Monday, December 04, 2006

The Arabs and language

"A simple assertion from an Arab can be, for him, nothing more than a polite form of evasion, while the same word for his English interlocutor a definite, positive commitment. Americans should keep in mind that statements which seem to Arabs to be mere statements of fact will seem to Americans to be extreme or even violent assertions."

- Raphael Patai

I recently spoke to an Army Reservist friend of mine who returned this summer from his second tour in Iraq. He spent his tour working with one of the Iraqi Ministries in the Green Zone and told me that he almost never traveled anywhere. He worked with Iraqis but was not able to visit their homes or really see what Iraq was like outside the confines of the barbed wire and concrete barriers that defined his existence.

I was fortunate in that during the last five months of my tour that I was able to travel and see a lot of Iraq and the Iraqis. I believe that the circumstances on the ground now in Iraq are substantively different than it was when I was there but the Iraqis are still the same. We spent a lot of time when we were there trying to figure out what the Iraqis were thinking and doing. I am sure the Iraqis spent a lot of time wondering what we were up to.

In the buildup to the war we pretty much knew that we were on the list to go and we knew where we were going and why. Very few of us knew anything about the Middle East and even less had even traveled there. I was an expert in Latin America and I spoke Spanish and at least this gave me some insight into some of the cultural and language problems that we could expect to encounter. I was smart enough to know how much I really didn't know.

Undaunted, I decided to learn as much as I could in the time that I had available. I purchased and read "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence. I found a book on the history of Iraq. I purchased Arabic language tapes and began learning Arabic.

One book that was highly recommended to us and which I consulted on many occasions is "The Arab Mind" by Raphael Patai. The book was originally published in 1976 and revised in 1983. The book speaks in generalities about a large and diverse population, but there are some great truths in what he had to say. One point that I remember well is the Arab penchant for substituting words for action.

"In fact," Mr Patai wrote, "the Arab custom of trying to intimidate an adversary by verbal threats is such a prevalent feature of the Arab personality that it could not escape the notice of either native or foreign observers. The adult Arab makes statements which express threats, demands, or intentions, which he does not intend to carry out but which once uttered, relax emotional tension, give psychological relief and at the same time reduce the pressure to engage in any act aimed at realizing the verbalized goal."

When seen from this point of view, a lot of the words and crowd images that are beamed to us from the Middle East don't seem quite so crazy.

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