The small Allegheny mountain town my father lives in is like any other in Appalachia, tilting wood frame houses interspersed with trailers, here and there a double-wide, a newer brick or cinder block home. The one lane tar and gravel roads are lined with mud-covered pick-up trucks with "support our troops" stickers and gun racks in the rear windows.
But as you come to the end of one-block long Market St, an unexpected strangeness permeates the familiar creosote-filled, small town Appalachian air. Smothered in tape hiss and the whistling frequencies of the short-wave radio from which it was recorded, the heavily orchestrated music of Mohammed Abdul Wahab meanders out from the door of a well-kept 30 year old trailer across the way. The melody would be all but discernible, except for the sonorous voice of a mild mannered man, singing along, working happily away on his hands and knees in the gardens that surround the home.
Mohamed Salih Said, or "Sid" as the locals call him, has lived in Strattanville, PA for 30 some years. If it weren't for his dark complexion and thick Arabic accent, the self-sufficient humbleness of the man would tell anyone well versed in vernacular that this is one of the dying breed of local old-timers: reserved, hard working, never botherin' nobody, but always there to lend a helping hand. Few know of Sid's past as a physicist whose work helped build the U.S. space program. Most people just know him as "the man who walks."
Gary Blake, who grew up caddy-corner across the street, says, "Sid's been here darn near all my life. He dresses like us, acts like us. I mean, he is one of us." And in my interviews with people from the community, I've found that no one who knows my father personally harbors any anti-Iraqi or Arab prejudice.
But for Strattanville, a town of about 500 that seeps off into the hemlock covered hills that cascade down toward the Clarion River and Mill Creek, such sentiments toward Iraqis or Arabs are not the norm. The town and its strip-mined surroundings are nestled at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, just a little over an hour north of the abuse-riddled State Correctional Institution (SCI-Greene) in Greene, PA, where Specialist Charles Graner was employed before fatefully serving at Abu Ghraib.
John Pokrifka, known locally as "Pokie," a robust outdoorsman in his 70's who still swims the river into November and who often sees my father out on one of his daily 6-10 mile hikes through the woods, gives some insight. "The local newspaper and radio are all Republican owned and they never portray Arabs in a positive light. And, of course, that has an effect on people's way of thinking. But if people knew the truth, they'd understand that it doesn't make any difference what country someone comes from, they're humans the same as you are."
Asked if knowing an Iraqi has had any impact on his or others' opinion on the war, neighbor Dick Miller answers confidently "Sure it does. It helps ya t'understand that we're all the same." He adds with his rolling-hill dialect, "Sid's real special to us because he brought my daughter Carol a Christmas present every year, I mean he didn't miss a one, from her childhood til she was a grown woman." He continues, "I talk to him a lot, y'know, and he's a funny man, yer father. Just this summer he put up a new, metal garage and I was jokin' with him how come he didn't get one big enough for my car, too. Yer dad, he looks at me with a stone face and says, "Y'know, Dick, that garage is worth more than my car."
Miller, who comes from a staunchly Republican family says, surprisingly, that he thinks the war on Iraq was a mistake. "I support President Bush because, as a Christian, I feel I must support a Christian President, but I think Bush was ill-advised on Iraq. All that talk of weapons and they ain't never found a one, and all those people sufferin' for it."
When I press him for whether he thinks Iraqis were unjustly dehumanized in the run up to war, Dick, says " Yes, I do. It was the same in Vietnam, all those people were dehumanized, too, and both my sons fought in that war and came home with a whole mess of problems. It's the same in every war."
"But are you sure you've never heard anyone speak ill of my father, behind his back, or made some off-the cuff racist comments, even if they might be friendly with him face-to-face?" Dick confides, "Now I ain't saying this just because he's yer dad, but I ain't ne're heard anyone say a bad word'bout your father," and adds, "though I have heard plenty of anti-Arab talk around here."
Gary Blake, who works in the nearby modular home factory, says that since 9/11 he's heard all kinds of derogatory terms for Arabs and Iraqis at work. "Rag-heads, towel-heads, sand niggers, that sort a thing. But never about your father, not from anybody that knows him."
"Well," he chuckles, "'cept for one time, some of the little kids 'round the neighborhood were wonderin' whether Sid might be a spy or something! But that didn't last long, y'know. They're just little kids. They believe everything they hear on the TV and radio."
Audrey Blake, Gary's mother and an old-time Strattanviller, tells me how my father always brings them sale goods he picks up on his trips into town. "It seems like country people, and good people, are the same no matter what country they're from." She remarks that he never visits for very long for fear of out-staying his welcome, "even though we invite him for dinner on holidays!" When I say, "y'know, country people in Iraq are no different than they are here. Maybe if more people knew that, there wouldn't have been a war,"she agrees, and sighs reflectively.
As I drive away from Strattanville over hills and past dairy farms, I take a left on the dirt road that leads down to the river. In the twilight before nightfall between the hemlocks, the birch trees' silvery skin illuminates the darkness.
Stephan Smith's, aka Stephan Said, latest album "Slash And Burn" is out on Artemis Records worldwide. www.stephansmith.com You can email him at his website or at firstname.lastname@example.org