Troops learn Arabic language and Arab ways

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jan 23 16:52:55 UTC 2004

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Posted on Thu, Jan. 22, 2004

Troops learn Arabic language and Arab ways

Before heading to Iraq, hundreds of U.S. forces are taking a course to
improve communication.

By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - When U.S. Marines went into Iraq last year, they
carried plastic cards printed with important Arabic phrases needed in the
fight to topple Saddam Hussein. Now the Marines are returning to Iraq, but
their mission will be more about nation-building than combat. That makes
the need to communicate with Iraqis in their own language even more
critical. So, hundreds of Marines and Navy medics at Camp Pendleton,
Twentynine Palms, and Camp Lejeune, N.C., are undergoing an intensive
monthlong course to learn basic Arabic and, perhaps more important, pick
up a few lessons in cultural sensitivity.

"We realize the importance of treating the Iraqis with respect and trying
to gain their respect and trust," Maj. Kirk Greiner, assistant operations
officer of the First Marine Division, said. "Showing the Iraqis that we're
making an effort is important." About 20,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton
and 5,000 from Camp Lejeune will depart in the coming weeks to relieve the
Army's 82d Airborne Division in a sprawling area west of Baghdad. "The
mission is very different this time," said one student, Lance Cpl.  Ashot
Malkhassian, a machine-gunner whose unit saw action in southern Iraq.
"Last time we were taking down a dictator. Now we're trying to help the
people get their lives back."

Taught by instructors from the Defense Language Institute and Berlitz
International Inc., the course is meant to provide instruction in basic
vocabulary, sentence structure and voice inflections. Don't mumble a
greeting, the Marines were told. Be expansive and confident but not
overbearing. Don't rush an Iraqi trying to tell you something.  Listen
when the Iraqis speak. "They're teaching us to respect the culture and not
be so close-minded about things that are different," said Cpl. Robert
McNulty, a cook with an anthropology degree from the University of

Many of the phrases (including the classic "Stop or I will shoot you!")
will be needed when Marines are at checkpoints or searching homes. Others
- "Peace to you," "We are here to help you" - are meant to be helpful in
casual conversation. The need for better language proficiency is a lesson
learned from last year's mission. "We're doing things the Marine way,"
Greiner said. "This is something we identified on our own when we came
back from Iraq last summer."

The course includes all-day instruction and three hours of homework. For a
final exam, each Marine and sailor will have to navigate the Internet
using Arabic words, provide an introductory speech (written and oral), and
engage in a 10-minute role-playing conversation. Marines are told that
when entering an Iraqi home they should show deference to the oldest male
and avoid even eye contact with females, lest it be seen as a sign of
disrespect. Accustomed to the mores of modern America, the Marines find
the gender strictures unusual. "You don't look at them, shake hands with
them, or even smile at them,"  said Lance Cpl. Casey Roach, a mortar
specialist. "We don't want them to take any umbrage at us." Roach studied
Spanish before enlisting, but the Arabic course has something that was
missing in Spanish class: motivation.

"I never figured when I was in Spanish class that I better learn because
I'm going into a war zone in Mexico," he said. "That's what makes this

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