Learning Arabic 101

November 1, 2003

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SANA’A, YEMEN – 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. So if the Bushies now ended that by finally dumping Saddam, so be it.

Agree or disagree, 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 Vietnam. And a recent poll shows three of five Iraqis think liberty is worth the hardship they’re enduring. After suffering for decades, now they 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 $10 US an hour. So, if foreign interests truly want to build a new Iraq, for Iraqis, they can learn things like “asalam allykum,” a common Arabic greeting which means “peace be upon you,” without breaking the bank.

Besides, with decent pledges to rebuild Iraq coming from the recent Madrid donor conference, money abounds. Canada’s 2004 pledge of about $200 million alone will pay for 15 million hours of Arabic class.

Now, English can be crazy. I wouldn’t want 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 trust me, English is a comparative snap to Arabic. A few million hours will be needed to get this tongue, one that can stymie even native Arab speakers.

Besides the Arabic language, occupying troops may also want to learn basic Arab ethos. Why, for example, do Arabs value things like status, age and duty, while Westerners value freedom, youth and individual rights? Is it not a good idea to know such things when transferring rule back to Iraqis?

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 on Iraq. Living in this cocoon. Writing papers. It’s absurd.”

I say send in Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s new boss. Here’s an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. with nothing and learned enough about his new culture to now head what is the world’s sixth largest economy. Talk about adaptation. The Terminator 4: “Ahnold” goes to Baghdad. Think about it. Is it more bizarre than building a house without a foundation?

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November 1, 2003 • Posted in ,
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