November 20, 2006

"America did well to liberate Iraq. But Iraqis were used to tyranny and afraid of freedom."

Why all these staccato sentences?, I wondered as I read this NYT op-ed about the "Fear of Freedom" in Iraq. It is written by a poet, Waddah Ali. Read the whole thing.
America did well to liberate Iraq. But Iraqis were used to tyranny and afraid of freedom. The Americans entered Iraq without a psychological program for dealing with this fact. Iraqis had been programmed according to another system of thought and feeling. America should have considered that.

24 comments:

Edward said...

Yes, I agree that the column is written in a very, very curious way.

The most likely explanation is that the author’s English skills are decent, but still limited. The author is a native Arabic speaker who probably wrote the column first in Arabic and then translated it himself into English.

Given the limits of his English, he seems to have greatly simplified the structure of his original sentences in Arabic to make translating them into English easier.

What makes it really troubling and scary is that this man, Waddah Ali, was hired as an official translator for the American forces in Iraq.

It should be no wonder that the American occupation of Iraq has not been going well if their own official translators are so unskilled. You would think they would find someone more competent in switching between Arabic and English.

Mortimer Brezny said...

No, Ann is correct. This is simply how poets write. Check out Doctor Zhivago. I am not a poet. Nor are my English skills limited.

reader_iam said...

My theory is that Waddah Ali is an Althouse fan. He's taken her advice to heart:

Crisp! Crisp!

Internet Ronin said...

Maybe he's a fan of Hemingway.

Kirby Olson said...

Maybe he's so used to dealing with our soldiers that he thinks all Americans can only understand the simplest possible sentences.

They certainly couldn't understand an ornate blustering sentence along the lines of a John Kerry sentence or else they would have voted for the creep.

I'm still smarting over Kerry's comments.

Edward said...

Hemingway is a hell of a lot more readable than that guy’s English prose is.

Whatever the reason for Waddah Ali’s near unreadability in English, the American forces in Iraq are in deep, deep trouble if he’s the best translator they can find.

Paddy O. said...

Sort of a staccato situation he's talking about. His first two sentences have a different feel but when he joins the Baathist party the sentences are shortened and abrupt.

He is writing words about his life in the rhythm of his life. You read and can't help but to sputter along, irritated by the forced pacing.

To the end he doesn't recover the flowing style of his opening. But, I think that's precisely what he wants to recover.

Henry said...

It seems to me that Ali is trying to write each sentence in a way that crystalizes a particular thought. He writes in an unusual way because he wants to express powerful, conflicting emotions. His writing is simplistic in the manner of Ecclesiastes.

Internet Ronin said...

Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center, interviewed them in Norway, where they have political asylum. These essays are adapted from his interviews.

It seems to me that real author for these pieces is Larry Siems. You might also want to consider that they are adapted from interviews.

Henry said...

Well that's a very good point!

It may be that rather than being the "real author" Siems has tried to use as much verbatim material from his interviews as possible, an editing process that could certainly create the staccato result.

PatCA said...

I think the short sentences with few adjectives, are purposeful. Writers use this style to show urgency and tension (i.e, The Fight Club). I'll bet Siems chose it for that purpose. BTW why did the translator lie about the card?? Can we assume that since they are sponsored by PEN they are anti-war now?

The ITM writers talk about this psychological state. First the people thought, oh, the bad king is gone and a good king (Bremer) is here instead. We will return to our lives and be happy! Eventually it sunk in that, no, this is our country and we must build it. I remember an Iraqi commercial before their election. Our tanks were disappearing into the sunset. A little boy stood watching and the voiceover said, they are leaving, we are staying, vote.

I see this sense of ownership in some bloggers and in stories out of Iraq more and more. I just hope we give them enough time to complete the transformation.

Zeb Quinn said...

Hemingway is a hell of a lot more readable than that guy’s English prose is.

Strangely, I find Hemingway a little bit difficult to read for that very reason. Hemingway was the ultimate poet in the genre of prose whose prose, while certainly clear, simple, and concise, is distractingly packed with ponderables.

Editor Theorist said...

My guess is that this article was mutilated by sub-editors; cut-down from something much longer.

