The University of Texas' Center for Middle Eastern Studies recently formed a partnership with the US National Guard to help train soldiers to prepare them for interactions with people in the Middle East. The new partnership was taken for a test drive the weekend of Nov. 4 when UT students and faculty held a workshop and simulation for soldiers preparing for deployment.
"We've been interested in working with the military for a while, but weren't sure how to go about making contact," Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Director Christopher S. Rose said. "We were given a small grant by the National Security Education Program (NSEP) in January to assess what we could, theoretically, do to help the military meet their training needs. There was some funding left over, and NSEP liked our proposal, so they asked if we could actually implement something. The Texas Army National Guard turned out to be a willing partner, and it went from there."
The early November simulation was one of the first tests in forming a program that will both benefit soldiers' training and provide a new academic opportunity for UT students. Members of the UT community posed as an Afghan family, dressed for the part and sheltered in an empty building at Camp Mabry. Soldiers came into the room and conversed with the pretend family, attempting to get information from them. Translators helped the soldiers and "family" communicate, just as they would in Afghanistan. The simulation allowed the soldiers to get real life practice that would provide a solid basis for interaction with real Afghan citizens, and it also helped to form a better cultural understanding of the people they will encounter.
"This was a pilot program," Rose said. "Our hope is that this will become a regular or semi-regular project. We've already been talking about what we would do differently next time to make the training more effective."
The Center for Middle Eastern studies is pursuing this partnership with the National Guard because they understand the importance of adequate cultural training for soldiers so that they can be successful communicators and prevent misunderstandings and resentment from the people they are trying to help.
"One of the reasons this all got started is that Adi Raz has had veterans in her undergraduate pragmatics course who've told her that they thought all soldiers should be required to take her class because it could save lives in the field," Rose said. "I've had numerous conversations — as, frankly, have the rest of the people who were involved — with soldiers who've returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and clearly were not given basic cultural knowledge. It might not always save lives, but it can definitely reduce frustration."
For example, Rose said in Arab culture it is considered extremely rude to directly refuse a request from a superior or a guest. Their culture has also developed a combination of phrases and body language to mean "no", which can be confusing to those unfamiliar with their customs. This can, and has, had troops running in circles, Rose said. It is important to know these cultural norms, such as that it's rude to point the sole of your foot at someone while sitting down—a simple accidental gesture can require weeks of damage control, he said.
The training project combined the efforts of both graduate and undergraduate students of the Center for Middle Eastern studies. Five students and a staff member participated as actors in the simulation, and many others helped prepare for the workshop by planning and by contributing their knowledge of Afghan culture.
The principal personnel involved were Adi Raz, Clinical Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, who offers classes in pragmatics, and Denise Beachum, who is the CMES Special Programs and Events Coordinator, Rose said.
"We also reached out to Ohio State University's Middle East Studies Center, because their director, Alam Payind, is from Afghanistan and has worked with the Ohio National Guard, and we brought him and Melinda McClimans, OSU-MESC's Assistant Director, down to participate," Rose added. "We also had Hina Azam, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, give a lecture."
Assuming that the first training workshop is deemed a success, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies plans to continue the program to ensure that cultural education becomes an important part of a soldier's training program.
"We're going to all meet up to debrief in the next few weeks, and hopefully we'll begin setting future dates for the next round," Rose said.