Becoming the new Lawrence of Arabia. How it all began.
I was in my third years at West Point, a “cow” as we were referred to in those days. I was academically pretty far down in the class as I hated any subject with numbers in it but was fairly good in subjects with words. Since, West Point, in those days, was an engineering school, nothing came easily to me, but I did well enough to get one of the electives offered to “goats” (cadets toward the bottom of the class)_ It was Middle Eastern history. Why I am chose that class I cannot recall, but it put me on a path that I follow to this day.
I do not remember the name of the Middle East history professor but he was a captain and had been part of the Foreign Area Specialist (FAS) program, spending several years in the Middle East. I loved his classes and the mystery of the Arab world.The desert has also always had a special fascination for me, but that was years to come.
As he lectured I was hooked. This is for me, I told myself, and although I had to spend a number of years in conventional artillery (which I also dearly loved), before I began the the FAS program.
Prior to my language school, I spent a years in Vietnam. It was a great year because I was doing what the taxpayers had paid me to do…fight enemies foreign and domestic…as I continue to do with words, against the domestic variety. I was in a great unit, the First Infantry division, with great soldiers. That was before the drug and discipline problems (and lousy leadership) wrecked our army. It wasn’t until many years later that i recognized the similarities in culture of the Vietnamese and Arabs, especially their fatalism
There are thousands of stories associated with those early artillery days, including schooling at Ft Sill, learning my trade. But here I will stick to my life associated with the Middle East. Finally my request for acceptance into the program arrived
So I began my Middle East career assigned to Defense Language Institute East Coast. We rented a house near the Suitland Parkway in District Heights Maryland, because I thought I would be going to school at Bolling Air Force Base. But as usual things turned out differently. I was assigned to a contract school at the Institute of Modern Languages on Connecticut Ave in upper DC. Each morning I would drive from District Heights to the park near the Lincoln Memorial and park my car. I would then walk to my class.
As I often walked by the White House, I was able to watch the daily protests against the Vietnam War. One day when I was wearing my uniform, an elderly lady came up to me and began stuffing leaflets in my pocket, Having just returned from Vietnam, I was in no mood to tolerate this crap, so I pulled out the leaflets and tossed them on the ground, where upon she wacked me on the head with her umbrella, I turned the other cheek and walked away. I learned later it was an organization called “women strike for peace.” Apparently they did so physically,
My first instructor, an Iraqi named S, (I will omit his name because his family owns an upscale restaurant in snobby Shirlington in Northern Virginia.) He was a short, swarthy fellow with the Baghdadi pox marks on his cheeks, He had a constipated disposition, and obviously felt what he was doing was beneath his talents. He was an ardent Nasserite Arab nationalist. He was probably a casualty of the Iraqi Nasserite –Ba’athi conflicts in the 60’s, explaining his presence in the US.
We used a paperback text book designed for people going to Iraq, so I learned schloonik and shako mako and the Turkish word for an auto tire, which apparently Iraqis used back then. But in fact I learned very little of anything. Mr. S hated doing what he was doing and usually spent most of the class giving political lectures on Arabism and the horrors of Zionism, and how America was run by Jews. He was absolutely devoid of any sense of humor.
Once in a while I objected to his more odious references to America, which, as I learned on the last day he was with us, that my objections had led him to believe I was Jewish. I made a passing reference about going to church and he said.” You are not Jewish’? I said no, but what difference did that make anyway? He produced one of those rare twisted malevolent smiles he sometimes laboriously created. That was lesson one. There is an inbred indoctrinated hatred of Jews, which, in much of the Islamic Arab world is inseparable from Zionism.
We were happy to see him go.
My favorite anecdote about Mr. S. was the day he came to class with his suit, which he wore every day, totally in disarray and very dirty. The six-day war was on going and like most Arabs, he was in a state of total disbelief listening to the news of the Egyptian rout. He had climbed up on the chimney of his house and strung a wire antenna in order to get the “real news” from radio Baghdad,
The catastrophe was made more devastating because the Arab media had led them to believe in continuous Arab victories. They believed the war was going to be a cakewalk. The American network news detailing overwhelming Israeli victories was too much for Mr. S. Like most Arabs, after the years of listening to their media propaganda, he was, belatedly, able to decipher the reality from the fantasy of massive Arab victories being fed listeners. To decipher Arab news you have to be a subtle listener, like listening for what is not said. Poor Mr. S. He became increasingly morose after the war. Lesson Number two Arabs often eschew reality, and as Albert Hourani wrote, “ the flawed mirror through which they see the world.”
