Translating Gulfspeak

Leslie H. Gelb

February 20, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

EXCEPT WITH the help of expert analysts, cultural historians, unnamed sources and other decoders of gulfspeak, it is most difficult to understand what is really going on in the Persian Gulf war. The following is offered as a guide to oracular public statements and their proper interpretations.

King Hussein of Jordan: This war should never have begun and could end even now, today, in peace for all our peoples, if the United States would allow an Arab solution to an Arab problem.

Arab expert: The United States does not understand the peaceful ways of the Arab and the Arab genius for compromise and love. If not pressured by Americans, Arab leaders would find a peaceful means to give Kuwait to Iraq, along with other small and unimportant gulf states like Bahrain and Qatar, and maybe Saudi Arabia. Then Saddam would share the wealth that rightly belongs to all Arabs with all Arabs. Then Arabs who failed to receive their fair share would take revenge on Saddam. Such is the Arab way.

President Bush: The United States is not targeting Saddam Hussein.

Low-level official with public conscience: We are bombing every place where Saddam has eaten a falafel sandwich in the last 15 years. Our purpose here is to non-operationalize the industry that feeds the Iraqi war machine, not to target Saddam personally or professionally.

Prime Minister Shamir of Israel: The next Iraqi Scud missile that hits Israel, we hit back. And that's that.

High-level Israeli clarifier: Well, maybe not the very next one. But it could be the next one. Did you hear that even Syria said we had a right to strike back as long as we didn't do it? But next time is the last time. Even Bush who doesn't love us likes how we're restraining ourselves. But next time we don't care who likes us, but maybe . . .

Saddam Hussein: Iraq will never abandon Kuwait. Kuwait is and will forever be a province of Iraq, as promised in every holy book written in the last 15 years.

Arab expert: Saddam, in the tradition of great Arab leaders, was speaking metaphorically. Thus it can be seen that "never" can also mean "if." Thus Saddam was saying that he would withdraw from Kuwait if the United States would first abandon its Zionist plans to control the whole Persian Gulf, give Israel back to the Palestinians and pay reparations to Iraq. This much is clear and just.

Saddam Hussein: Once the real battle begins on the ground, the sands will run red with the blood of Americans and their Arab running-dogs and all their bones will bleach in the desert sun forever.

Arab expert: The true meaning here is simple indeed. It derives from an old Bedouin proverb calling on all to avoid war and seek peace: Blood shall be on the hands of he who fights to steal back justly stolen property.

Mikhail Gorbachev: We completely support the full implementation of United Nations resolutions demanding Iraq's departure from Kuwait, but the United States is beginning to exceed these resolutions by attacking Iraq.

Soviet aide: Gorbachev, in his heart or hearts, really supports what the United States is doing and wishes President Bush only the best. But if Bush persists in hectoring the Soviet leader about a few gunshots in Lithuania necessary to maintain the integrity of the Soviet Union, then Gorbachev has no alternative but to protect innocent Iraqi civilians.

American journalist at a military briefing somewhere in the Saudi desert: I have a short three-part question. First, what kinds of targets will U.S. aircraft hit tomorrow? A few specifics would help. Second, what are our plans for attacking Basra? Third, what really depressing news from the front are you holding back from the American people?

Media critic: Yeah, those are exactly the questions we need answered. We're talking constitutional rights here. We've been asking you these questions for days and all we get are a pack of evasions. How do we know if those evasions are true?

From such clarifications as these, we can draw the following conclusions: There is still time for peace in the gulf if Saddam Hussein makes the mistake of returning to an old falafel haunt, or if Bush comes to a deeper understanding of Arab metaphors. But whatever happens, it will be bad for Israelis and Russians, and the American press corps in the desert will be the last to know.

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