I’m a ship driver, so I was shocked to leave the pilothouse for the desert in April 2014. My ship, the USS Bataan (LHD-5), had departed in February for a 5th Fleet deployment with the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The rhetoric of the “Blue-Green team” was in the air, but suddenly I was living it—an eyesore in blue NWUs, translating for an infantry company during a bilateral exercise called “Sea Soldier” in Oman. Although the Gulf country has its own dialect, I was as easily understood there as in Syria—where I had studied in college—because I speak Levantine Arabic, a dialect understood throughout the Arab world.
The other two translators for the MEU, a sergeant and a corporal, were not trained to speak the language—only to translate its written form, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Considering their level of instruction, the sergeant and corporal actually spoke MSA very well. But MSA is not really a spoken language, and many Arabs, particularly the poor and uneducated, do not understand it.