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!
- US Navy rescues Iranians from Somalia pirates – Los Angeles Times (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- Protested Navy Gulf fleet rescues Iranian crew (seattletimes.nwsource.com)