Photo Information

Staff Sgt. Tracy Salzgeber, a 2007 University of Maryland graduate and Arabic interpreter with Civil Affairs Group, Regimental Combat Team 8, questions Seaman Tyler Ivy and Cpl. Micci Hedgecock on basic familiar Arabic phrases. Salzgeber instructs her Marines on Arabic culture and language skills weekly.

Photo by Cpl. Eric C. Schwartz

CAG Marines learn conversational Arabic

27 Feb 2009 | Cpl. Eric C. Schwartz

CAMP RIPPER, Iraq – The famous poet Khalil Gibran once stated in Sand and Foam, “We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” Arabic and English are equally comprised of thousands of words, and Marines here have found each of the words as equally important to their linguistic counterparts.

 Marines with Civil Affairs Group, Regimental Combat Team 8, are taking time out of their busy schedules to learn Arabic culture and language to help build a better bridge of communication between themselves and the Iraqi people.

 “Being able to communicate is important in our job,” said Sgt. Michael Tietje, a fire direct controllman with CAG. “Plus, you’re showing respect to their culture.”

 Since March 2003, Iraqis have felt a strong Marine presence that only recently has started pulling back as Iraqis have become more self-sufficient. CAG has been working with Iraqi contractors and government officials in Al Anbar province since the Anbar Awakening in 2005, always working with an Arabic interpreter to understand the local populace. Now, an Arabic linguist with CAG is making sure her Marines know more than simple gestures and phrases.

 “They have an easier time seeing us as fellow human beings when we are able to break through the language barrier,” said Staff Sgt. Tracy Salzgeber, a 2007 University of Maryland graduate and Arabic interpreter with CAG.

 The team of Marines find time during the evening hours to cover simple question-and-answer phrases, and when Salzgeber feels the Marines are beyond the basics, she moves onto more advanced words and Iraqi dialect.

 “Speaking Arabic, especially with an Iraqi dialect, shows I personally care about your culture, your people and your language,” Tietje said. “I’m trying.”

While patrolling the streets of Iraq, it’s not abnormal to hear “What’s up?” in a thick Iraqi accent or “Shaku Maku,” with an unbridled American accent, meaning the same thing.

“Inevitably, we’re going to have a cross-pollination of languages,” Tietje said. “We’ve been here too long not to.”

English speaking Iraqis are hard to find because the language is mostly taught in colleges. Simple American phrases have been passed down by Marines training Iraqi Security Forces the past few years, but Marines here can easily count on one hand how many Iraqis they know are fluent in English.

“The contractors have a hard time believing you’re for them if you only know English,” Salzgeber said. “English is an aristocratic language here.”

The CAG Marines feel each new conversation is a fresh start with the Iraqi population.

“Even if our relationship is only for five minutes, I want them to know I’m here to help and not be an imposition,” said Sgt. Steven Pryor, a Washington, D.C., native and civil affairs noncommissioned officer with CAG.

Marines with CAG know they are not only part of America’s 9-1-1 force, but understand they are currently representing Iraq’s largest and strongest tribe each time they meet the Iraqi people.

“Instead of being geared up, faceless Marines, we’ve become human beings,” Tietje said.

For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq's Al Anbar province, visit