The View From HereThe Yanks need to learn Arabic [Archives:2003/682/Culture]

October 30 2003

By Jamil Abdul Karim
Iraq. Can it be saved? Six months after its liberation, Iraqis are still short on power, electrical and otherwise. The Yanks are still being greeted with grenades as much as with flowers and hugs. And how did those weapons of mass destruction disappear?
But American-led UN sanctions against Iraq in the ‘90s, according to UNICEF, killed as many as 36,000 Iraqis every year, mostly kids. It was a humanitarian disaster, a bloody corner that successive U.S. administrations painted themselves into. If the Bushies did anything right, at least they ended that.
Agree or disagree with their invasion of Iraq, the question now is, where to from here? It will be at least a year before Iraqis, terribly fragmented along ethnic and religious lines, are ready to govern themselves. That means more body bags for coalition troops, now being killed at a rate of more than one a day. No, this is not a video game that ends neat and tidy.
Some prophets of doom say this proves the sky is falling. But, these numbers hardly show another long-term catastrophe such as America’s involvement in Vietnam. In fact, one recent poll, even if polls can often be political beauty pageants, shows three of five Iraqis think liberty is worth the hardship they’re enduring from their end. After suffering for decades, it looks like at least some Iraqis believe they have a shot at a decent future. So the glass appears half full as much as half empty.
Still, if occupying forces want to see less sabotage and mayhem, it seems to me they should study some Arabic. Really. Consider that in ancient Rome, it cost about 75 cents (U.S.) to kill a man. It was $3,000 by the War of 1812, $5,000 in the U.S. civil war, and $21,000 in the First World War. Now it’s taken about $50 billion to blow up Iraq, and will take roughly another $90 billion to occupy and rebuild it.
The good news is that while the cost of killing each other is going into orbit, language lessons are not. Here in Yemen, you can get Arabic instruction for just US $10 an hour. So, if foreign interests truly want to build a new Iraq, for Iraqis, they can learn things like “asalam allykum,” without breaking the bank.
Besides, with some decent pledges to rebuild Iraq coming from the recent Madrid donor conference, money abounds. Japan’s contribution of $5 billion alone will pay for at least 375 million hours of Arabic class.
Now, some languages can be nothing short of crazy. Look at English. It’s not easy to learn how “the bandage was wound around the wound,” or “they were too close to the door to close it,” or “the soldier deserted his dessert in the desert.” Why are boxing rings square, and a wise man opposite to a wise guy? But, then again, for native English speakers, Arabic isn’t very easy either. So all those millions of hours of instruction may be needed to get it right.
Also, it’s interesting that for every four foreigners heading to the U.S. on cultural exchanges, the Yanks send just one of their own abroad. So, besides the Arabic language, occupying troops could also help themselves in Iraq if they tried to learn some basic Arab ethos. They should know, for example, exactly why, historically, Arabs have valued things like status, age and duty, while Westerners tend to focus on freedom, youth and individual rights? Surely, it’s a good idea to know such things when transferring rule back to Iraqis, if that is American’s intent.
Instead, according to one Baghdad diplomat, the group now running Iraq’s show, the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, is known on the ground as the Condescending and Patronizing Americans. A dissident Pentagon official adds, “So there they are, sitting in their palace: 800 people, 17 of whom speak Arabic. One is an expert in Iraq. Living in this cocoon. Writing papers. It’s absurd.” And this comes from Newsweek, an American publication.
A cynic would say the Yanks might next send in Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s new governor. Arnold, an Austrian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. with nothing and learned enough about his new culture to make it big as a Hollywood star, now heads what is the world’s sixth largest economy. Talk about cultural adaptation.
The Terminator 4: “Ahnold” goes to Baghdad. Can you see a sort of twisted logic in it? But then, is it more bizarre than what Iraq’s occupiers are doing, that is trying to build a house without a foundation?

Jamil Abdulkarim is a commentator on Western-Arab relations and cultural issues.
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