Minding a soldier’s manners, Iraqi style

KRT NEWSFEATURES By Edward Colimore Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) PHILADELPHIA _ When Army Spec. Brandon Baysmore of Philadelphia lands in the Persian Gulf region, he now knows not to give Arabs a thumbs-up or “A-OK” hand gesture. He shouldn’t expose the soles of his shoes, eat with his left hand, or ask about a man’s wife or daughter. And Baysmore and fellow soldiers also learned not to befriend Arab women. One woman in Saudi Arabia was beheaded for having a relationship with a U.S. soldier during the Gulf War 12 years ago. All of this behavior _ common in Western cultures _ can be offensive in traditional Arab countries. “This is a shock to me,” said Baysmore, 40, who serves in the National Guard’s 131st Transportation Unit. The restrictions are on a long list of “don’ts” being taught to tens of thousands of American troops before they are deployed to Arab countries. And nearly 4,000 soldiers have gotten the crash course in Arab etiquette just at Fort Dix, N.J., over the last two weeks. It includes a slide show, a booklet titled “Iraqi Basic Language Survival Guide,” and laminated copies of the “Iraqi Command ‘ Control Card” _ with potentially useful phrases such as “Drop your weapons” and “Do not resist” in Arabic. Sgt. David Damron, of the 104th Aviation Company, a helicopter unit based in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., said he would have to get used to the cultural differences. “I would have never thought that a `thumbs-up’ was not OK,” said Damron, 43, of Palmyra, Pa. But Army Spec. William Blake, also of the 104th Aviation Company, saw the pragmatism of learning Arabic phrases. “It’s important to just find a way to tell someone to get their hands up so you don’t have to shoot him,” said Blake, of Bristol, Conn. The cultural differences are sometimes more extreme for women. They know _ whatever they do _ not to stroll through a marketplace wearing tight civilian clothing. No short skirts or shorts, please. “I will be very mindful of what I’m doing,” said Army Spec. Tanasha Bailey, 26, of Flushing, N.Y. She serves with the Army Reserve’s 140th Quartermaster Unit in New York. “I plan to stay in the compound.” Bailey and other troops heard true stories of Arab-American contacts, including the one involving a sexual relationship between a U.S. soldier and an Arab woman that ended when he was hastily returned home and the woman was beheaded. The class’s instructor, Army Master Sgt. Larry Sloan, 39, of Pennsburg, Pa., said many troops may be caught off guard but “are glad to know about these things before they go.” “I tell them to be open-minded,” said Sloan, who works in the underreporting section of the Internal Revenue Service. “We don’t want them to be the ugly Americans.” Sloan, a member of the 309th Regiment Training Support Battalion, said he was exposed to the Arab culture when he served in a civil affairs unit during the Gulf War. “Saudi Arabia is more strict, more traditional than Bahrain, Kuwait, Turkey or Iraq,” said Sloan, who has taught the classes since his activation in January. Many Arabs may find an American hand gesture that beckons someone forward to be insulting, Sloan said. Soldiers might normally hold their hand out with the palm facing skyward and bend their fingers in a gesture to summon someone, he said. Many Arabs would find the gesture more acceptable if the palm faced the ground. “You should also avoid showing the soles of your feet toward your hosts,” Sloan said. “They take that as a sign of disrespect, that we think they are not of equal status. Keep your feet face down, flat.” Sloan told soldiers to use their right hands when interacting with Arabs. In their society, “the left hand is used to clean yourself,” he said. “It’s the dirty hand.” Using a series of slides, Sloan went over many subtle differences: Arabs tend to stand closer to one another during conversations than Americans, who usually like more personal space. Men sometimes hold hands or kiss one another in greeting. And Arab handshakes tend to be more limp, he said, than those of Americans. “Never be first to do anything,” Sloan told the troops. “The safest thing is to imitate.” Sloan said soldiers will not generally have daily contact with Arab women unless they are given free time to go to the market or some other public place. “You have to be cautious when it comes to women,” he said. “The safest bet is not to have a conversation with the women because you don’t know who is around. … Women in their society are very protected.” Sloan said female American troops who venture into public areas in civilian garb should make sure they dress conservatively, preferably in loose or baggy attire. “American women don’t have to wear head coverings,” he said. “But they should dress in plain clothes. If they have a dress to their ankles, that would be preferable to tight jeans.” Army Maj. Thomas Barbeau, 39, a Waterbury, Conn., resident in the 325th Military Intelligence Company, said the military has been trying to help the troops “understand the cultures they interact with.” “The main thing is that everybody’s life is easier when you start off from a position of mutual respect,” he said. ___ ‘copy 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.