About the Author: Aaron Snipe is a Foreign Service Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Muthanna, Iraq.
Transiting back to Iraq from my final R&R in the United States, I settled in for my last eleven-hour flight to Kuwait. As I decided upon which book and magazines I would read during the long journey, a cacophonous family of countless children came pouring onto the plane. With an empty seat to my right and left, I braced for the worst. I quickly reached deep into my backpack to retrieve the tactical earplugs that had served me well during many flights aboard Black Hawk helicopters high over the deserts of Iraq. I feared even the earplugs’ ballistic technology would fail to protect my tender ears from the onslaught of these rascals.
As their exhausted mother directed them to their seats, I wondered which child would become the bane of my existence for the next 11 hours. While I pondered this question, a young boy quietly sat down next to me. He must have been around eight or nine years old, and as he settled into his seat, he quietly and carefully surveyed his surroundings. He was dressed smartly in a black suit his mother had no doubt made him wear. With an oddly-colored clip-on tie and matching pocket-square peeking out of from the breast pocket of a blazer that didn’t quite fit him, he was inarguably an adorable sight to see.
From listening to his mother try to corral his siblings, I knew the young boy was Arab, and I looked forward to a little light banter with my young traveling companion. I quickly learned the boy’s name was Ali and broke the ice with a friendly question.
“How are you?” I asked in Modern Standard Arabic, unsure which part of the Middle East or North Africa he hailed from.
“Zain,” he responded.
His one-word response immediately put a grin on my face. It was the Iraqi dialect word for “fine.” The word is also used in other parts of the Gulf, so I asked where he was from.
“Iraq,” he said.
How fortuitous, I thought.
“Are you Arab?” he asked.
“No, I’m American,” I responded in Arabic.
He seemed a bit confused by this, and after a few minutes, the game was up. The moment I made my first inexcusable grammatical mistake (no doubt using a verb form that referred to him as a her), the boy’s brow furrowed, and he paused for a moment.
“Hmmmm. Let’s speak in English now. Your Arabic isn't very good. I speak English, you know . . .”
I wanted to ask Ali all the political wonk questions I always ask Iraqis, but recognizing he was not yet 10 years old, I felt it wisest just to help him plug in his headphones and find the cartoon channel on the seat-back television in front of him.
At the end of the flight, I bid Ali farewell and watched him rejoin his noisier siblings a few rows ahead. As I gathered my own belongings, I relished the few words we exchanged together. It made me think back to my numerous school visits in Muthanna, and the many inquisitive children, eager to engage in conversation, I have met on the streets of Samawa and Rumaytha.
Speaking to Ali -- in Arabic -- reminded me of two important things: first, I should clearly study more. And, second, learning another language opens new doors of dialogue that bridge the divide between cultures. The little Arabic I brought with me to Iraq this year has been one of the most important items on my packing list. My understanding and use of the language during my year may not have had a major impact on the trajectory of our policy, but in many smaller ways it was one of my most important tools for breaking the ice, demonstrating respect, and affirming my interest in Iraq and Iraqis.
In the years to come, no matter where I am in the Arab world, when someone asks me how I am, I will always look forward to responding, as my seat-mate Ali did, “Zain.”
Read more about Aaron Snipe's work with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq.