Trying to Learn Arabic

Upon returning from Vietnam in 1966 I received orders to begin my training for the army Foreign Area Specialty program ( now called the Foreign   Area  Officer  program . FAO). I was to report to the Defense Language School  East Coast,  then  located at Bolling Air Force base. Unfortunately, I was then told that my training would be at a commercial site, the Institute of Modern  languages, (IML) in downtown DC. It was a year long course taught by pick up instructors hired by IML. The first instructor was an Iraqi, a throughly sullen and unpleasant individual, I will call Mr. Abdullah, ( not his true name) because his clan resides in Washington and owns an upscale restaurant in Shirlington.  I remember his waxy unhealthy appearance, with his cheeks disfigured  by the indentations of the Baghdadi pox and  his pin striped suit and   pointed  shoes. We took an instant dislike to another and I hated  having to have my wife wake up the kids at about 6 every morning to put them in the car and drive me down the  Suitland Parkway to get me to DC, and then having to  look at Mr. Abdullah’s ugly face for 8 hours a day.

We were using some sort of text book for colloquial  Iraqi Arabic. I was in a class with three other officers and one sergeant who made a habit of insulting Mr. Abdullah with jokes about Arabs. I learned words like schloonik and   shako mako and my favorite, Kwajuck, apparently a Turkish word for the automobile tire used by Iraqis in the 50’s. An Iraqi friend said she had  never heard of the word. Anyway Mr Abdullah spent about a couple hours a day reading  sentences out of the text book and  6 hours talking about politics in English.  He was a  Ba’athi who had apparently been on the wrong side of one of the innumerable revolts and coups that plagued  Iraq.  He found himself in a country, the USA, which he obviously did not like.

The six day war occurred while he was our instructor and I remember him coming in to class one morning, and jubilantly informing us that Iraqi forces were on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. When  our “zionist” controlled  media  continued  detailing the rout of the Egyptian and Syrian forces, Mr. Abdullah ran a wire antenna to the top of his apartment building in an effort to tune in radio Baghdad to get the “truth.” I learned early on one of the issues of Arab culture…the one of self denial and belief in the most ridiculous of conspiracy theories. When the results of the war were obvious even to the most deluded, Mr Abdullah attributed the Israeli victory to American intervention.

Thankfully after several months, he left and was temporarily replaced by a nice Iraqi lady. I learned  one other thing from Mr. Abdullah before he left,  however. I mentioned one day in class going to mass and I saw this shocked look on Mr. Abdullah’s face. “You are not Jewish?” he asked. No, I replied, I am a Catholic. So I learned then, and since reinforced time and time again, how this unnatural inbred  hatred of everything Jewish permeates  much of his culture. A lot of his enmity to me was based on his belief I was Jewish. My enmity toward him was based on his surly personality.

The nice Iraqi lady was with us only a few short weeks but I learned from her as well. She was from the same class and city as Mr Abdullah but when she said the same words as Mr. Abdullah they seemed to be totally different. The lesson to me was that the way women and men speak Arabic are different and to me was like learning a new language. It was part of a continuing understanding that class, gender, region, religion, and sect have a  great deal of influence on spoken Arabic.

Our next instructor was a skinny Palestinian who did not understand anything in the Iraqi colloquial textbook and we basically stopped using it. His major problem, as he sorrowfully related to me, was the total lack of interest American women had in being friendly with him.  Like many Arabs, educated by Hollywood movies and tall tales of returnees, he believed American women were available 24/7 for sex. He just disappeared one day.

Our final instructor, and my favorite, was an Egyptian psychologist who had been in Yemen with the Egyptian army. He was funny, educated, and  totally uninterested in teaching Arabic. We use to have breakfast together and he always ordered an extra order of bacon. He said the pork thing in the Qur’an was a Jewish leftover.

 

I learned from him how the Yemeni people, the terrain, and the war made the ordinary Egyptian soldier crazy.  He said he had to treat hundreds for mental problems and send them home. He also was an expert on the sexual mores of different  Arab nationalities, opining that Egyptian women were the coldest and Lebanese the  hottest.

