Babylon Diary


New at Reason: Steven Vincent recounts a month and a half in Iraq.

NEXT: Just Wait Till The Passion Opens Over There

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  1. Thanks for going over there. I need to know what’s going on over there, so I can figure out what to think about it.

    Your account is very helpful: accounts of torture and murder, the spectrum of reactions to liberation and occupation, and your analysis of the prospects for peace and freedom. Thank you.

  2. The author’s contempt for the region is barely held beneath the surface.

    Here is a little hint for Reasoners attempting field reporting. Instead of interviewing translators, try hiring one. Failing that, learn a little of the language.

  3. What a boring article — pro-or anti-war it told me nothing I hadn’t already read before (like 6 months before) — trite. Perhaps the money you spent going over there would have been better poured into some 8balls and whores in Manhattan…

  4. Shady’s knee jerketh when he sees a conclusion he doesn’t like.

    I can’t help but wonder what sort of commentary about Iraq would express more admiration than despair, perhaps the sort of commentary produced by someone who tritely recommends learning a ‘little of the language’ in lieu of talking to english speakers.

    Tell me, Shady, what would a REAL reporter see over there? Clearly they wouldn’t attempt to reconcile the question of Saddam, as such investigations would lead to shocking conclusions. A lot of Iraqis wanted him gone. Expressing such things on paper clearly reveals contempt for the region, so I suppose an ideal reporter could just ask Al Jazeera for comments and save themselves any effort.

  5. Iraqis are notoriously double-minded about everything — quite capable, for example, of praising the U.S. for removing Saddam one moment, then castigating it for supporting Israel the next.

    What a meaningless line. You could do the same with Americans, watch.

    Americans are notoriously double-minded about everything — quite capable, for example, of praising government intervention one moment, then castigating it for spending too much the next.


    Americans are notoriously double-minded about everything — quite capable, for example, of praising judicial oversight one moment, then castigating activist judges the next.

  6. Excellent article, as you can tell by the empty snarkiness that excellent articles always provoke on H&R.

  7. Todd Fletcher,

    They aren’t empty at all; indeed, the person with the empty comment is you.

    As to the article, I would be glad to travel to Iraq if the author pays for it. 🙂

  8. I liked the article, and it is difficult to believe it could be THAT far off the mark.

    The comments about the international press were illuminating.

    I doubt seriously that the author would have gained much by trying to learn a “little” Arabic for his six month sojourn…it is hardly like polishing up your high school French for a trip to Paris. (Shady…how much Arabic do YOU speak– how much could you learn in half a year?)

  9. The articles in the news recently talking about the problems with gay Armed Forces Arabic translators talk about how the classes for Arabic are far longer than for most languages, which agrees with Tim Cavanaugh’s observations that it’s tough to learn.

  10. Tim,

    Who is breaking his balls? Indeed, all I would require is that an effort was made; I am not expecting fluency.

  11. Andrew,

    You can take a course in a language that will teach you the basic parameters of it in a month (indeed, you will have some proficiency in it); and as one lived there one would become more familiar with the language and more proficient (so long as one used the language).

    Anyway, its a fair criticism; if your point is to do the sort of deep analysis of a country as he proposed it is a bit silly and lazy to not at least try to learn the language of the nation. He wasn’t a “tourist” or a vacationer after all; he was there to study to Iraq. The former allows for not learning the language; the latter should demand it.

  12. JB:

    At what point in a one month visit’s worth of Arabic do you think you are comfortable asking nuanced questions in the native language? I would think that the residual language barrier would be a more formidable obstacle to the ‘real story’ than speaking to residents with fluency in your native language.

    Of course, fluency in the local language before going on the trip is ideal, but this criticism is a bit unfair, I think.

  13. Jason Ligon,

    I don’t think its unfair; imagine if de Tocqueville had entered the U.S. without a working knowledge of English.

  14. Not going to Iraq would be a much greater impediment to studying conditions in Iraq than not learning Arabic.

  15. Matthew Goggins,

    While that is the case, not learning the language is a fair criticism nonetheless; least of all from the point of view of checking on the accuracy of say the interpreters.

  16. I believe I am exactly middling in my grasp of foreign languages–not talented but not completely unteachable–and after ten years of trying to communicate with my Lebanese inlaws, I can say that Arabic is tough enough to make French, German, Spanish, etc. seem like mere dialects of English. No cognates, few regular verbs (from what I can understand), form changes for nouns (though not declensions, making it even more tricky IMHO), a written language so arcane that even native speakers seem to have a lot of trouble with it, grammar that seems to consist entirely of idiosyncrasies, dictionaries that are based on word-roots rather than alphabetical order, consonant sounds that are barely recognizable to this American (accounting for the wide variety of transliterations, diacriticals, etc)… A couple months ago I interviewed a terrorist/politician in Lebanon who listened to my questions in English, then replied in Arabic, and I’d been at it long enough to think I’d recognize a good bit of what he was saying. I recognized nothing.

    It’s fair to say Steven Vincent would have accomplished more if he could speak the language, and needless to say, going to a country where you don’t speak the language should always make you humble and circumspect. But it’s unreasonable to break his balls for not speaking Arabic.

  17. Thanks for the interesting post, Tim. Very informative.

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