching and seeing how they did. They took me aside, searched my chair, checked the room, and determined I was no threat and asked me to stand aside until they had left the room. Once they got to the next room, I tapped their CO on the shoulder before he could leave, jumped up, and grabbed the AK. He laughed, told me to put it back, and went after them. I could hear him yell at them to stop and come back with him. He then said "This motherfucker just killed all y'all. Take a look around. What'd ya miss?"

They looked around all sheepish and tried to see what they missed, then one of them looked up and saw. "Fuck." It was a good lesson to them on making sure they took in the entirety of their surroundings.

It was a good job, in terms of the job itself. I feel like our work made a difference, like the scenarios gave the soldiers enough resources to not get themselves killed doing something stupid, and hopefully gave them some perspective and helped them avoid hassling the locals wherever they were deployed (most to Iraq, some to Afghanistan).

But the job started to get kind of weird feeling in the second year I did it. That's the year we were first required to dress up "in garb." I got a dishdasha and a yashmagh, and I had to wear those to work. When dressed up, I didn't look too much different than this gentleman:

About That Time I Did Professional Arabface

I looked right enough in the dishdasha and yashmagh that some of my Iraqi coworkers were convinced I was from Egypt or Lebanon for a while. I was, however, the only person aside from my Iraqi coworkers to not be white. I was also, aside from the Iraqis, one of the only people who wasn't a retiree. It's kind of weird seeing a bunch of white American retirees in abayas and hijabs and dishdashas and yashmaghs.

At the time, it just felt kind of weird. I hadn't really developed a strong understanding of things like cultural appropriation and was still a little baby trying not to drown in the big, wide world of feminism.

I didn't feel comfortable wearing the clothes, because I knew next to nothing of the culture, and I felt like I'd do it wrong. But I also needed the money - it helped me pay for college. Ironically, I had to make money through cultural appropriation and effectively engaging in Arabface in order to pay for the education which helped develop my current views on doing exactly that.

Perhaps if the contracting company had expended more effort in training the COBs by educating us about Iraqi culture, maybe things would have been better. As it happened, though, they didn't much care to do that, especially the later companies. The last contractor I worked for was much more interested in preserving the reputation of the army than actually training the soldiers.

I almost got fired for talking with the other COBs and saying that while my grandfathers, uncles, father, and cousin had all joined the service, I couldn't do it. It wasn't for me. Some overly-sensitive staff sergeant heard that and called my boss, who called my house to yell at me about how if he ever caught wind of me insulting the soldiers or denigrating the military again I'd be fired and that I could have a two week break from work to think about respect.

Yeah. The first year was good. We weren't expected to act or dress like stereotypes. We just provided warm bodies for the scenarios in practical training. But years two and three took a hard shift toward more and more stereotypical representation and even stupider limitations, with year three being particularly weird. Year three required us to start working in February. Now, I don't know about you, but I found that pretending that icy, snowy Wisconsin is Iraq is even harder than trying to do so in the summer.

I feel like the deeper into Arabface the company required us to go, the less effective the training became. Part of it was that we (and the soldiers) weren't terribly limited at first - we could be inventive in what we did, and the soldiers were encouraged to be friendly to us. We could walk up to their vehicles and knock on the windows, they could give us MREs (really helpful on the long days when we had eaten lunch and still had six or more ours left) and try to talk to any of us.

Once we started wearing our abayas and dishdashas, though, suddenly we were not allowed to speak to the soldiers - only the FLS and the man designated as our village elder for the scenario were allowed to speak to the soldiers. The soldiers were barred from giving us MREs. What inventiveness we were permitted before in how we went about scenarios was gone - now we were told how to do the scenario, and it usually went along the lines of one of the predominant stereotypes. Gone was the opportunity to do stuff like I did in the Shoot House. It all got very uniform, very constrained, and the changes paralleled the change in our freedom of dress.

Our bosses, on behalf of the contracting companies, said the changes were to "improve the authenticity of the service" they provided. That might have been the goal. It certainly wasn't the effect. We became more background decoration than anything over those two years, until the point where the COBs were barely part of the scenarios at all. Where in the first two years they did weapons training with COBs who wanted to so they could do Op-forces missions, the last year the army provided the Op-forces and the COBs were limited to effective wallflower status.

We became silent, unimportant, Arabface caricatures dancing to the musical instruction of a bunch of white guys who thought they were giving the army "authenticity." It was, if nothing else, a valuable lesson on performance and power, and especially the fraught status of the real.

It was not, however, anything approaching a respectful, accurate depiction of Iraqi life. I can only imagine how my Iraqi coworkers felt about the experience - and how much they were driven to the job by need themselves. I wouldn't do it again, not in a heartbeat. But I am kind of glad I did do it - because it did teach me a lot. Shit's complex, you know?

Image Credit Fort Dix

Image Credit F1 Online