As for the views expressed - they are incoherent IMO - in the same way that the political views of most US poets are typically incoherent.

Poets are cultural experts, whose status and indeed whole life depend on national cultures - poets are among the very few people who would sometimes rather risk staying in an oppressive regime than escape to a safe and prosperous but (to them) spiritually meaningless and materialistic society (like the USA)

paul a'barge said...

Apparently and unfortunately, this appears to be a new meme out there.

Over the weekend, NPR had a piece where they interviewed several "Iraqi-Americans" about the current state of things.

Of course, to a person, the gist was that "they" had never asked America to help them, but that since America had come into Iraq, America is to blame for the process not being an instantaneous success.

It was very, very NPR ... NPR at its most naked paint-America-as-evil-and-or-incompetent.

Mark said...

Iraqis had been programmed according to another system of thought and feeling. America should have considered that.

Yeah it's all America's fault. We should have been omniscient and understood the nuances of the Iraqi mind. We should have planned everything out just right, done all of the work and thinking just right. It wasn't enough to depose the dictator keeping them down; we needed to organize their society. They were simply helpless babies who needed us adults to change their ideological diapers for them.

I spit on this kind of thinking.

Iraqis are responsible for Iraq, period. If it isn't the country they'd like it to be, don't blame the neighbor who came and deposed the dictator. Blame yourselves. Only by seeing the center of responsibility as lying within your own people will you understand that you have to be the ones to take action, and be able to make a decent society.

"America should have considered that." Sheesh. What we should have considered is that they are a nation of adolescents who want to blame all of their own faults on someone else.

Dave said...

He's anti-Faulknerian with his prose.

madawaskan said...

Everyone focuses on the physical state of infrastructure.On any given day you'll see an articles in the "New York Times" about the state
of electrical structure in Iraq and physical infrastructure.The physical infrastructure is important but not nearly as important as the psychological infrastructure of the Iraqui greatest challenges,the state of the psychological situation, the Iraqui people'peacefulness with
themselves, peacefulness with one another,peacefulness with us,[...]
coming from three decades of totalitarianism and you don't snap
out of that.It will take them a longtime to come to piece with one another and come to piece and reconciliation as south Africans did and following apartheid.That takes time and poses a challenge for Iraq and the Middle East.
A couple of examples.
I drove up from Kuwait to Baghdad on April 20th,a 12 hour drive, the first civilian convoy into Iraq.
We established our headquarters at one of Saddam's palaces, a bizarre
experience I'm happy to talk about in the Q&A.We lived and worked there. A few days after aarrived
in bad we drove down to AhillA, where one of the mass Graves had been discovered, about 50.
The latest count I saw was about 50 across the country These were situations Saddam security forces
would go into town, scoop up a large number of men execute them, shoot them in the back of the head and
bury them and some cases bury them alive. There were hills and in
ahillah, literally thousands, 3500 estimated people buried there.
These communities would not
want to after the executions occurred in the last 10, 15 years, they would not want to go
looking around for the mass Graves.
The families new it was somewhere around but they didn't want to 2 lookingfor it. They didn't want to give the impression to the regime they were agitated,not want to give the impression they were looking for trouble.They minded their own business. After the fall of the
regime on April 9th,all these communities went out looking and digging in fields, looking for their
loved ones.
I showed up in Ahillah, five days after this one mass grave had been
discovered and you literally had thousands of people there digging.
In fact the mayor secured a
crane and they brought a crane in to dig up the field.
It was scorching hot day and all I saw when I arrived were rows and rows of bones, skeletal remains of these people's loved ones. They were looking for ways to identify bones. This was buried shortly after the first Gulf War,'91 and '92.
All there was left were bones.
I remember seeing this woman holding up a bone, a spine, and saying, this is my son.And I asked her, how do you know And she said, this shirt, which was dangling, which was dangling on the spine,he was wearing the day he disappeared over ten years ago.[...] Everywhere you went, the sounds were people screaming and crying. The human rights watches estimates there are 300,000 buried in mass graves. 300,000. They estimate 300,000 missing or dead during Saddam's reign somewhere
between 3 million and 1.2 million missing over a decade. If you do the math proportianate to a 27 million population, which is Iraq's population, compare it to the size of the U.S. population, it would be the equivalent of 13 to 14 million Americans missing per day. 13 to 14 million Americans missing or dead.That this is proportional impact this has had on Iraqi society.[...]
Imagine 13 to 14 million Americans missing or dead.and that broad sweep by government.Everyone in this room would know someone who was missing or dead. Which was exactly what
Saddam's strategy was.He didn't discriminate.Everybody in the country was effective.The idea was make sure every single family in the
country was somehow affected by his Tyranny.
I can't think of one male Iraqi adult that I got to know in Iran had not at one point been in a jail, torture chamber, been abused in some way, every single person I know, which was the strategy.If you touch every family,every family's terrified, and then is intimidated
from protesting the regime or trying to overthrow it It was sadly, very
successful strategy.[...]

