Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Value of Knowing Arabic

The WaPo's Anthony Shadid has a gem in today's edition. Besides being one of the more intrepid of the journalists who have covered Iraq, he writes in a beautifully lyrical style. And, he speaks Arabic fluently, which allows him to actually mingle with and speak to people in the streets, as he did for this piece. As abu muqawama noted, "Most reporters in Iraq are hard-working professionals who hustle to keep track of the latest military and diplomatic maneuvers. But an Arabic-speaker like Shadid can spend two hours at a schwarma stand and proceed to tell us more about Iraq than 90% of other stuff out there."

Would that the Pentagon and the State Department had valued the ability to speak Arabic when the US invaded in 2003. (Actually, would that both organizations had had the sense to warn Bush off the enterprise in the first place.) It's common knowledge by now that both the military and the diplomatic corps had precious few Arabic speakers then; nor are they especially blessed with an abundance of them now (and I continue to tell my students that if they want to pursue a career in the foreign service, learning Arabic would let them practically write their own ticket).

But as Shadid's story suggests, Baghdad's people have begun to venture forth and try to reassert their lives in what remains a precarious environment. But I still fear that much of what seems to have been gained is reversible, at least for Iraq as a whole. Even if the central government's position becomes less stable, Baghdad's sectarian seams may hold, if only because so much of the Sunni population was either killed or forced out. Baghdad is now a predominantly Shiite city, and the Shiites call the shots in the current (and probably future) government.

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