By KEVIN HOWE
Herald Staff Writer
FORT IRWIN - When you talk to an Iraqi, be prepared to get up close and personal. Hugs and kisses are not out of the question.
Seif El Masek Gattas, an Egyptian-American who is assistant professor in the Defense Language Institute's Middle Eastern School III at the Presidio of Monterey, gives that bit of cultural advice to a room crowded with men and women soldiers of the Army's 4th Infantry Division bound for Iraq. He is among a group of students and instructors from DLI who traveled to Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert this week to provide a crash course in local culture to troops training for deployment to the Middle East.
"When you talk, stand close," he says. "For Americans, there must be a space. Not Iraqis. If he's standing, you stand. When you sit, never cross your legs or show the bottoms of your feet." Those are insulting gestures in the Arab world.
Gattas picks "volunteers" to demonstrate the proper way to shake hands and how to address a man — if he's older than 60, he's hadji. A young man is ustadh, or "mister." An elderly woman is hajiyeh. If you must address a woman, get a woman soldier when possible. Male Iraqis will shake hands, touch their hearts as a gesture of sincerity, hug and air-kiss one another's cheeks. Gattas grabs a trooper to demonstrate. "Relax," he says. "This is not San Francisco!" Gattas has his audience chanting responses. "Sukran!" "Thank you!" An important word, he says, in a land where people enjoy Advertisement giving and receiving gifts, sharing food and drink, as part of a deep cultural hospitality. Refusal of such offers is an insult. An Arab indicates refusal of social contact by holding his hand up, palm out, head back, eyebrows raised.
"If they offer you tea or coffee, take some. Use the right hand, only the right hand. The left hand has another duty," he says. "Always eat or drink something." It isn't uncommon for soldiers to be offered a feast, for a sheep or a goat to be killed and roasted, Gattas says. "It is very bad to say 'no'" when asked to sit down and join in. Rifles abound in Iraq, he says.
Just about every family has at least one for protection, and it is also common to use weapons for joy-shooting at graduations, weddings and other ceremonies. Unfortunately, this custom is sometimes misunderstood — with fatal results — by troops who think they've come under fire. "Before you take action," Gattas says, "make sure whether it's a celebration or a fight.
Outside Gattas' classroom, Army Sgt. Gloria Crossett, a 2003 Arabic language graduate of DLI and a veteran of one tour in Iraq, said she is glad to get some refresher training on the culture. Her last tour was in a Turkman area of Iraq, where she served with a military intelligence unit processing and interrogating detainees. The people spoke Turkmani, which is related to Arabic. "Speaking helped," she says. "I felt very prepared from DLI." Her lessons at the language school were taught in standard modern Arabic, which isn't like Iraqi Arabic, Crossett says. "It's like talking to a Cockney if you're from southern Louisiana. There's a learning curve, but you get good," she says.
In a mock-up of an Iraqi school principal's office, Salem Al Butruseh, a Jordanian-American DLI instructor clad in traditional ghutra (head scarf) and dishdashah (gown), discusses the needs of his school with an Army lieutenant, aided by a female Army specialist who translates from English to Arabic. At Al Butruseh's side, a woman in traditional abaya (long dress) and hejab (head scarf) translates from Arabic to English. Both translators are students at DLI who are honing their field skills while helping train the Iraq-bound 4th Infantry. All are playing out a scenario in which the soldiers are responding to a bombing at the school. The lieutenant is tasked with enlisting the principal's cooperation in giving a description of the suspected attackers, and the principal, in turn, seeks American aid to repair the damage and renovate the school.
The trick to these negotiations is not to make promises that can't be kept, said Army spokesman John Wagstaffe. "It's a flaw to break a promise to an Iraqi," says Wagstaffe. "It means you can't be trusted." No lieutenant has the authority to promise to build a water system for a village, he says. That's for the higher-ups. Other scenarios include dealings involving water, electricity, public safety, jobs and reconstruction, between higher-ranking U.S. officers and Iraqi officials. Lieutenants talk to school principals, captains to town mayors and lieutenant colonels to provincial governors. Until the invasion of Iraq was launched in 2003, Wagstaffe said, training at Fort Irwin was "force-on-force." Now the emphasis is on "non-kinetic" operations, "winning hearts and minds — something Americans have never been terribly good at. We kill well." Success by unit commanders being trained now is measured by how many of Fort Irwin's mock Arab villages, staffed by 250 Iraqi-American volunteers, are won over to the American and coalition forces side, he says. "Towns start out 'gray,' then move to 'white' — pro-American — or 'black' — pro-insurgent," he says.
One U.S. officer who served a tour in Iraq set a record by personally buying and bringing a large quantity of tea and presenting it to the village assigned to his unit as a gift. "He was way ahead of the game," Wagstaffe says.