January 21, 2008

Arab names and homeland security

What’s in a name?
Arab names and homeland security

We all know there is a shortage of Arabic linguists in the military and diplomatic services of the country. It creates problems for our soldiers as well as our foreign policy.

Arabic is spoken by almost 250 million people and is the (or one) official language of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Not only do our officials not speak the language, there is little understanding of the Arab culture. While not understanding a culture does not seem like a threat to national security, in this instance it just might be.

Arab names

Arabs do not use names as we do in the West, unless of course they have immigrated to the West and have assimilated into the culture and adopted its naming convention. In most countries of the Middle East, Arabs use their given name as their primary name. If they need to use a second name, they append their given name with their father’s name. Likewise, if an additional name is needed, they use their grandfather’s name. Usually only then will they use a family name of tribal affiliation.

Let’s use an example, one we all know – Saddam Husayn. Saddam’s father’s name is Husayn. When the New York Times referred to “Mr. Hussein” (I’ll address the transliteration issue later), they were actually referring to Saddam’s father. When you see the name rendered as Saddam Husayn ‘Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, it breaks down to name (Saddam), father (Husayn), grandfather (‘Abd Al-Majid), and geographic identifier (al-Tikriti). More properly, it is Saddam bin Husayn bin ‘Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, but except in the Gulf states, the bin – meaning “son of” (bint, “daughter of”) is omitted.

Another issue is the incorrect use of the term ‘abd al- (servant of the …, usually one of 99 attributes of God), often transliterated as Abdul. Abdul cannot stand alone, so names like Paula Abdul are not plausible in Arabic. If I was introduced to Paula Abdul, I’d probably ask, “‘Abd al- what?”

To further complicate matters, the Arabs use a construct called a kuniyah – the use of abu (father of) or umm (mother of) someone. For example, the President of the Palestinian Authority is Mahmud ‘Abbas, but he is more commonly known as Abu Mazin, Mazin being his first-born son. We all remember the famous Saddam Husayn use of umm al-mu’arik – “the mother of battles.” This construct is used widely by al-Qa’idah. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi is a good example – meaning father of Mus’ab, from the city of al-Zarqa (Jordan). None of these are his name, which was Ahmad Fadhil al-Nazal al-Khalaylah.

Transliteration problems

In addition to being a difficult language, the Arabic alphabet creates its own set of problems. The writing system consists of 28 consonants; the three vowels are not normally written. As with Hebrew and the other languages that use the basic Arabic alphabet (Persian, Urdu, Malay, etc.), the script is written from right to left.

A major problem is proper transliteration of the Arabic script. Although there is only one correct spelling of a name or word in Arabic, converting it to something readable in Latin letters can be confusing. For example, is it Saddam Hussein or Saddam Husayn? Most media used Hussein, although Husayn is closer to the Arabic script.

The United States intelligence community is required to use a standardized system* especially in the era of computerized databases that require specific letters. That system is the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) transliteration system developed jointly with the United Kingdom.

An example of the consequences of not adhering to the system is the U.S. Army destruction of an Iraq munitions storage depot in the days immediately following the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Operating under orders to destroy all Iraqi military facilities in the area under coalition control, Army officers checked the databases to determine if the Al-Khamisiyah depot was used to store chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the records indicating that artillery shells filled with the nerve agent Sarin were stored at Al-Khamisiyah were filed under a different – and non-BGN – transliteration. When the facility was blown up, American forces (including me) were exposed to low levels of the nerve agent.

Homeland security implications

The Arab naming convention, the Arabic language itself and transliteration issues present real problems for homeland security. With multiple spellings and multiple naming conventions, personnel who do not know the language and how to render it properly create huge incorrect data bases and make it difficult to identify potential threats. If we identify a potential al-Qai’dah member based on interrogations at Guantanamo, we are on the lookout for Ahmad Yusif Hamid al-Hamdani (his real name). However, he was granted a visa as Abu Hamza al-Maghrebi (father of Hamza, from Morocco) - he would likely slip through the cracks.

It remains a difficult problem.

* I know this not only from working in the community – my wife authored the legislation, Public Law 105-107, Title III, Sec. 309: “…the transliteration of foreign names, standards for foreign place names developed by the Board on Geographic Names….”