U.S. personnel get tips on avoiding other Mideast crises

December 06, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Correspondent

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUNDS — ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND -- Don't flirt with the women. Don't drink or gamble. Don't bring pornography. And don't worry if an Arab man crowds up against you in an otherwise empty elevator -- he's just being friendly.

Those are among the tips being passed along to U.S. military and civilian personnel assigned to the Persian Gulf, during a three-day course at Aberdeen Proving Ground on what to expect in Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, 151 men and women who gathered in the chilly Reveille Gymnasium were warned that they are headed for a place where the culture, religion and laws are completely alien to Americans and that what they might do innocently could be deadly insult to an Arab.

Jerry Hurst, a retired Army master sergeant who is now a civilian employee, conducts the briefings, and he knows firsthand how crucial they are. In 1983, without a word of advice, he was assigned to be an adviser to the Saudi national guard.

"No one told me anything, and it was a shock, a cultural shock, for me," Mr. Hust said. "I don't want these people to be confronted the way I was. I want to let them know what they are facing."

Women, the group learned, are among the biggest taboos.

In Arab countries, women are subordinate to men, and it is discourteous for a foreigner to show any interest in them. Foreigners are warned not speak to Arab women, stare at them '' or photograph them, because the reaction to such ill-considered behavior could be violent.

American women also need to be on guard. "Middle East society has basically a negative stereotype impression of Western women -- a loose or immoral image," says the Army orientation manual, which warns female soldiers to be careful not to reinforce that impression.

Contacts with Arab men can also be confusing, the group learned, because they don't have the same concept of "personal space" as Americans, and there is a lot of public "touching" between men -- but never between men and women.

In an otherwise empty elevator or on a park bench, an Arab man who means only to be friendly may move alongside, virtually touching a man, and will follow as he backs away. Arab men also hold hands in public. This signals friendship, not homosexuality.

Religion is another sensitive issue. The Islamic religion is central to Arab culture and law, and Mr. Hurst emphasized that foreign visitors must do nothing remotely disrespectful to the religion.

Americans also must be careful with even the most innocent of gestures, Mr. Hurst told the group.

Westerners think nothing of pointing at someone or beckoning with a curled finger, but Arabs consider that to be equating a person with an animal. And the American gesture for "A-OK" is considered the sign for the "evil eye" by an Arab, the group was told.

When it comes to obscene gestures used by Arabs, the group was warned not to use them if they happen to learn them. The gestures have varying degrees of intensity and, depending on the circumstances, using them incorrectly could be a serious offense or cause a diplomatic incident.

It is also insulting to an Arab to present him with the soles of the shoes, the group was warned, so people should sit up straight and not cross their legs. And never offer anything with the left hand; that is reserved solely for personal hygiene.

The course also included practical advice, such as how to use gas masks and protective clothing in event of a chemical attack. All men with beards had to shave them so the masks could make an airtight seal.

The class also got tips on health and hygiene, such as how tdeal with the food and water, the heat of the desert, and the snakes, centipedes and other pests that infest it. Dogs, cats, jackals, wolves and other wild animals can carry rabies, the group was warned: "Don't pet, feed or handle them."

Backing up the briefings, the Army has issued a general order of "prohibited practices" including: Don't enter mosques; no personal firearms; no drugs or alcohol, including cough syrup; no gambling; and no pornographic or sexually explicit materials -- which covers a vast spectrum, from magazines like Playboy to revealing photos of a wife or sweetheart.

Since civilians must pass through Saudi customs, prohibited materials will be confiscated, and those who possess them could be charged with a crime, the group was warned. As civilians, the workers are subject to Saudi law, which is based on the Koran and does not have the latitude and rights of U.S. law.

The audience, already intent, sat up when Mr. Hurst began graphically described beheadings by sword in a public square, with the heads falling into buckets. Arabs, he said, believe in public punishment for deterrence.

Nevertheless, the people in the class, most of whom will be doing support and maintenance work for the troops, took it all in stride.

John Ankney of Chambersburg, Pa., said he expected no problems with Saudi customs, climate or anything else. He was looking forward to going, having probably worked harder than anyone else to get the assignment.

Mr. Ankney, who has used leg braces and crutches since he was accidentally shot in the back as a child, didn't see his infirmities as an impediment to going, but Army doctors needed convincing.

"I couldn't be in the Army, so this is my chance to serve my government," said the 38-year-old electrical specialist. "They need my talents over there. I've survived everything else, I'll survive this."

Scott McDowell, 34, came from the Sierra Army Depot in Sacramento, Calif. He said he volunteered "for the money [civilians will get overtime pay], for the excitement and the culture."

The 12-year Marine Corps veteran and personnel specialist said he was stationed in various Asian posts but has never seen the Middle East. "Now I'll see it," he said.

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