Americans, Bedouins bridge cultural gap Marylanders in the Gulf

December 26, 1990|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- A white ribbon in the sand marks the boundary between American and Arab at Camp Sahik.

On one side of the line stands Lt. Col. Cotton W. S. Bowen and the soldiers of the 400th Military Police Battalion.

On the other side of the line sits First Sergeant Muttaluk and 10 "fouj," members of the 9th Bedouin Battalion of the Saudi National Guard.

The first time Colonel Bowen crossed that line, he dined with the Bedouins, who presented the commander with a sheep's head on a bed of rice.

"Once you get past the fact that we were eating a sheep's head, it was quite good," said the colonel, whose battalion is based at Fort Meade.

It was an experience that neither the Army nor the commander's civilian career as a bureaucrat had prepared him for. But his contact with the Saudis over the past two weeks has provided him with an introduction into the world of shuttle diplomacy and an appreciation of the people of the desert kingdom.

"They're people I'm glad to have as friends," Colonel Bowen said recently as he sat within view of the Bedouins' lean-to. "They are extremely loyal to their country, the king and the Koran."

Yesterday when Moslems from a nearby town complained about the battalion's Christmas tree display -- Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country -- the Bedouin national guardsmen intervened on behalf of the Americans. They tried to explain to their Arab brothers that the tree had no religious significance and that they should not be offended.

But the tree was removed from its rooftop perch.

When the 400th Battalion, which includes two Maryland National Guard units, arrived in Saudi Arabia Dec. 9, the battalion chose a former Saudi National Guard camp in which to set up operations.

During that first luncheon Sergeant Muttaluk, whose first name was not known, pledged his support and assistance to the battalion. "If anybody from the outside were to hurt any of my soldiers, he would take it personally," he said. "In this society, that can have lethal results."

But the cultural differences between the nomadic Bedouins and the American soldiers became quickly apparent.

"We offered them one of our 'sitters,' " said Colonel Bowen, referring to plywood latrines the troops use. But they didn't know how to use them because, like many Asians, they squat when they relieve themselves. Several of Colonel Bowen's troops had seen them squat in the sand in full view of passing soldiers.

The battalion's chief engineer has since designed a "squatter" for them, said Colonel Bowen, a personnel specialist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and a resident of Sterling, Va.

The battalion also has plans to build them a shower and a lean-to under which they can gather around a fire.

Their living quarters -- mobile homes for each group -- are smack in the middle of the camp. The American and Bedouin areas are roped off by white tape and are posted "off limits" to ensure privacy for both groups.

In return the Bedouins have offered to "check out" any local people who visit or service the military camp to determine if they are friend or foe.

"They have a very particular trait of being able to know a friend from an enemy. If somebody had ill intent, I think they'd tell us," Colonel Bowen said.

The most sensitive incident occurred within days of the 400th Battalion's arrival. A female soldier, helping to remove a refrigerator from the Bedouin camp, brushed past a Bedouin who reached to grab her.

The soldier -- who was unhurt but incensed -- was working in a T-shirt, a harsh departure from the voluminous veils that shroud Saudi women.

"In this society, to wear form-fitting clothes is extremely provocative," Colonel Bowen explained.

A special meeting was held with the Saudis to explain the impropriety of the fouj's actions. An American lieutenant colonel who serves as an adviser to the Saudi National Guard was called in to preside over a meeting between the groups. The Bedouins were told that their guardsman's behavior "was unacceptable in our culture," said Colonel Bowen.

The Americans explained that female soldiers were accorded the same rights and privileges as were military men, that they carry guns, and that they were prepared to use them and "die the same way men do," Colonel Bowen said.

In a culture where women are not permitted to drive, the Bedouins found the knowledge "very interesting," the colonel said.

The Saudis invited the Americans to lunch "to set things right," and Colonel Bowen took the aggrieved soldier, two other women and three male soldiers to the Bedouins' camp.

The Americans have made their own cultural faux pas. In preparing identity cards for the Bedouins, the battalion leaders included the 400th's green and yellow shield, which features two roosters on it.

The Bedouins refused to accept the gate passes.

"We didn't realize it at the time, but it turns out the rooster and the chicken in Moslem society aren't respected members of the barnyard," Colonel Bowen said.

Many soldiers on this base don't share Colonel Bowen's appreciation for the Bedouins. They see them as strangers, shadowy figures in long robes and traditional red and white headdresses, Arab brothers to the enemy.

Yesterday however, two Bedouin guardsmen ventured out of their area, apparently intrigued by a television crew that was visiting the camp. The Bedouins watched themselves played back on videotape, examined the long lens of the photographer's camera and even tossed around a football.

Before they landed "in country," many soldiers -- Colonel Bowen among them -- received a list of do's and don'ts in dealing with the Saudis.

While the list did help Colonel Bowen with his Saudi table manners, it certainly didn't prepare him for what he has faced here, he said.

The colonel, who has learned a few Arabic greetings, hopes to build on the relations he has made so far.

"Hopefully, we'll both be better off for it," he said.

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