The Language Lesson

Americans can learn Arabic; they just need to be motivated.

On Wednesday, the New York Times’ John Tierney reported from Baghdad on the difficulty Americans in Iraq are facing with the Arabic language. “Viewers of Al Jazeera,” he wrote, “are accustomed to a stark contrast between Russian diplomats speaking mellifluous classical Arabic and American diplomats speaking through a translator.”

The classical Arabic those Russians are speaking bears about as much resemblance to colloquial Arabic as Virgil’s Latin does to the various dialects Italians use today. It’s the official language of Arab media and diplomatic protocol, but it’s hardly the key to political success in the Arab world. King Abdullah of Jordan, for instance, doesn’t speak it very well. So, how did the Russians get so good at it?

Along with the Germans, the British, and the French, 19th- and 20th-century Russian scholars made major contributions to the field once innocently known as Orientalism. If the study of “Oriental” cultures and languages was tied to the political and strategic interests at stake in the Middle East, as the late Edward Said argued, the Russians had interests, and the Soviets would have more. Curiously, as Bernard Lewis has noted, some Soviet scholars showed real hostility to their subject. One, for instance, called the prophet Muhammad “a shamanistic myth,” while another described the Quran “as the ideological expression of a slave-owning ruling class.”

If Marxist rhetoric was less respectful of Muslim sensibilities than much Western Orientalist scholarship, it serves as a reminder that most Soviets weren’t in the Middle East because they loved the Arabs and their language. The region was a Cold War battlefield where the United States supported Israel and the Soviets took much of the Arab world under its wing. South Yemen was a client state, as was Syria, which by mid-1984 was home to an estimated 13,000 Soviet and East European advisers. In Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser welcomed several thousand Soviet advisers, who left only after Anwar Sadat decided to cast his lot with Henry Kissinger. As for Iraq, the Soviets supplied not only weapons but also much of its oil technology. The relationship continued after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before the first Gulf War in 1991, 5,000 Russian technicians and advisers, mostly oil workers, were working in Saddam’s Iraq.

Russians are good at Arabic because a lot of military, political, and civilian personnel have been stationed in the Arab world for a long time. Up until Iraq, there has been no analogous deployment of Americans. The Russians simply have a larger pool of people with experience there to draw from. Some of them are going to speak Arabic well.

Nevertheless, there are also a lot of Americans who know the language, including diplomats and intelligence officers. Historically, many U.S. foreign-service officers have been talented Arabists familiar with the culture and history and fluent in Arabic. The catch, as some policymakers have argued, is that the Arabists, especially those in the State Department, are too close to their subject. The upshot of Arabist sympathy, some would say over-identification, with Arab causes is bad analysis. In his 1993 book The Arabists, Robert Kaplan quotes a onetime Reagan appointee who put it precisely: “Arabists,” said Francis Fukuyama, “are more systemically wrong than other area specialists in the Foreign Service.”

Defenders charge that the State Department comes under attack just because it doesn’t automatically fall in step with official U.S. policy supporting Israel. Wrong, say critics, like those now in the Bush White House. The problem is the failure of career Arabists to articulate positions that best serve U.S. interests. Perhaps one sign of the Arabists’ waning influence is the Bush White House’s open hostility toward Syria. This is a marked departure from the State Department’s decadeslong policy of “constructive engagement” with Damascus.

It’s one thing to have two native-speaking Guantanamo translators arrested for espionage, it’s another to question if your own foreign service knows who it’s working for. So, where is the United States going to draw its already limited resource of Arabic speakers from? How about Brooklyn? The Ecuadorean manager of a restaurant down the block from me worked with Egyptians when he first got to the United States and now speaks Arabic like a Cairene. A Puerto Rican INS agent who served in the first Gulf War fell in love with the language and kept studying it here. No doubt federal agencies can do more, but potential Arabic students have to be mostly self-motivated to learn a difficult subject. And even without the government’s prompting, there are a lot of people who have taken it upon themselves to start studying the language.

I saw this last year at the American University in Cairo’s Arabic Language Institute. Not only were there more American students enrolling as the year progressed, but the students who came later were of a different temperament. In the winter semester, the students generally came from Middle Eastern-studies departments. There was Robert, a Berkeley undergrad who spent his spring break in Bethlehem holed up in the Church of Nativity with a group of Palestinian militants who were exchanging fire with the Israeli army. The summer session brought in what was referred to as the post-9/11 class, less explicitly political and decidedly more martial. It included a number of large young men who wore their hair very short, like Tom. He was from a Midwestern university, 6 feet 4 inches, and built like a tight end. Arabic, he believed, was his fast-track to a career in the U.S. special forces.

Until all this individual initiative bears fruit, U.S. personnel now stationed in Iraq should skip classical Arabic and focus on colloquial Arabic, so they can actually talk to Iraqis. It’s an easier study for sure, but there’s a significant problem.

My father’s Army career consisted mostly of teaching English to Puerto Rican troops. It was harder for them to learn English than it was for the Americans stationed along with him in San Juan to learn Spanish. It had nothing to do with intelligence—the American troops were just more willing to speak mangled Spanish, because they were motivated. The point should be obvious to anyone who’s ever watched a World War II movie where American GIs were stationed in Europe. You have to speak the local language if you want to meet local girls. That incentive doesn’t really exist in a Muslim country. This is why the Marines stationed in Cairo told me they hate it so much—it’s very hard to meet local girls. It’s not just that they’re Americans, or that they’re infidels—even Muslim men approaching Muslim women on the street are treading on dangerous ground. So, if American soldiers want to learn the Iraqi dialect, they’re going to have to spend many long hours in cafes with Iraqi men, drinking tea, playing backgammon, arguing about soccer, and watching Al Jazeera—where those eloquent Russians are putting the young Hashemite monarch to shame.