“In life, it is important to find where you fit in, where you feel comfortable. I was not at home in Iraq.” Gretchen Berg, in I Have Iraq in My Shoe
The memoir, I Have Iraq in My Shoe by Gretchen Berg does not sugar-coat life in Iraq for an American expat, nor does it try to portray the protagonist/memoirist as an all-wise, altruistic, woman-of-the-world who is open to new cultures. (Haven’t you read plenty of THOSE memoirs?) Heck, Gretchen doesn’t even fit into her ownculture that well. Despite not having piles of money, she cannot exist without designer-label everything–particularly shoes. And she sees no reason to cook as long as there are restaurants and take-out. (I will refer to the lead character in the book as Gretchen, as to the author as Berg, since I do think there is a bit of a distinction to be made.
She fancies herself a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett, in Gone With the Wind, says, “Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war. This talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream.”
When people talk about the news of war in Iraq, Gretchen says she was thinking, “No, I did not see that special report. Project Runway was on. I’m bored. Tell me my dress is pretty.”
Shallow? Unquestionably. Honest? Mostly. Exaggerated. No doubt–that generally is the basis of comedy, isn’t it? But whether this is a fun romp of comedy that takes place in a a time and place that our culture needs a few laughs about, or whether it is just too frivolous too soon, each reader will have to decide.
When the recession makes job hunting difficult and her clothing debts loom large, a man she once taught English with in South Korea recruits her to go to Kurdistan in northern Iraq and teach English. (Korea–there is a loud clue that the character Gretchen is not as clueless about the world as Berg’s comedic portrayal of her Gretchen persona let’s on.) She ponders all that tax-free money and plenty of time to travel “to Turkey, Greece and The Rest of Europe”. She resists, but finally accepts.
Each section of the book enumerates her progress in spending on overweight luggage; debt paid off; countries traveled to; pairs of shoes purchased; and a cultural tolerance scale. Another score measures the meeting of a soul mate– a lesser goal than buying shoes, but still… That measure stays at a steady zero until she gets swept away by the attentions of a much-younger Kurdish student.
The book can be very, very funny if you let yourself relax and go with the flow of self-centered, spoiled American woman in trying circumstances. The book could be very sad indeed if you took it all too seriously and started thinking about the guys and gals who did not have to worry about paying overcharges for luggage, because the Army hauled in the body army–except when there wasn’t enough to go around.
But this book is strictly for laughs. And if you want to read larger meanings into it, try this on for size. Maybe Gretchen represents the U.S. public at large whose attitude toward the Iraq War was also pretty much “Fiddle-dee-dee–don’t spoil the party with all that talk of war.”
After reading the book, how much have we learned about the Kurds and their culture besides the fact that they don’t have a lot of Diet Coke? Do we rank any higher on the sensitivity scale now that we’ve been there with Gretchen? Maybe. Probably. Berg saves herself from the charge of insensitivity with her true affection for her students.
I could say I found the mosques beautiful, or the markets entertaining, but the physical aspect of Kurdistan was not what had most impressed me. What most impressed me was the people. Their sense of community, their resiliency, their collective sense of humor, and their capacity not to take anything too seriously….an admirable carefree attitude that corresponded to a preferred coping strategy for tougher times. Everything will work out, inshallah.
And it is a tribute to Berg that upon reflection, it is obvious that the stories she told throughout the book illustrated those conclusions. In other words, although this is a memoir about a self-centered, spoiled Gretchen, we are subtly being given a portrait of the people of Kurdistan.
Looking for the beach read? Something that you don’t have to think about? Try on Iraq in My Shoe. I usually refer readers to the writer’s web site, but frankly, I think this one is rather lame. However if you insist you can find Gretchen Berg here.
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