To give you another antedote.I remember after Saddam was captured, ambassador Bremer and I were having dinner we are a group of Iraqi political leaders at a hotel in Baghdad near where we were working inside thegreen zone.Sitting on the other side of us were two women,
Iraqi political leaders serving on the Iraqi political counsel.
What was your family's reaction when you found out Saddam was captured?
One woman said, Mr. Ambassador, the first thing I did, I gathered my
children together and told them about their uncle for the first time.What do you mean?
She said, well, my brother, when he was younger, agitated against Saddam as part of a protest, and he was - Saddam was covering up the domestic
intelligence agency, secret police, showed up and took her brother away and never saw him again. A couple weeks later they received a phone call saying her brother had been
executed and the family was to come pick up his body. When they went to the government building to pick
up his body, this was a typical custom of the regime, they would not release the body to the family until the family paid for the bullet in his head to add to the sense of humiliation. They released his body, quietly buried him.Then she grew up, this woman and started her own family, had children, never told her children about their dead uncle, deceased uncle because she was afraid if they were aware of it and they started talking about it and started telling their friends about it, word would get out they were agitated against the regime and complaining and they were concerned the same fate would befall them.
They just kept it quiet. She said the first thing she did when Saddam was captured was tell the children about their uncle.
Another woman to our left said the first thing she did was call her brother in Sweden, to let him know
Saddam had been captured. When I asked her, what's your brother doing in Sweden?
She said he's been getting medical treatment there for a number of years.It turns out when he was in
high school, he one day in class made a disparaging comment about Saddam or one of his sons in a solely in pursuit of humor, he was
not looking for trouble. The teacher reported this to the principal of the school, the principal reported it to the ministry of education, the ministry reported it to the requisite security forces.
The next day, a couple of security officials showedup at the school, pulled her brother out of class,
and pulled all the students out of the class to stand around and watch as they proceeded to pour acid all over his face and body.He had been in Sweden, in Europe ever since he got out of the country, getting medical treatment.

I tell you this to give you a sense of what we're up against and Iraqi people are up against, you don't get rid of that kind of horror, dreadful Tyranny overnight.
I'm the son of a Holocaust survivor, I will tell you my mother and her siblings,my mother, less so, but
certainly her siblings,something they will live for the rest of their life and a sister in 70s and
something they walk with everyday, those horrors.
You can imagine what life was like for the people in Iraq, coming out of three decades of it.Three decades to give you a sense of perspective here. Next challenge, is the Iraqi people went from night to day in the
historic blink of an eye,three decades of totalitarianism. We look at other case studies talking about re-construction to try to get a sense of what models work in Germany,Japan...the former Soviet Union. We could never find one
that quite fit.If you take Germany and the Third Riecht and Hitler's
reign were tragic and historically their own. We often forget Hitler was only in power for just about 12 years.About a third of the time
the Baathists were in power in Iraq.
Just 12 years. It was a terrible 12 years but after the fall of Hitler's regime, when Germans were picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild their country, at least they could scratch their memories and have
some sense to life under the Weimar Republic that was in existence before, and free speech. At least they could have a sense of memory of what it was like to live before his reign..Iraqis lived under Saddam
for three decades, almost three times as long as Hitler was in power. When you consider how young
the Iraqi population is [because of Saddam] Amazing, 60% is under 25
years old.
For the vast majority of Iraqis, their only knowledge of life is under Saddam.
Link

Edward ya-feel superior because your English is better.

mark don't feel compassion for them because-What we should have considered is that they are a nation of adolescents who want to blame all of their own faults on someone else.

