Language and Diplomacy (aka The Importance of Knowing Urdu)

The Iranian captain took a risk and used Urdu and the navy “just happened” to have an Urdu speaker on board – this is the story at the heart of the rescue of thirteen Iranian fisherman who were captured by Somali Pirates.

And what a story it is! Iran is a country that is understood primarily through its infamous leader and is not a favorite of the United States. Westerners rarely think of the amazing heritage that comes out of Iran – the history, the beauty of carpets, the delight of the cuisine, and something that must be mentioned – the stunning beauty of Iranian women. I once said to one of my Iranian friends: “When God created women, first he made Iranian women, and after that he didn’t have much beauty left over for the rest of us”. All this is mostly unknown to the western world who view Iran through the lens of a misunderstood veil and Ayatollah’s that make news through sometimes outrageous comments.

The tension between the two countries sparks and sizzles, occasionally bursting into a full flame. This story is an unlikely story of diplomacy on the high seas and of the importance of language and diplomacy. It was on Thursday that the US Naval ship heard a distress call from the Iranian vessel. The fisherman had been captured for six weeks, complying and biding their time, praying and hoping for rescue. The Iranian captain used Urdu, a language that the pirates did not understand, to communicate the need for help to the naval ship. A linguist aboard the ship who understood Urdu was able to translate the message and the result was a rescue of the fisherman and capture of  fifteen pirates.

To give context to how amazing this is, it might help to hear a well-known joke among expatriates:

What is a person who knows two languages called? Bilingual

What is a person who knows three languages called? Trilingual

What is a person who knows one language called? An American

It’s sad but true. Americans are not known for linguistic skill. Our geographic isolation on the world map puts us in a place where learning a second language is not a high priority. To my knowledge, there is no federal law that requires schools to offer a foreign language. It is left up to individual states to decide if and when a foreign language will be offered. Often when a language is available it is not until seventh or eighth grade and at that point a child is about 13 or 14 years old. The chances of them picking up anything more than a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ during a 45 minute school period is minimal. It is quite tragic. But this story is not a story of tragedy but a story of linguistic skill responding in a potentially fatal situation and changing the outcome dramatically.

When we speak the language of another, we speak to their heart. “You know our language?” they may say with delight, thoroughly surprised that someone from America is familiar with Hindi, or Urdu, or Arabic or Farsi. While there are a myriad of ways to communicate beyond verbal communication, there is something about language and voice that connects us.

In my work I see error and tragedy averted continuously through good interpreters who skillfully navigate between doctor and patient and nurse and patient, helping to prevent miscommunication and increase understanding. It is a different kind of diplomacy and while it doesn’t hit the news, it is as tremendous as the rescue of the thirteen Iranian fisherman.

The end of the story put a smile on my face. Iran “welcomed the rescue of 13 Iranian sailors by a U.S. Navy ship, calling it a ‘humanitarian act.'”(CNN)  The picture I have in my mind of American navy men waving at Iranian fisherman headed home, smiling, wearing USS Kidd Navy ball caps?  Now that’s a picture of diplomacy.

Bloggers Note: The author wishes to confess that she speaks Urdu and Arabic enthusiastically but poorly and would never have been able to rescue the fisherman. She could however let the pirates know in fluent Urdu that they were completely uncivilized!

The Incivility of Anonymity

There is a phrase in Urdu that I have used, all be it carefully, in the past. The phrase translated is “Where have you learned this uncivilized behavior?” To add particular punch to the phrase you tag on the end “Did you learn it from your father?” In a society that has a high value of family and saving face, this phrase bites more than any swear word could. In two sentences you have confronted the person on the unacceptable behavior and added a slap in the face through criticizing the family of origin, the father.

In our virtual world of connecting and relationships I am increasingly disturbed by the incivility of anonymity. Because online someone is known as “heroicsteve” or “bigpurple” or “neonatalpenguin” or “picnictime” they are free to say whatever they want. Civility is not only lacking, but nonexistent. Empathy and compassion, already in low supply in the “real world”, are seemingly unknown concepts in the online world. And why should they be present? After all, I’ll never meet bigpurple, or neonatalpenguin. There isn’t enough information for me to track them down, and I have no understanding of tracing information back to IP addresses.

On further observation and reflection, it isn’t only online that we experience or partake in the incivility of anonymity. It is also in driving, in coffee queues, at check-out lines and in movie theatres. Because we don’t know the person, it’s ok to treat them rudely. I don’t need to remember that the person is someone’s son, or mother, or grandmother, or daughter, that is not important. What’s important is that they have taken away my right to convenience, to quiet, to being first in line, to any number of things that I want and so I can treat them as I wish.

It turns out the city of Boston is concerned about our culture’s downward spiral into the abyss of rude behavior as well. Last week a “Courtesy Campaign” was launched  with tongue-in-cheek headlines like “Man Gives up Seat for Pregnant Woman!!” or “Passenger Refrains from Loud Cell Phone Conversation” with the tag line: “Courtesy shouldn’t be big news!” A reporter from the Boston Globe who looked into the campaign found in the archives a 1930 pamphlet called “Tactics of Transit Courtesy” detailing case scenarios with advice on how MBTA employees should respond to the scenarios. It’s a fun read found here.  If the city is at the point of recognizing the need for “courtesy” reminders, then visitors and tourists noticed it long before.

As I think about this I have to engage in some critical self-analysis. Why do I think it’s ok to treat people in this way? What is so difficult about giving people the “benefit of the doubt”? And why, on the odd times when I realize that I do know the person, even if they are only an acquaintance, am I suddenly embarrassed. I want to pretend that there was a reason for the behavior. Suddenly my behavior is exposed. Painful as it is, I wish it happened more often. When something happens often enough, we begin to change our behavior – hopefully in this case, for the better.

Online is another issue entirely and has sociologists worried about the emotional quotient of what could be termed the wired generation. The more we dehumanize online interactions, the harder it is to emote with real life emotions, trials and tragedies.

One of my close friends has a quote on her email that always makes me pause. The quote, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is this:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

It is a good challenge for me and not something I can achieve without supernatural grace. Another quote, generally attributed to Plato, but actually from an Ian McLaren mirrors the sentiment of the first:

Be Kind, For Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle

Both of these quotes are reminders of the shared human experience and the need to give grace. I’ll close with words that may be familiar to you, words preached by C.S. Lewis in 1942, but thankfully scripted so that we can read them:

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. – The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis