Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mesopotamian Speakers Needed


Eccentric Star prints part of an account of time spent in Baghdad by Robert J. Callahan, a Foreign Service Officer who was the press attaché at the American Embassy in Baghdad from mid-2004 to mid-2005. It makes several interesting points:

—A simple lack of statistics makes reporting on any progress in Iraq more difficult. Iraq simply does not measure itself right now.

—The language environment for Americans working in Iraq—in government, relief organizations, the media—is even more complex than generally understood:

I knew only two journalists who spoke fluent Arabic and none who spoke Kurdish, Turkmen or Syriac, the language of many Christians, although all educated adult Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity, spoke Arabic. Among American diplomats, fewer than a dozen had sufficient Arabic to use in an extended conversation and, like the reporters, none spoke Iraq's other languages. That meant that either our contacts spoke English or we relied on interpreters. In the case of the most senior Americans – the ambassador and a few other civilians, generals with three or four stars – the interpreters were superb. But the rest of us, diplomats and journalists, had to rely on bilingual Iraqis who often weren't professional interpreters. Some were capable, most just adequate and a few deficient. When we spoke with Iraqis, using interpreters or making do in English, our discussions were halting and lacking in nuance. Add to this the inability of most of us to read Arabic newspapers and understand television news programs, and we worked in a communication twilight. Nothing ever appeared in sharp focus.

The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, a fluent Arabic speaker, was apparently the major exception to the rule.

—The information scarcity caused by the language problem actually made the diplomats and the press trust each other. Unfortunately, both groups also wound up speaking with many of the same Iraqis, limiting their ability to discover new information.

—Publicizing the good news about reconstruction projects quickly went out of vogue since the publicity invited terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Callahan’s full piece is also printed at the official ink-stained-wretch mag of my alma mater, the American Journalism Review, here.

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