"Relations and negotiations never stop from the minute you meet somebody until the minute you leave," says Raouf Khalil, an American interpreter serving with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division from Minnesota and currently in southern Iraq. Khalil has a unique perspective on American-Iraqi relations because of his fluency in Arabic and English as well as his understanding of local culture and customs.
Born and schooled in Egypt, Khalil came to the United States 30 years ago. After Sept. 11, 2001, he changed careers and elected to work with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He lives with his wife and three children in Long Island, N.Y., and is on his second tour with three years in Iraq. He tries to return home every six months to see his family. "Ralph," as he is called, spoke recently with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.
Tell us about your assignment? I'm with the 34th brigade out of Minnesota. My job here is an interpreter but it's also the cultural adviser. I facilitate between the soldiers and officers and people outside. Most of our work is outside of the camp; we go to meetings maybe four or five times a week. My job is to translate and interpret.
What's your background? I was raised in Egypt. I went to the states in 1977 and been there ever since. I worked for a bank for almost 20 years, then I worked for a couple years with the Department of Homeland Security when it was U.S. customs. I got a chance to come here and work with the army in Iraq. I took that chance and it's been excellent ever since.
How many languages do you speak and what are the requirements to become an interpreter? Only three languages. You go through a test to become an interpreter. It's an easy test. It doesn't take into account knowledge of Arabic customs and stuff like that. That's what I bring, customs and culture. I learned French in school and went to French schools in Egypt. In Arabic - I'm 100 percent [fluent], thank God. When I came [to the United States] in '77, I was still 17 or 18 and had to learn English here. I married an American girl and that helped much more.
What are some of the customs you try to make Americans aware of? The Iraqis don't have a sense of space. There's no such thing as my space and your space. They stand right next to you, and they greet you sometimes with a hug. These are things we're not accustomed to, but to them it shows affection, friendship.
Women, we do meet them on medical outreach and at schools. A lot of women will not shake a man's hand. A man would not shake a woman soldier's hand. It's in their culture, in their religion. As long as you don't get offended because that would affect the mood. When in Rome, do as the Romans.
How are you received as an Egyptian interpreter speaking Arabic? Iraqis seem to trust me a little more than other Iraqi interpreters. You never know if that guy belongs to this party or that party or he's Sunni or Shia. That creates a rift between Iraqis. So when I come in, I tell them right off the bat I'm Christian and from Egypt and I have nothing to do with what they're doing here. I'm just here as a voice to communicate. They respect that. Honesty is very important.
As far as the language is concerned, being here for three years, I'm not having much difficulty. Iraqis watch a lot of Arabic movies so they don't have a hard time understanding me. I'm not trying to be an Iraqi. When they speak they try to use some of the Egyptian words. I understand the Iraqi dialect.
What's the hardest thing to deal with communicating between English and Arabic groups? When you go into a meeting that is run by the Iraqis, there are many different people with different backgrounds in the same room. It's very difficult to interpret 15 people talking at the same time.
What's the Iraqi attitude towards the United States? We are pretty lucky and blessed to be in south Iraq. This region is not as bad as the Baghdad region. As far as we're concerned down here they are pretty happy with us being here. They help us and we help them as much as we can. The services that are given to these people are incredible; I believe they love us here, not only like us. Like anywhere else you're going to find people who don't want us here. We're very close to Iran.
What's your unit's mission? The government tells us what they need. We're out four or five times a week and see people and talk to them, they tell us what they need. The Americans are working with Iraqis for provincial reconstruction. We did a lot of water projects because the lack of water is incredible. They drink from rivers. Imagine the happiness of the people if you fix a unit that never worked or build a unit. Another project they're doing now is a pipeline to bring water into homes of people. They build a lot of clinics.
We made a kiddie park and are doing a huge amusement park. We just fixed a bridge. We're working on land fills, because the garbage is everywhere. There's no place to put any garbage. We're going to try to get them some tractors and cars where they can put garbage in containers. We're doing storm sewers for the rain water. We're doing a renovation of an orphanage.
Can the Iraqis do this on their own? We can do as much as we can, the Iraqis have to want it to happen. I can't tell if what they have is civil war. People are dying on both sides, so it's kind of a civil war for me. We can do a lot of good, in a way of teaching the government how to do some things. It's a baby government right now. I believe the military is stepping up by providing as much security as possible for these people to bring a change about.
One Iraqi told me he's happy we're here and got rid of Saddam. But he didn't think Iraqis are ready to take over in one shot. It was a sick country for a long time. This is an educated person and the way he feels.
Anything else you want to share? I go to church every Sunday and hope for the best. We have mass with an American chaplain. There's only one Christian family here [among the Iraqis in this region].
It's not as bad as they say on TV. These people do need a lot of help. I'm glad that we're here to help them. There's a bad apple in every bunch, I hope that we don't run into that bad apple.
The Tribune arranges these interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. MyLinh Shattan can be reached at mylinh@mylinh shattan.com.