Arabic-Speaking Soldier Spends Free Time Teaching Fellow Troops
By Staff Sgt. Ward T. Gros, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
PORT OF SHUAIBA, Kuwait, July 24, 2003 Soldiers in Kuwait have started studying Arabic twice a week thanks to a fellow American soldier who grew up speaking Arabic in Alexandria, Egypt.
Spc. Suzan Oliver spends Tuesday and Thursday afternoons teaching Arabic to soldiers assigned to the Port of Shuaiba.
"They seem very interested," Oliver said of her students. "The whole class is pretty responsive."
The specialist, who speaks seven different Arabic dialects, deployed to Kuwait as a crane operator with the 11th Transportation Battalion from Fort Story, Va. She extended her deployment to work as a member of the 143rd Transportation Command's civil affairs/G-5 office.
She said she wanted to be a linguist when she joined the Army, but that required a security clearance that she couldn't get at the time because she was not an American citizen. She took the Defense Language Proficiency Test as soon as she could and received the skill identifier for Arabic linguist, for which she receives extra pay.
Her father had a distinguished career working with the United Nations; some of her brothers and sisters work for humanitarian relief agencies in Africa; and now she finds herself working in a similar field.
Born in Khartoum, Sudan, Oliver has since applied for American citizenship and has her naturalization papers waiting at Norfolk, Va. She took her citizenship oath while home on leave in March. "I'm an American now," she said. "It's not easy to get citizenship, between what you have to study, what you have to know and the events since Sept. 11th. I consider myself lucky."
Oliver joined the Army after living with one of her sisters in Virginia. The ninth of 12 siblings, she is the only one to enlist in the Army. "My family says I'm the crazy one," she said.
Oliver says her friends from 11th Trans. said she was crazy for extending her tour in Kuwait, but she finds the experience she is gaining as a linguist dealing with Kuwait officials worth it.
"I spend most of my time with port passes, verifying nationalities, and filling out forms in Arabic," Oliver said. Her other duties with civil affairs range from answering the phone in Arabic to translating for generals and sheiks, such as Sheik Dr. Subah Al-Jaber Al-Subah.
"Meeting the Sheik of Sabah is definitely the highlight of my being here," she said. Second to that would be translating for Brig. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, deputy commander of the 377th Theater Support Command and commander of the 143rd TRANSCOM (Forward).
"She has been a great asset to this office," said Sgt. 1st Class George McGill, noncommissioned officer in charge of G-5. "She has helped out with identifying nationalities for passports and has helped screen applicants. After we review them, we pass them on to Kuwaiti officials. She's very accurate."
McGill also said that Oliver assists when Kuwaiti and other local officials visit. Official visitors often start speaking English but turn to Arabic when discussions become more complicated. "When she's here, there's no misunderstanding," McGill said.
Oliver takes cultural differences into account when translating. She particularly looks out for proper word choice and the American need for being direct. "Some words don't transfer the same from English to Arabic," she said.
"To translate something from English might sound like a direct order, which might offend the Kuwaitis," she explained. "Arabic culture is very indirect as far as conversation or requests. It is not as straightforward as saying 'This is what I want.' When you do that it's very offensive. It takes 15 to 20 minutes of greetings and side talk before you get to the main conversation."
Although Oliver speaks seven different dialects of Arabic, "my Egyptian dialect always overtakes the dialect I'm speaking," she said. In addition to the slight differences in dialect and word choice, there is a greater difference between Egyptian and Kuwaiti culture.
"While growing up in Egypt, I learned about the different Arabic cultures," Oliver said. "The Kuwaitis treat women differently. In Egypt women work in different career fields, while in Kuwait they are subordinate to the men. When speaking with them, I make an effort to get my point across without them looking at me as a woman."
When Kuwaitis and others meet her for the first time, the 24-year-old Oliver said, "it's a shock for them at first, because they see me as an American, which I am. After they ask all their questions and find out I'm from Egypt, some of them say it's too much freedom for a girl to be in the Army out in a different country on her own."
"My dad always encouraged me to do what is best," said Oliver, who spent her school years at boarding schools in Egypt and her summers around the world with her father. While at boarding school she said she had to make her own decisions, joining the Army, extending here, all of it might just be part of that, she said.
Editor's note: Gros is with the 143rd Transportation Command in Kuwait.