March 17-21, 1991: Oil Fires and Routine Patrols

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Sun 17 Mar

Another nice day. In the morning we checked out a Kuwaiti defense installation. I found some interesting things, including insignia, a Kuwaiti flag, and an Algerian flag. One of the most interesting sights was a maintenance supply building, once filled from one end to the other with high metal storage shelves. When a bomb hit one end, all the shelves went over like dominoes. It must have been quite a sight.

I hear over the radio that another team found barrels with Russian lettering. I offered to translate but EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) took care of it themselves. The barrels turned out to have rather mundane smoke-generating materials in them.

I only remembered church call late, so caught just the last few minutes of Mass. Later on I boxed up more surplus stuff and sent it home. Most people were off today. It was a nice, relaxing day.

Ramadan began today. During Ramadan, Moslems are forbidden to eat or drink during daylight hours, though they can eat as much as they like after sunset. For many Moslems, day and night are reversed during Ramadan. They stay awake all night and sleep during the day. Thus little work gets done in the Moslem world during Ramadan. Coming just a couple of weeks after liberation, it slowed down recovery efforts in Kuwait. We were not supposed to eat or drink in public.

Mon 18 Mar

At 0800 formation we were told the Army plans to pull 240,000 troops out of the Gulf by 5 June and close the outprocessing center at Fort Bragg by 6 July. The smoke was heavy all day. The Environmental Protection Agency has air monitors out.

The team went out to distribute radios again. The radios filled the back of the vehicle, leaving room for only four people, so I stayed behind and spent the morning working on Arabic.

This is an appropriate point to summarize what I learned about Arabic. It is not as hard a language as many people make it. I rate it comparable to Russian. The writing and some of the sounds are a bit tricky, but a little bit of grammar takes you a lot farther in Arabic than in German.

The first problem is deciding on what approach to adopt. Do you select one dialect and teach that? I had Saudi and Egyptian Arabic books. Unfortunately, where they differed, it wasn't clear whether it was a dialect difference or just an alternative usage that was acceptable anywhere. It is also possible to follow the classical Arabic of the Koran, or a compromise that is close to classical but intelligible to modern Arabic speakers.

One of the biggest problems is that Westerners who know Arabic are terribly impressed that they know Arabic and want you to be just as impressed as they are. I found a reference grammar in the Fort Bragg library that made the dullest treatment of Latin look like easy reading. Fortunately, some writers know how to simplify effectively. Surprisingly, Arab writers were the most likely to insist that Arabic need not be difficult.

Too many books try to teach Arabic without teaching the alphabet, which is ridiculous. The letters vary a bit in shape depending on their position in the word, because Arabic is still basically a handwritten language and the letters are mostly joined. Most of the variations are the logical ones needed to connect the letters, the way a cursive English R looks different in "ore" and "are". There is one quite good book that teaches the Arabic alphabet, but even it does not explain all the diacritical marks in Arabic. I can decipher standard Arabic printing, but not the complex calligraphy that Arabs love so much.

Dictionaries in Arabic are a total mess. English-Arabic dictionaries are fairly straightforward, though all too often they are aimed at explaining English to an Arab rather than giving the best Arabic translation of an English word. Arabic-English dictionaries are very complex. Because of the way Arabic forms derivative words, Arabic dictionaries are not alphabetical. Instead, they are arranged in order of Arabic roots. To look up a word, you must first identify the root, look it up, then find the word under a list of derivatives. I succeeded about half the time. If there's a purely alphabetical Arabic-English dictionary, I haven't seen it, still less an effective pocket dictionary of the sort available in almost every European language.

As if that's not bad enough, the printing in these dictionaries is microscopic. To be really legible, Arabic printing needs to be larger than Roman printing because the critical features of the letters are smaller in relation to tails and flourishes. It's as if the only clue to whether a letter was b, d, p, q, h, k, or l was a tiny bump at one end of a vertical line. Finally, Arabic has a lot of ligatures, or two-letter combinations in a single sign. Any good Arabic dictionary should have a really comprehensive table of these, but they should never, ever, be used in the dictionary itself (guess what the standard practice is?)

After working on Arabic, I finished Carl Sagan's "Contact" in the afternoon. Several unit members had lunch with Wisconsin Congressman Obey, who was visiting with another group of congressmen here today. After the highbrow discussion of Arabic above, it's a distinct anti-climax to relate that I watched Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles on video in the evening. Actually it was a nice touch of home, since it brought back memories of taking the kids to see it.

Tues 19 Mar

Lots of smoke in the morning, clearing later. Our team was on standby. We escorted trucks to Ash-Shuwaikh in the morning, then nothing for the rest of the day. I wrote letters and studied Arabic. The PX lines are impossible. They just got restocked and people are going nuts. One guy ran up a $122 bill. The boredom is getting serious. We came back from Ash-Shuwaikh to find people sweeping the street.

Wed 20 Mar

Sunny and nice. We were supposed to check out schools, but got reassigned to visiting food points to get the same data we got a dozen times before. We visited Sabah-as-Salem, Dhaher, Fahaheel and Sabahiya. We came back in, gave our report, then drove Salem home. The PX line was finally short enough that I could get in.

Oil Fires, March 19-21, 1991

Thur 21 Mar

A virtual repeat of yesterday except we did not visit Fahaheel. I played volleyball in the afternoon. It was the first really clear night in ages. I could spot Canopus through the glow of the oil fires. The fires lit up the cirrus clouds overhead.

On Patrol, March 21, 1991

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Created January 10, 2000; Last Update 11 June 2020