So off I went to Beirut having learned  almost nothing  of Arabic. While attending classes  at the American University I took Arabic at the Embassy. My instructor was Georges Dabaghi, a wonderful man, warm, humorous and dedicated to trying to teach me Arabic.  Each day I would read an article from an Arab newspaper and quickly learned that almost every article began the same  way….Quwwat Israliyein tibaddel innarr ma quwwat Orduni,  (Israeli forces exchanged fire with Jordanian forces ). The Arab editorials I was unable to read at all. But Georges told me they never made  sense anyway. Georges despaired of teaching me Arabic.  I began to make up my own version of Arabic, for instance, I used the Lebanese word for ice cream, buzza, to turn it into a slang English word booze, for drinking liquor. I then conjugated it, Boooit ( I drank), Boozna ( we drank), boozhum  (they drank), etc. No wonder Georges gave up on me. But he said one thing that always stayed with me. He said I made less Arabic  go further than anyone he had taught, I think that is true. I am always animated and use multiple dramatic gestures when I speak Arabic. My body language fills some of the void left  by lousy Arabic. I also memorized certain introductory passages of Arabic that impressed my counterpart into thinking I spoke better Arabic than I did.  Besides, Beirut had so attractions and distractions it was hard to study.

beirut2

Beirut by Night. Life goes on no matter what kind of war is going on.

Living in Beirut for three years did little to  improve my Arabic. As the sophisticated Beiruitis  would say…”we speak French or English to each other and Arabic to our maids.” The amazing facility of the people to speak so many languages so easily was also intimidating. They have the ability to use three languages in one sentence, their computer like minds inserting the most appropriate linguistic word for the sense they were conveying. I got out to the countryside as  much as possible, and I learned that the folks in Tripoli speak differently that the folks in Sidon but as usual I depended on my theatrical animation more than my Arabic.

I also took classes at the American University in Modern Standard Arabic, ( MSA) a truly depressing ( and mostly useless)  form of Arabic to learn. It is used mostly in newspapers and TV  news but not really spoken. And of course the Qur’anic Arabic  is another  higher level than MSA and totally beyond my capabilities. I had an excellent instructor but all I learned were words about ideologies, Istimaar, Sayuniyya, Shu’ubiyya, istirakiyya, democracy,                 (imperialism, zionism, communism, socialism, democracy etc,) While in Beirut I was second down to the Trucial Oman Scouts, a British officered and Arab composed unit to keep peace and British control in the Gulf. I spend many great weeks with them going out on desert camel patrols. I learned what was known as “soldier Arabic” a mixture of Dhofari Arabic, Bedu, and English.  It was my Lawrence in Arabia  moment.

Desert patrol with the Trucial Oman Scouts into the Liwa desert

tos patrol

 

I  was always more interested in people and culture than language, which I found boring. It wasn’t just Arabic.I  found Spanish, and especially French even more boring.  I enjoyed watching Arabs speak to one another and guess the topic of their conversation. My  actual comprehension was, and always has been, particularly poor. A very  important point that related to my problem in learning Arabic was my impaired hearing. Having spent a year in Vietnam with  a heavy artillery unit firing day and night I had lost a good part of my hearing. In those days it was considered sissified to use hearing protection. No matter where I located the fire direction center, at some point in the night the 175  guns would be firing directly over our tent. It was a reminder that in low intensity conflict, there are no front lines.

vn me 5 with new junf gle fatigues

 

VN 1966, Just received the new jungle fatigues. I like them much better than the BDU’s of today.

After Lebanon I went to Jordan and there I actually learned to speak the Jordanian Bedouin dialect pretty  well. I use to go out to the desert with my officer pals from the Palace armored car regiments,  Special Forces, and other tribal folks, drink huge amounts of scotch whiskey, fire every weapon in the inventory,  in all directions, and babble in Arabic. I began to feel I had finally arrived. There was one word they used  every time they took a drink…gadahak ( or something like that). My special friend Sayil from the Howeitat tribe told me it meant F… you,  but I have never been able to find anyone to verify that.

sayil3

 

Captain Sayil, a tough little Bedu soldier from the Armored Car regiment. One of my best friends  who taught me Bedouin Arabic while having a libation.

