Friday, February 13, 2009


We can't do our job without interpreters ("terps"). I've learned enough Arabic for quotidian pleasantries, but there is no substitute for a native speaker who can translate nuance and idiom.

As a Tactical PSYOP Team (TPT), we are assigned an Arab linguist who lives and works with us on a day-to-day basis. If we're lucky, we'll get a "Category II" terp: an Iraqi-born, US citizen working as a contractor to the Department of Defense. The infantry platoons generally get a Category I terp: a local-national who lives nearby and has learned English by watching cartoons and subtitled Hollywood movies. The Battalion Commander, who meets with local sheikhs and oversees millions of dollars of reconstruction projects, gets one of the few Category III terps: An Iraqi-born US citizen, but with a security clearance.

Headquarters sent us to Sadr City with Azaz Hamoudi, a.k.a. "Joy". (Most Iraqi interpreters assume an American nickname to fit in with their unit. I've seen "Matrix", "Aladdin", "Wolf", "Fox", "West", "Billy", "Joseph", "John", etc.)

Joy had a wife and son in Dearborn, Michigan, but was born and raised in southern Iraq. The prospect of $90K/year tax-free and the opportunity to help his motherland brought him back to Babylon in 2007. Joy was good at ordering us sumptuous feasts from local Iraqi restaurants. He introduced me to BBQ fish, a Baghdad specialty. Joy also had a knack for getting the locals to invite us in for tea while on patrol. In the end, Joy's dependence on over-the-counter allergy drugs got him replaced.

Next came Ahmed, nicknamed "T". T was a younger guy, our age, with an American wife and daughter in Tennessee. T spoke English extremely well - he could copy regional American accents and throw slang around like Jay-Z. He also had an uncanny rapport with almost everyone he met. Other terps at Sadr City each considered him their best friend, and with a few words he could put an Iraqi family at ease as an infantry squad searched their house. T had high blood pressure though and only lasted a few weeks with us before moving out.

Next, my NCOIC sent us "Jay". Believe it or not, you have all met Jay - or someone just like him. You know the tallish guy who favors ripped jeans and Vans sneakers, has a little bit of a mullet going on, sells used cars and has a way with the ladies?

That's Jay, Iraqi-style. Jay had an American wife and 3 kids, but would sneak out of the army base on weekends to see his local girlfriend. He would buy used cars on eBay and ship them here to sell in Baghdad, making a tidy profit. Jay's command of English was superb, and he was always quick with a pot of Chai tea or a hooka of fresh capuccino tobacco during off-hours. We left Jay behind in Sadr City when we got our orders to move north.

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