To win over Iraqis, speak their language

November 09, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

There's been much talk of the great disadvantage America suffers as a result of having such a shortage of Arabic speakers among the intelligence and military forces responsible for achieving success in Iraq.

It is a huge disadvantage.

Knowing the language of any people whom America - or any other power for that matter - is trying to influence is practically indispensable. Among Arabs it makes an enormous difference, for knowledge of the language implies knowledge of the culture and its political and religious traditions. In Iraq these days that knowledge could save a life.

One of my favorite anecdotes about this verity comes from the published recollections of Sir Ronald Storrs, an Englishman who was an important figure in the British Empire's adventures in the Middle East in the early 20th century.

"Sometime in 1906 I was walking in the heat of the day through the bazaars [in Cairo]," Storrs wrote. "As I passed an Arab cafe an idle wit ... desiring to shine before his friends, called out in Arabic, `God curse your father, O Englishman.' I was young then and quicker tempered, and foolishly could not refrain from answering in his own language that I would also curse his father if he were in a position to inform me which of his mother's two and ninety admirers his father had been. ... In a few seconds, I felt a hand on each arm. `My brother,' said the original humorist, `return, I pray you, and drink with us coffee and smoke. ... I did not think that your worship knew Arabic, still less the correct Arabic abuse and we would fain benefit further by your important thoughts.' "

Arabic is a rich, melodious, poetic language. But it is difficult. Like Hebrew it is written from right to left. There are no vowels. Some letters in the Arabic alphabet have no equivalent in English. The guttural tones are easier for Germans to pronounce than Americans.

My own attempts at the language never met with great success. I am able to converse comfortably in French, Spanish and awkwardly in German, but Arabic - attempted much later in life - has always daunted me. Twenty years ago, as I prepared for an assignment in the Middle East, The Sun spent a fortune on two Arabic-language tutors for me at Georgetown University. I barely got past the greetings - infinite in themselves - and the ability to say who I was, where I came from and where I thought I was going.

When my family arrived in Jerusalem in 1983, my wife, Anne, enrolled in a $50 course in colloquial Arabic at the Hebrew University and was quickly conversant. Often, I was asked why I did not try to learn Hebrew instead of, or in addition to, Arabic. The answer was that the languages are similar, and slipping into the wrong one in the wrong place could be dangerous. To greet someone in Israel with the Arabic salam aleikum (peace be upon you) would not cause trouble. To greet someone in Syria or Iraq with shalom could lead to an unhappy visit from government thugs.

Spending as much time as I did in the Arab world, I picked up more of the language. Never enough to conduct a formal interview, but enough to ingratiate myself with Arabs who were pleased to know one had tried to learn their language. This was true even in the case of embarrassing mistakes - such as the similarities between the Arabic words for beauty and camel, or simple words like where and when. The Arabic word for where (pronounced wain, or fen) is very similar to the English when. Once, interviewing a village leader in the West Bank in a mixture of English and Arabic, the Palestinian was describing an incident and I asked when it had happened.

"Right here," he said.

"No. When?" I asked.

"Here! Here!" he remonstrated.

Abbott and Costello could have played the scene.

The Lebanese were a special case, especially given the multiple-nationality disorder prevalent in the comfortable class. They would banter in a combination of Arabic, French and English, often adding the Arabic suffix --ain, which doubles the value of a word, to French words and uttering phrases and sentences with a combination of all three languages: marhaba (Arabic for welcome) bonjour, bonjourain (French for good day, with the Arabic suffix making it double good day).

In any Arab land I have visited, the inability of people to say no, or to outrightly reject a request is overwhelming. Ask a fellow if his leader is around for an interview and he would not say, "No, he isn't, and even if he were, he wouldn't want to talk to you." The response would be something along the lines of: "Certainly, please sit and wait. Coffee?" My colleagues and I have spent hours, days, waiting to talk with people who never materialize.

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