But after returning to the states and artillery assignments my Arabic dissipated quickly. I remember on one occasion I was assigned to escort some Lebanese Army officers around the U.S.  We visited a number of military posts , one of them being Ft Meade MD. There the First  Army commander, a Lt. General, greeted us and the senior lebanese officer, a Sunni colonel, who knew no  English, began a long thank you in Arabic and then suddenly turned to me to translate. I had not even been listening and had no idea what he said. But I know what was normally said in such occasions, and managed to return the usual compliments. Later, one of the Lebanese officers, who knew English well, found me at the bar and laughing old me that although my translation had little resemblance to what the Colonel actually said,  that  he admired my ability to improvise.

leb

Lebanese officer delegation visiting the Sates escorted by me.

letter

Very nice letter I received from LTG Hutchins for the visit, Escorting Lebanese officers is like herding cats. They all have relatives all over the U.S.and without warning one of two will disappear to visit family. We visited the manhattan Rockettes , a  criminal court  in Georgia, a number not military posts, etc.,and I dropped them off at an Indianapolis movie throatier showing “Deep Throat” After much debate on the sidewalk outside the movie house no one would make the first move and  we left

 

After being away from the Arab world for almost ten years and having limited  occasion to speak Arabic I was assigned to Egypt. Early on I went to see one of the generals and after struggling through several minutes of Iraqi, Levantine , Jordanian, and Egyptian influenced Arabic, the exasperated general said…”please speak English.” I was crestfallen and from that day I said to hell with it and reserved Arabic for the maid and the fellahin          ( peasant) soldiers that I worked with. With a lot of body language and facial expressions we could  communicate very well and nobody gave a rat’s ass about ideology. I was described  by the Egyptian soldiers  as having demma Khafifa  (light blood) meaning someone with  animation and a good sense of humor.  Knowing Egyptians that made me feel good.

 

training egyptians

Working with Egyptians on US Hawk air defense

After Egypt and a number of years I began teaching at the JFK Special Warfare School   and about twice a year I made trips back to the Middle East. Usually my routine was to check in at the Embassy, talk to whomever had time to talk to me , rent a car and driver, and travel about the country talking with the driver and with the people I would meet. I would try  to rehabilitate my Arabic, but I found after a couple of days in the car listening to his Arabic     ( and music on a tinny radio) and trying to respond,  I felt my head would explode.  After a while I would pretend to be sleeping so the driver would shut up. I also most happily got to make a couple short tours in Iraq with Psychological operations units. In doing so I was able to meet some very well educated and patriotic Iraqis who worked for the US in hopes of a democratic Iraq, They were and are great people.

 

Atop the helmets taken from the battlefield in the Iran-Iraq war. It was part of a Saddam Memorial to himselfme atop iranian helmets

 

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The translators I worked with in Baghdad. I began to learn Iraqi Arabic again. Great people. We owe them a great debt

But  I  ever learned to read written Arabic well, so I have to endure reading articles in English  by Westerners who have learned  to read written Arabic in some prestigious Arabic language center, hob nob with Arab “intellectuals,”  cogitate on academic books by  members of the Edward Said school of Arab victimhood, then pontificate on  events on the Arab world. In my somewhat jaundiced opinion  most of them  don’t know Khara ( s…) about the Arab culture I lived in for going on nine years.

Once in a while now I  think of doing something to relearn Arabic but after  an hour or so of listening to Rosetta Stone CD’s, I think…. what’s the point?… and quit. I even talked with an Egyptian living in Myrtle Beach SC but he wanted too much money  to tutor me. And here in Brunswick County NC, the Arab population is negligible.

But these days I am truly sorry that I did  not learn to speak, write, and read Arabic better than I do, Many young people, after only a year or so learning the language do better than me. I find that irritating and sometimes embarrassing, although I console myself with knowledge that I have forgotten more about the Arab world than they will ever know.

 

 

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About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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