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Aka: There are some bits of a lamb you should never eat.

Alright boys and girls, let’s start by listing some Iraq buzzwords. Sunni. Shi’a. Kurd. Saddam. Terrorists. Occupation. WMD. Tribes.

Okay, now let’s take that last one and do some word association. Tribes. Native Americans. Africa. Chieftain. Clans. Arabs. Afghanistan.

Obviously I’m moving towards Iraqi tribes here, but tribalism is a pretty broad concept. We might talk about Cherokee tribes and African tribes and they don’t look a whole lot alike. Ditto for Arab or Afghan ones. And then you throw in ideas like clan that evoke the Scottish Highlands and it all gets even more muddled.

So why tribes, who cares, and why list all the other Iraq buzzwords? And where does the lamb fit into all this?

One, in Iraq, some tribal groups were pretty important in helping fight the insurgents. The Anbar Awakening really helped turn things around and it was based partially on tribal leadership. Two, when you’re interacting with tribes, it helps to know that there’s one guy on top—the shaykh (also spelled sheikh)—who has the power to encourage or command the rest of his tribe to do things. That can involve starting an uprising, voting a certain way in an election, or just making life for visiting Americans more or less complicated. Three, while tribes are an ancient and established institution, it turns out that nothing is as easy as one and two sound. Turns out tribes are no less immune to politics than anything else.

Shaykh Mazan was a well-respected tribal leader in Diyala Province and had a lot of influence. He was a Sunni. He also happened to throw great parties—he would invite loads of local bigwigs to his lavish estate (and probably had some picked up in one of his many cars). Even the Governor would make an appearance. His yard was full of date palms and manicured grass, the guest hall was enormous and well-cooled, and the table was loaded down with the best food money could buy. And he had a lot of that. Rather than the small bits of kebab’d meat that you’d get at most parties, when we visited for a meal, there were dozens of chickens and entire lambs on the table. To include the most delectable part of the lamb.

You know how some sheep have that rear end fat that waggles when they walk? Well, that’s a bit of a delicacy in Iraq. They eat it raw.

Yes, raw butt fat. My rule of thumb while in foreign countries (and some U.S. states) is to only eat things that have a rind or have been thoroughly cooked, so I intended to leave that well alone. But in the heat of the sweltering summer day, my Brigade Commander grinned at me and told me that if I wanted to earn my stripes, I had to try it. I told him I would if he would, which I thought would get me out of trouble. Should have known better. Without a moment’s hesitation, he scooped up two handfuls of the blue-veined fat, molded them into a little rice, handed one to me, and popped the other in his mouth. I had no choice. It was, predictably, one of the grossest things I have ever eaten.

But it was a sign of wealth. Rich tribal leaders. That makes sense–powerful guys get money. (One of his fellow shaykhs had a private menagerie in his compound.) Or is that rich guys get power? Saddam Hussein, British overlords, and numerous other rulers before them were big fans of using the whole tribal concept to their advantage. The tribes could be a source of opposition to the rulers, so when the guys on top were feeling challenged, they basically disbanded the tribes. When it became convenient to have a “traditional” support base again, they’d be put back together. But having the “shaykh” be a guy in your pocket was a good thing, so they’d give a man who might not be the traditional leader a whole bunch of money. In a tight economy, money can be a better source of popularity than prestige, so new-money, sell-out (practical?) shaykhs and old traditional leaders competed for the loyalty of their tribes. “Tribalism” got a little confused after years of that, making it more of a modern creation than some primordial identity. (Wait, does that mean any cultural tidbit can be considered primordial? Maaaaybe not…)

Of course, all this tribal monkeying is a limited tool because it really only works with certain groups of Iraqis. Shi’a tend not to buy into tribal hierarchy, so their shaykhs are really more honorary positions when they exist at all (religious hierarchy is where its at for those guys). Kurds tend not to be hugely tribal either, as they’re much more politically oriented. And even among Sunnis, it tends to only be ruralites who really act tribally, as urban cats tend to think the whole thing is just backwards and antiquated.

So tribes. It seems like such an easy thing. Find the chieftain, get him on your side, and suddenly you have a whole group of unquestioning devoted supporters. Except the reality is a whole lot less clear-cut.

Oh, and for the record, avoid the butt fat unless you have some pretty strong antibiotics. I was sick for four days afterwards.