Arabic fluency as a weapon

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 5 13:42:53 UTC 2007

>>From the Middle East Times

Commentary: Arabic fluency as a weapon

By Louis Werner

Middle East Times Published April 4, 2007


I have become increasingly suspicious of the claims made by or about
Americans that they are fluent in Arabic, or less grandiosely, that they
"speak the language." Upon closer examination of almost anyone who is not
a first-generation Arab-American, the self-professed Arabic speaker is
frequently revealed as possessing only the emergency vocabulary of a
tourist, at most able to order a meal, or ask directions on a Cairo street
corner.  By calling themselves or allowing themselves to be called,
speakers of Arabic, such people are either knowingly minimizing their
ignorance of the language, or are falsely aggrandizing their linguistic
abilities and cultural insights. Either way, they are deceitfully using
Arabic as an unearned credential when they climb onto or are lifted upon
the expert's soap box.

    However, what bothers me most is that, when reporting on US military
intelligence and foreign policy matters, journalists who should know
better, too-often cite the Arabic fluency of their sources as a way of
burnishing their otherwise weak credibility. My first question is always:
under what circumstances did these sources learn whatever Arabic they do,
in fact, speak?  It was recently reported that Paul Wolfowitz, as a way of
demonstrating his open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity, had taught
himself Arabic. In the same article, he is mentioned as asking if an
Arabic inscription in a Turkish mosque was the fatiha (the opening sura of
the Koran) - an unlikely question from anyone who has studied the basics;
the imam informed him that it was not.

    Retired general John Abizaid, a second-generation Christian
Lebanese-American, is said to have learned Arabic in Jordan while in the
military - in the tradition of that arch-British colonialist (and betrayer
of the Arab cause) Glubb Pasha, and not as his mother-tongue in his native
California. Abizaid's masters thesis on Saudi defense policy from Harvard
University was overseen by Nadav Safran, an Israeli army veteran and
author of Israel: The Embattled Ally - before Safran's forced resignation
due to the surfacing of a secret Central Intelligence Agency
funding-for-research scandal on that very same topic.  One true speaker of
Arabic was the late Hume Horan, who valiantly returned from retirement at
the age of 69 to serve Paul Bremer in Baghdad as the Coalition Provisional
Authority's only US foreign service officer who could distinguish a broken
plural from a broken policy. That Bremer would sideline his usefulness,
calling him "my pet Bedouin," makes one wonder if Bremer himself ever
learned the difference between "ahlan" and "sahlan."

    One must also question the fluency of Stephen Stephanowicz, a private
sector interrogator mired in the crimes of Abu Ghraib. He had previously
served in US Navy intelligence in Oman, but it is unclear if he could do
more than order tea and torture. There is no doubt, however, of the
speaking ability of two other Abu Ghraib translators hired through Titan
Corporation - now known as L-3 Communications Titan: Iraqi-born John
Israel and Egyptian-born Adel Nakhla, both protected from criminal
prosecution for being naturalized American citizens, and perhaps also for
claiming to be Christian.

    L-3 Communications is currently recruiting an Arabic translator for
immediate assignment in Iraq. According to its job posting,
responsibilities include "identify and extract [sic] information
components," "interpret during interviews [sic]," and "perform document
exploitation [sic]." A key qualification is the "ability to deal
unobtrusively [sic] with the local populace" - an odd euphemism from a
company that previously hired men who held down naked prisoners to be

    The National Foreign Language Center, a private research and advocacy
group, proudly announced that after 9/11, it reached out to the
intelligence and military community to "establish the critical need for
language learning to stem [sic] the war on terrorism." One would like to
think that the group really did believe what it appeared to say - that
learning Arabic could help put an end to George W. Bush's misguided
policy. More likely, what it actually meant was to spur Bush's war, not to
stop it.

    My first book on Arabic grammar was published by the Middle East
Center for Arab Studies in Shemlan, Lebanon, a British government-financed
school for spies and diplomats. My second was the textbook developed at
the University of Michigan under National Defense Language Act funding.
The teaching offered at the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, CA is
still the gold standard for US military Arabic instruction, while the US
Army Intelligence training center at Fort Huachuca fine-tunes Arabic
translators facing Iraq deployments from keyword lists for rough-tactic
midnight "interviews."

    Fortunately, the civilian-oriented American Association of Teachers of
Arabic (AATA) sets a very different priority for learning the language.
Its Web site "Why Study Arabic?" lists various professions available to
those fluent in the language, starting with careers as foreign reporters
and literary translators, then touching on international business, and
only mentioning toward the end, government work - highlighting the
diplomatic corps and positions as foreign aid officers - and thankfully,
never once mentioning military or intelligence jobs. So, let us all hail
AATA, which, it seems, would rather keep Abu Ghraib interrogators
completely out of its classrooms.

     Louis Werner is a frequent Contributor to Saudi Aramco World


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