Army guide offers Iraq do's, don'ts


Sun Journal

April 29, 2003

"The Arab" is noisy, exceedingly polite, evasive, honorable to the core, thin-skinned and a whole lot else. At least that's according to A Soldier's Guide to the Republic of Iraq, a booklet prepared by the Army's 101st Airborne Division and distributed to prepare troops for Iraq.

If U.S. soldiers, who are now acting more like peacekeepers than warriors, happen to consult the guide, they will find an odd compendium of stereotypes and gross generalizations presented as absolute fact.

With its detailed guidance for cutting business deals and breaking bread with Iraqis - both pretty unlikely events for most privates - the pocket-size booklet reads like a cross between Emily Post and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Some parts do ring true to anyone who has spent a few days on Baghdad's increasingly crowded streets, such as the widespread lack of personal space. But others seem off the mark. For example, the guide warns soldiers never to use the thumbs-up gesture because it is obscene. But Iraqis say it has always meant "good" to them, too. At any rate, little boys across Iraq have been flashing the symbol to passing soldiers for weeks - and soldiers have been responding in kind.

Here are excerpts from the booklet.

- Scott Calvert

Cultural Considerations

Arabs operate by personal relations more than by time constraints.

Arabs do not believe in upward mobility or social status; they gain status by being born into the right family.

Appearances are also maintained through fairly strict and formalized rules of behavior and politeness. Arabs have a strong sense of formal social occasion and protocol.

There is little virtue in a frank exchange. Getting down to business may always occur at a later meeting or a more informal setting such as dinner.

Arab hospitality requires that refreshments must always be offered. It is considered polite to decline twice before accepting, and for the host to offer at least three times before accepting a guest's negative response.

To show politeness, when asked a yes or no question, the Arab will always answer yes, whether true or not. A flat "no" is a signal that you want to end the relationship. The polite way for an Arab to say "no" is to say, "I'll see what I can do."

Arabs, by American standards, are reluctant to accept responsibility. ... if responsibility is accepted and something goes wrong, the Arab is dishonored.

The Arab approach to time is much slower and relaxed. If God wills things to happen, they will, so why rush. Relationships are more important than accomplishing an act.

An Arab sees friendships with anyone outside the family as meaning, "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."

When an Arab meets you for the first time, he must know your social, professional and academic background, as well as age, before he conducts any business (so he can know your influence and how well connected you are).

A comfortable distance for Americans to converse is about an arm's length. For Arabs it is about 12 inches. It is said that the Arab likes to feel your breath in their face. As you back away, the Arab will continue to move forward. This is known as the "diplomatic shuffle."

Cultural Do's and Don'ts


It is common for good friends of the same sex to hold hands while walking in public.

"Honor" is one of the most important and least understood concepts in the Arab world. It is cherished and protected above all else.

Arabs are very proud, and public appearance is extremely important.


Never sit with your feet up on a desk or some other piece of furniture. The bottoms of the feet are the dirtiest part of the body and it is extremely rude and insulting to show or point them towards an Arab.

Never sit with one ankle on your other leg's knee, leaving the bottom of your foot to point at someone.

Public displays of affection between the sexes are unacceptable.

Criticism can threaten or damage an Arab's honor.


Always use your right hand when gesturing to avoid inferring uncleanliness.

After shaking hands, the gesture of placing the right hand to the heart is a greeting with respect or sincerity.

"That's enough, thank you," may be indicated by patting the heart a few times.

To kiss the forehead, nose or right hand of a person who is being greeted shows extreme respect.

"Excellent" is expressed with open palms toward the person.

"OK" may be shown by touching the outer edge of the eyes with the fingertips.

Never use the "A-OK" and "thumbs-up" gesture, for they have obscene connotations in the Arab World.

To beckon another person, all fingers wave with the palm facing downward.



Rise to show respect when an esteemed person enters the room.

Learn a few common Arabic greetings.

Feel free to return a hug or kiss on the cheek initiated by an Arab man (these are signs of friendship and acceptance and are traditional Arab greetings).


Offer your left hand to an Arab.

Use Arabic greetings unless you are sure how to use them properly.

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