Communication was the biggest problem for journalists in Iraq shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
It is not so much the Arabic language, but the difference in cultures that even the best translators are not able to bridge.
A typical example: you enter a shop and ask through a local Iraqi linguist about the price, say, of an oil lamp. The interpreter, or “terp” in soldier slang, starts talking – far longer than you would expect the simple phrase “How much is this?” to be in Arabic. Then comes the answer in as many words but the interpreter boils it down to “How much are you prepared to pay?” Fair enough. You want it for free, of course.
Hard as it is to communicate through an interpreter, life becomes miserable when you are on your own.
Here is another example, which epitomizes for me the existing misunderstanding between Iraqis and foreigners. One evening, I entered the office of my colleagues at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad and saw a lonely fruit (kiwi) on a plate on their work desk.
“Did you have fruits for dinner?” I asked. They started laughing. It turned out the interpreter was away on that day and my non-Arab colleagues wanted to get a water-melon. So they asked their driver to buy one on the street market outside the hotel compound. They didn’t know the Arabic word for water-melon so they described what they wanted with gestures. They driver brought back a single kiwifruit.
American soldiers complain their good intentions are misunderstood by Iraqi civilians who look at them as occupiers, rather than liberators. I leave it to the reader to decide who fails in communication in this particular case.
Americans do find it easy to communicate with gum and Coke-loving Iraqi kids, on the other hand, and some of them are often seen surrounded by boys who find it fascinating to see big guys in strange uniform with lots of arms and gadgets on them.
The same goes with dogs. There is always a stray dog or puppy that has made friends with troopers and enjoys a life of plenty on the territory of U.S. military bases that were scattered around Iraq.
But for dogs who stayed with their Iraqi masters, life could turn nasty or cease altogether. During a raid on the houses of suspected Iraqi insurgents in the Baquba area, intrepid rangers shot and killed a bitch who stood up to defend her puppies. I saw the whole murder scene on a tape sent by my colleague who was embedded with the troops at the Baquba base. The incident never made it to the wires or networks. Was it far more horrific than the slayings of Iraqi civilians?
Well, the killings of Iraqis, whether intentional or accidental, were hardly reported either, unless they became known to many people. In the same town of Baquba, a trigger-happy American officer killed two Iraqi teenagers who approached his car with what he thought were threatening intentions. The incident was not reported. The officer received two weeks of vacation back in the States to recuperate from the “trauma.”
Iraqis look smarter than Americans who are unversally described as naive. Probably, not “smarter” but more sophisticated and tongue-in-cheek. They can be – or look – very friendly, but you never know what their real feelings are.
They will never tell you what they really think or want. The most typical answer to your questions about their opinion is “as you wish.”
Baghdad, 2003. Interview with Prime Minister Ayad Allawi