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The Background Noise in Iraq

By Arnon Grunberg

Last week I was embedded with the 25th infantry division north of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni Triangle. Presently I'm in the Green Zone.

A friend of mine in New York asked me to pay attention to the noise here. He had been informed that on most military bases in Iraq, one could hear a permanent noise that could be described as grumbling and hypnotic.

Indeed, near the generators, which every base depends upon for electricity, there is a constant sound that is not so much grumbling, but it definitely has certain hypnotic side effects.

Then there is also the noise of the landing zone's (LZ's) where the helicopters land and take off. But since this noise is not constant it's less hypnotic.

The third noise that is prevalent in the dayrooms and the chow halls is that of televisions. The big chow halls have smaller, closed rooms where there is no television, but funnily enough these rooms were almost always empty. As if the thought of eating in silence was frightening. Of course there are plenty of restaurants in New York City where the noise level is abhorrent. But at least there you can go to certain places for silence: a library, one's own apartment maybe, or the bathroom in your apartment.

On a military base, there is no such thing. Even on the one base where I had a place to sleep, and which I didn't have to share with soldiers, I didn't retreat to the silent trailer to read a book.

Although I carried two books in my duffel bag and I had plenty of time to kill—waiting for the next mission—I never read more than two pages. It felt almost indecent to start reading a book, not only because of the lack of privacy, but because it felt like I would be making a statement.

And I wanted to blend in.

What you do is go to the computers, read something online, watch half an action movie, flip through the pages of Stars & Stripes and pick up an old copy of Men's Health.

I could now imagine a world without books, actually a world without the printed word at all.

So it came as a shock that while riding on a Stryker, an armored vehicle, I saw a young sergeant take out a book of his bag and start reading.

íWhat are you reading?ë I shouted. (The noise level again was quite high.)

The book was titled: Leisure: the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper.

I had to admit that this was the first time I had heard of Josef Pieper.

íIs it any good?ë I asked.

The sergeant nodded.

The next time I went online I ordered the book.

You don't necessarily have to look for meaning in coincidence; sometimes you just have to listen to it.

Published Jun 1, 2008   Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg

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