Thursday, March 20, 2008

Learning Arabic

I’m in Iraq, an Arabic speaking country, why not learn Arabic? It certainly helps with the job and the Iraqis appreciate it. How hard can it be?

Before I deployed, I spent a pretty penny on Arabic language learning software. I was rather perplexed, as the company offered ‘Levantine’
Arabic, ‘Egyptian’ Arabic and ‘Modern Standard’ Arabic. How many versions of one language can there be? Is there really that much of a difference? Why don’t they offer Iraqi Arabic? There’s a market.

English isn’t all that different from region to region. Someone from England (unless it’s a London Eastender) can reasonably understand someone from Texas. Moroccans and Iraqis should be the same, yes? No! Turns out Arabic varies widely from country to country region to region, etc. Moroccan Arabic is incomprehensible to Iraqis. Arabic in Mosul is different from Arabic in Basra.

During my first tour, there was a protest down at the main gate. The protesters were rowdy, but not violent. The commander went down and addressed the crowd through his interpreter, and told them to protest away from the main gate and remain calm. After the interpreter finished speaking, the crowd went crazy. Quizzical glances all around, but the interpreter said he translated everything correctly. The commander repeated his message to the crowd, and the crowd went ballistic. So the commander asked where the interpreter was from. Kuwait. The Iraqis heard the Kuwaiti accent and assumed that it was a Kuwaiti ordering them around. There’s some history between the two countries. The Iraqis hates Kuwaitis. Everyone in the Middle East hates the Kuwaitis. Well, everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else in the Middle East, but that’s another discussion.

Nowadays, accent can get you killed in Iraq. If you talk like someone from Sunni Mosul at the wrong illegal check point, Death Squad. If you talk like a Shi’a from Basra at the wrong illegal check point, Death Squad.

So, accent matters. I’ve been working through the ‘Levantine (Syria and Lebanon)’ lessons, and then practicing with the interpreters we have in the building. Apparently, Iraqis can barely understand anyone from Syria. Doh. And, a Syrian accent in Iraq is like a French accent in America. Would you take Arnold Schwarzenegger seriously if he had a French accent a beret? Then, there are a few regional differences.

Such as, ‘He is over there’ in Syrian is something very rude in Iraqi. The accent is different (apparently the Iraqi accent is admired for ruggedness) and many words are different. Like ‘laben.’ In Syria, ‘laben’ is milk. Nice, cold and refreshing milk. We had lunch with the Iraqis a little while ago, and there were pitchers of what looked like milk. I asked, and the Iraqis said it was ‘laben.’ Milk? Not so much. In Iraq, ‘laben’ is watered down yogurt mixed with salt. Yes, really. It tastes like evil. Ho ho, cultural learning is fun!

I’ve never managed to learn any language other than English. Why should I? I’m an American, damn it. I dabbled in French, Spanish, Japanese, Latin and German but I know next to nothing. Americans are almost in awe of people who can speak another language, but its second nature to the rest of the world. Lack of interpreters is a huge hindrance to Army operations. If we go to war with Venezuela, we’re good. 5 years at war in Iraq and we’re still scraping by for interpreters. Hello! McFly!
The military has language training schools for Arabic, but that school teaches Modern Standard Arabic (newscaster and literary Arabic) which is nigh-incomprehensible to a Baghdad street urchin. Then the United States Government hires civilian interpreters from Morocco or Sudan, who are nigh-incomprehensible to every other Arabic speaker in the world. The government pays six figures for interpreters that are essentially useless. Why? Because American pencil pushers assume Arabic is Arabic is Arabic.

One exception is Egyptian. The Egyptians make most of the TV shows and movies, so Arabic speakers the world over can pretty much understand Egyptian. Can Egyptians understand Iraqis? No.

So, back to me learning Arabic, I learn some Syrian and try it out on my Iraqi interpreters. After they make the universal ‘What the hell did he just say?’ face, I repeat myself in English and they tell me what I meant to say in Iraqi.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on your article , it seems that you don't know much about the accents in arab world , second who said that everyone hates kuwaiti , i wonder from where you got this idea , and not all iraqis hate kuwaitis ,forget about the war n these stuff you better say that iraqis who support Saddam hussein hate kuwaitis yea that would make sense .. there is a lot of relations between kuwaitis and iraqis . it's better to know about kuwaitis or iraqis or any other people before you write something about them.


Sarah Ibrahim