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thedrifter
12-18-06, 09:54 AM
Dec. 16, 2006, 8:12PM
Reluctant recruit
Did tabouli lead the Marines to me?

By MAY MANSOOR MUNN

''Dear May Munn," the letter begins, "The United States military is in need of your service."

This is no ordinary branch of the military in need of my service. This branch is made up of "the few, the proud, the Marines."

Be still my heart! Can this really be true? The Marines want me (at least after I pass their training which, they tell me, will be "second to none"). They promise to push my mental and physical limits "beyond anything you've ever known, giving you the self-discipline, responsibility, and confidence to face any challenge that comes your way."

Fortunately for the Marines, I've recently joined the Y and am tackling all kinds of machines that might help transform this flabby bod into something worthy.

But let's face it. It's not for my dark eyes, or my physical and mental prowess that the Marines want to take me on. The Marines want me for one thing, and one thing only: my "command of the Arabic language invaluable among the elite few where," they promise, "you'll play a pivotal role in communicating with people from Arabic-speaking countries."

I can't help but wonder: How did the Marines know I spoke Arabic? Did Homeland Security wiretap my conversations with family and friends then pass on my tabbouli and grapeleaves recipes to the Marines?

Both my mind and body interest the Marines since they promise to push my "physical and mental limits beyond anything you've ever known." And if I succeed, they assure me, I'll "forever be one of America's elite warriors with a proud bond that cannot be broken."

I like the "bonding" idea, but I have trouble with the word "warrior," even though my Yoga teacher asks us to stand in the proud pose of warriors who have "won the battle"— not that other, loser kind. But I'm not sure I want to be a warrior of any kind.

Besides, a battlefield is never a pretty sight — despite our well-trained warriors and their bedraggled opponents. Death does not discriminate, and vibrant lives cut short in battle — whether ours or theirs — can leave festering wounds in our hearts.

As a Palestinian girl growing up in Zerka and Ma'an, Beersheba, Jerusalem and later in Ramallah, I listened, entranced, to my mother's stories of the comic figure, Juha, and other adventures of historical or magical characters. Both my mom, a former teacher and my dad, a physician who spoke five languages, showed me that Arabic is the language of storytellers, of scholars and poets — the language of Souk Ukath: an ancient Arab poetry contest where poets composed their lines on the spot — a classical version of the rap contests of today.

My parents insisted that their five daughters (no sons, alas!) all get college degrees — preferably in the United States — starting with me, the eldest. And so at age 15, I crossed the ocean blue to New York, and from there, journeyed by bus to a small Quaker college in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where I watched, transfixed, the true-life drama of the McCarthy hearings on a small black-and-white TV. For a foreign student, this was an unexpected bonus that helped her add a few choice words to her English vocabulary.

Over the years I've become convinced that the better use of language is for building bridges — not for entrapment or interrogation. At Israel's Ben Gurion airport I've been interrogated often enough by those who seemed less than thrilled that I spoke Arabic to other Arabic speaking people. Yes, I admitted to my cross-examiners, I'd visited Ramallah, where my mother and my relatives lived, and where I also spoke Arabic to the baker, the butcher and the falafel chef on the corner.

But unlike the interrogators at the airport, the Marines are happy I speak Arabic; they even promise to reward me for my patriotic duty with competitive benefits, including a generous bonus.

Wow! The promise of a "generous bonus" is certainly tempting, but I still worry about the "pivotal" role I'll be assigned to play. Will I be an interrogator or a translator of someone else's interrogation? Will torture be involved?

Sometime ago, as a teacher of world history in Houston, I taught 10th-graders the causes and results of wars as laid out in our American history texts. But my class also learned to appreciate the interesting cultures of our world when each student "adopted" a foreign country, researched its history, its contributions and the problems it faced, and represented the chosen country at a HAMUN (Houston Area Model United Nations.)

If our armed services (and our heads of state, for that matter) had studied the rich history of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization) wouldn't they have used as much enthusiasm in protecting the Iraqi museums and historical sites as they did in protecting the oil ministry building and oil fields?

But wonderful things can happen when West meets East in peacetime. Think of the Muslim physician Rhazes (al-Razi) who lived in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries, and who wrote a medical encyclopedia. Translated into Latin, it was used by Europeans for centuries. Scholars also know something of the origins of astronomy, of algebra and other Arabic contributions to science and medicine.

I must confess that my "command of the Arabic language" is, at best, rather wobbly. Besides, there are marked differences in spoken, or colloquial Arabic, and accents, expressions or wording can often vary from country to country, from town to town. Hitchhiking once with some English friends in southern France, I tried, but failed to sustain, a conversation with a Morrocan motorist who kindly offered us a ride.

And although most Arabs share a common faith and a written (classical) language, one size does not fit all in the Arab world, with its 21 independent Arab states.

In his letter, the brigadier general of the Marine Corps urges me to "spread the message of freedom to others. ... " But the few, the proud, the Marines may not be too thrilled to discover that, in April 2006, I traveled to Crawford — not for a fund-raising bash for President Bush — but to Camp Casey, in support of Cindy Sheehan, other Gold Star moms and the Veterans for Peace.

I believe that the lives of our young warriors are precious and should not be misused. I also know that the names Osama and Saddam are not interchangeable, and only one of them was responsible for 9/11.

As a longtime American citizen, and a woman of Palestinian heritage and Quaker faith, I'm flattered that, at the tender age of 71, I'm wanted by the Marines. But I'm not convinced that by joining the Marines at any age I would be "spreading the message of freedom to others."

To save lives and spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East, our American government, I'm convinced, must lead by example and diplomacy — not by war.

Munn is a Houston writer.

Ellie