November 1st, 2010 / 9:36 am
Web Hype

The Understanding Campaign: Who Cares?

"Fhm" for Halloween as drawn by Tai Turner

This post is about the ad you’ve been seeing here lately.

And okay, full disclosure for the blog cops:

Recently, Justin Sirois and I and a couple other bros from way back lit up the Baltimore streets with a big plastic owl that Justin had kept buckled into his backseat for years. The owl was called BSO, as in, “Back Seat Owl.” We took the BSO to play pool at Club Phoenix. We took him dancing and everyone hooted when he did a backspin. We even bought him beers at H.L. Mencken’s old hangout, the Owl Bar. Then we took him to play football in the street where, sadly, the BSO perished.

Which is meant to confess two things: one, Justin is my friend. Two, my man knows party fowl.

But “party animal” is not the picture you get from his new project, The Understanding Campaign, which was founded to make everyone in the world speak one word of Arabic. The word is “Fhm,” pronounced “Fuh-hem” and it means “understanding.”

You’ve probably heard about Justin’s program – if not from Rebekah Silverman’s guest post ripping on their Kickstarter campaign, then at least via the ad on the sidebar. Or maybe you heard about it from one of the celebrity endorsements, from like Yoko Ono and William H. Macy.

There are also good profiles of the campaign at the Urbanite, Outsider Writers, NPR and more – all of which can be found at the UC website.

So I thought what I’d do to help out the campaign (which as of now needs $629 to reach their funding goal) and help out my understanding of the campaign is interview Haneen Alshujairy, the co-founder and Justin’s longtime collaborator. She’s an Iraqi who left the country because it became so dangerous.

When I was thinking of questions to send her, I realized I’d never talked to an Iraqi before, at least not about this stuff. I was fascinated.

How many English words do you know? From what I’ve heard on the radio, it seems like you are very fluent.

Thank you! Well, I haven’t counted them yet, but I’m sure the number of the ones I don’t know is much more than the number of the ones I know. It does sound like a good idea to start counting though.

How much do you understand the culture of the US?

My understanding of the U.S mostly comes from Hollywood, I’ve watched tons of movies since I was a kid, I also read a lot of books by American writers and other than Justin I’ve made like 5 or 6 online friends who were Americans. But I gotta give the biggest credit to Hollywood.

What is it like in Cairo? Like, what’s a typical day consist of?

Well, my life is not very interesting, a typical day for me would be a 9 am -4 pm school, a couple of hours at home with my family after that, then hang at my friend’s apartment, we sometimes drive 30 minutes to go to Cairo – I live in 6 october city- so when we have enough energy left we go to one of the cafés that has a view on the Nile, awesome places in there! or if a good movie was showing we’d skip that and go straight to the cinema.

What kind of music and stuff do you have over there? What about Iraq? In MLKNG SCKLS there’s a reference to the Monkees and I thought incorrectly that it was a mistake on Justin’s part. So is American culture fairly popular in Iraq?

Egyptian songs are very popular in all of the Arab world, Egyptian movies also, you find everything though, every taste, here or Iraq, you can find people who are obsessed with Egyptian music, Iraqi songs or English songs, Spanish, even the Turkish songs has its fans. In the novel though we tried to show that Salim’s mom influenced his taste in general cause a typical Falluji won’t probably know much about the Monkees.

Can you describe a football?

a ball played by foot : )

Can people actually read Arabic? It seems bewildering.

Oh, I can read AND write Arabic, it’s not that hard.

How did you decide to be a dentist?

That was more of a family decision, my parents thought I’d rock as a dentist, they kept talking me into it till I decided oh, what the heck, let’s do it! here the average you make in the last year of high school determines the type of college you can go to, so if you get a high score everyone around you will want you to be a doctor! for social status and such..

What is it like, not being able to live in your own country? Why did your family leave?

I hate it, but I know us leaving was the best decision my parents ever made, cause it was getting worse by the second, I mean the situation over there, when I talk to my friends who are living there still and they describe the way the live it makes me feel very grateful to be on the other side, the safe side I mean.

We left cause it wasn’t safe anymore, the kidnapping in exchange for money was starting to be a trend, people were too scared to leave their homes, and my dad saw that it was only gonna get worse so we went to Jordan, we thought it was only gonna last a couple of weeks and then we’ll be able to go back but just like my dad imagined it didn’t.. it’s been 7 years now.

Do you resent American interference in Iraq?


In 1996, when asked about the hundreds of thousands of children suffering and dying under US-led sanctions during the Saddam regime, Madeleine Albright said, “We think the price is worth it.” You were about 7 at the time, right? So she was talking about you. Do you know about this?  Albright was our Secretary of State under a relatively respected President, Bill Clinton, so that was kind of our official opinion. So, what is it about the USA that you want to understand?

I didn’t know about that, I do remember my father cursing that lady a lot though. Now I can see why.

Why don’t you hate us?

unfortunately, there are many of us who do hate you, but for me, I hate the bad actions that the governments did, same time I do believe there is good in the people, governments are not the people, and you just can’t hate a whole country only judging by it’s government’s actions. I’ve talked to many many Americans who have shown their love and support to Iraqis and helped many Iraqi families. I couldn’t possibly hate that.

Are you a Sunni or Shiite? How much does this matter to you?

Sunni, it doesn’t, up until the war no one cared about that, but after the war people seemed to care which I think is one of the very bad things that the war has brought to us

I heard recently on public radio that literature is making a resurgence in Iraq, now that the Saddam regime is out. What plans does the UC have for literature there?

We want to support Iraqi universities with reference books which are very needed, and we also wish to make donation programs to support other libraries in Iraq that could use our help.

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  1. Justin Sirois
  2. Jeremy Bauer

      Cool thing!
      I like perspectives. That “In 1996…” question was real good.

  3. christopher.

      Man, this was a fantastic interview. Like Jeremy said, that question about Albright was on the money.

      And I like also that the questions even show your own ignorance, Adam. I mean, I feel like a good portion of people here probably consider ourselves pretty cultured/wordly/accepting/&c.

      But this simple question: “Can people actually read Arabic? It seems bewildering,” just shows your own ignorance of Arabic culture in a really humble and true way. I don’t know if you meant that, but it really got to me, because I think the same way in a lot of ways. I look at Arabic and I’m completely baffled by it, but really, it’s just symbols, just the same as our letters, the same as someone completely ignorant of how to translate our alphabet would see our letters. And it’s a really humbling and almost lonely feeling to look at Arabic and know that it’s trying to communicate something to me that I can’t even begin to understand as anything other than beautiful script/art.

      I think that’s one reason I’ve grown to love the UC so much, not just for what they’re trying to do, but that I can at least see fhm in Arabic, and it means something more to me than a beautiful piece of calligraphy.