Think you've got it right? You know all the "answers"?

Liberals are good at burying things in that fashion.

Let's abandon these people because declaring War on Global Warming is more important.

madawaskan said...

I've tried to reformat the damn thing to make it past 'the Liberal standards-but go read the speech and then feel smug in your moral superiority.

Edward and mark

I don't even have to read any of your past "comments" to know what you are.

Jimmy said...

"Yeah it's all America's fault. We should have been omniscient and understood the nuances of the Iraqi mind. We should have planned everything out just right, done all of the work and thinking just right."

America is responsible for the current situation in Iraq. Our fault is not that we aren't omniscient but that we didn't understand our own limitations. The flaw was in assuming that we had the power to create democracy in a foreign culture.

We arrogantly thought we could control the 1300 year old hostility between the Sunnis and Shiites.

Now we are stuck in a bad situation. We can buckle down in Iraq, lose thousands of more soldiers for a uncertain outcome or we can leave, let the country collapse in a bloodbath and allow Iran and Syria to expand their spheres of influence.

Oc course none of these is George Bush's fault. Its the Iraqis fault.

Henry said...

I read Ali's essay as the thoughts of a man trying to make sense of almost incomprensible terrors. I really don't see how his musings match up to anyone's political talking points. Even Ali's concluding criticisms of his countrymen and the U.S. is of philosophical cast.

Eli Blake said...

I actually do believe that virtually everyone who is under tyranny does in fact want freedom.

The problem is there is a big difference between what happened in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, in which freedom was earned, and Iraq, where we thought we could 'give' it to the people there. I mean, it's a lot like money. Which money do you cherish more? Money you worked hard for and sacrificed for and earned, or money somebody hands you?

In 1991 the Shiites rose up against Saddam, and also the defeated Iraqi army was ready to overthrow him. The Kurds were already liberating themselves. And then, after careful consideration, President Bush I decided that more Saddam was preferable to 'three state' solution and pulled the rug out from under them.

So the result is that now we will sooner or later (be better if we realize 'sooner') get a three state solution, but it will be in spite of the U.S., not with our help.

(meanwhile, speaking of poetry: American supporters of the war like John McCain are so far out of it that they still think they can put Humpty back together again by sending more of the King's horses and more of the King's men.)

Synova said...

The most amazing thing to me...

Suppose "America...considered that" and we made our plans taking into account the long history, the unfamiliarity of the Iraqi people with concepts of equal protection under the law (more important, actually, than democracy, which can still abuse minorities) and we made our plans differently.

Different than we did.

Are there any plans that would have transformed the assumptions and attitudes of the Iraqi people in three or four years?

Let's get some liberal social scientists on this one, okay? How long to tranform... given a "psychological program"... how long to transform attitudes? Consider the age of the population, quite young, flexible, how long until children have never really known any different?

Oh yeah, we screwed up because we didn't have a plan that would do all that in THREE FREAKING YEARS.

So let's give up... leave them to figure it out themselves, since it's ultimately up to them.

At the same time, let's explain why we have *any* social assistance program longer than three years and why we view our own disadvantaged groups and their learned cultures as requiring anything more than a stiff scolding and let them sink or swim on their own effort.

Hmm?

Anyone paying attention NEVER had any illusions about how long this process would take. Or else they are just lying.

knoxgirl said...

I actually do believe that virtually everyone who is under tyranny does in fact want freedom.

Wow, Eli you sound like a neocon!


I mean, it's a lot like money. Which money do you cherish more? Money you worked hard for and sacrificed for and earned, or money somebody hands you?

Knock me over with a feather! You sound downright conservative!

Harry Eagar said...

Did anybody read for content, or is this just a style seminar? Were there some odd statements in there?

For example, he didn't have enough money to bribe the Kurds to cross the border but he had $50K to pay kidnappers.

He had a card for his pistol, given him by Americans, but he wouldn't show the card to his American superior because he didn't trust him.

Well, I'm with the arrogant American. I don't trust Ali either.