After Mr. S. we had a multitude of different instructors, another Iraqi female, a Lebanese female, a Palestinian, and my favorite, an Egyptian Army psychologist. The Institute of Modern Languages obviously hired Arabic speakers off the street, whether they could teach or not.
The Palestinian, a very young fellow, confided in me that American women were shunning him after giving him come hither looks. He was confused and dejected. I advised him that often American women may smile and speak to you without necessarily having sex on their mind. He found that difficult to believe. He had been advised differently by his relatives and friends. He wondered what was wrong with him. At times he seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and often seemed sick. Lesson Number three The Arab Culture is one of the most sexually obsessed in the world. He taught us nothing because he saw the Iraqi colloquial textbook as a strange unintelligible language. He was unable to pronounce the Iraqi words in our textbook and generally stuck to relating the horrors of …no… not Israeli occupation, but Jordanian! He called the Jordanian Bedu soldiers Saluffa . the “barefoot ones.”
He blamed the “nakba,”) the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948 (Judea and Samaria if you prefer) on Jordanian perfidy. The King was a British stooge etc.Lesson number four. Unity among Arabs is a pipe dream
I remember very little about the two females, the Iraqi and the Lebanese, except that the Iraqi lady seemed to be a female Ms. S (probably his relative), and the Lebanese lady brought excellent food to class and rarely taught anything because she was unable to use our textbook. She was also a Christian and often had to express herself in French which none of the students could understand. According to her, the Lebanese had graciously invited in the Palestinian refugees who were now destroying Lebanon. It was our first inkling of the disaster to befall Lebanon. Lesson number five. Do not expect refugees to return your hospitality with gratitude. They will bring their culture, politics, prejudices, and conflicts with them with them.
I wish I could remember the name of the Egyptian, He was a really cool guy. He threw the Iraq book away saying only fellah spoke that way and taught us ribald sayings in Egyptian colloquial. His English was excellent, which he spoke far more than Arabic.
I went to breakfast with him almost every other day. He always had ham and bacon with his eggs, and knowing he was a Muslim I asked him about this, and in his usual way he said that the prohibition was just some peasant belief, and that was the problem with the Arab world …the people were ignorant.
He was an Egyptian army psychiatrist who served in Yemen, He related the massive problems of culture shock affecting the troops, which diminished the effectiveness of the Egyptian soldiers in Yemen. As he said they might as well have been on the moon.
His most popular instruction concerned the cultural sex habits of various categories of Arabs. For example, Egyptian women were cold and unresponsive, but Lebanese women were by far the best especially in “encouraging” the man during sex. He told many Nasser jokes, and imitated his style of speaking but nevertheless thought he was a great man. The problem was that Nasser relied too much on generals and government officials who were humur (donkeys) and were always conspiring against him.
Anyway we graduated and off we went to our assignments. Lesson number six, The Arab world is a very diverse world and contrary to what Middle East Scholars and journalists often propagate, there is no “Arab world.”
There four people in our class. The other three went to Saudi Arabia where I was told they had never had to speak a word of Arabic. I went to Beirut having a limited Iraqi vocabulary and unable to read anything in Arabic.
When I arrived in Beirut I knew much less Arabic than my fellow FAS officers, who had attended the intense Montrerey Arabic courses ,(DLI West Coast) and spoke Arabic quite well. My travails with Arabic I shall cover later.
Despite my difficulties with Arabic, the various instructors had taught me, inadvertently, a great deal about the culture and mores of the Arab world, ,and also gave me an intense interest in learning more.
In preparation for the tour, my wife and I were invited to gathering of former FAS students who had completed their tours in Beirut and else where in the Arab world. To my wife and I they seemed very sophisticated, and perhaps a bit snooty. We were like country bumpkins.
Nevertheless we were excited to go, as we packed up our three little darlings for our big adventure.
Next Beirut and the adventures begin