Monday, September 04, 2006

Cross-cultural/linguistic faux pas

August 25 was the first time I came face to face with Umer Hayat. After his sentencing Umer spoke to the Press in his wanting English. What is my impression of the man? I think he is a man of few words, and most probably fewer still thoughts.
Very predictably the question about the terrorist training camp came up. Why did he tell FBI agents about a camp that he now claims was totally fictional? In his reply Umer said, ‘I just made up stories. That’s all. It’s my habit.’

Whereas the above statement sounds like a lame excuse I believe the problem lies in Umer’s limited command of English. I can understand how frivolous remarks like these are made in Urdu, and probably in Pushto too, and to Urdu listening ears they sound OK and make sense. But this is not how remarks of this nature are made in English and specially in such a serious matter. In English he could say something like, “I deeply regret what happened in that interrogation. I just don’t know how I did it. I was tired, I was fatigued, and they kept asking me questions, so I just made up stories. And it was so stupid of me. I got myself in trouble because of my stupidity. And the FBI recorded all that. Then it was too late. There was no way for me to turn back. I don’t know how to put it. It was just plain stupidity on my part to get myself in trouble in that manner.”

Johnny Griffin, Umer’s attorney, has a sharp aid, Silky Sahnan, who speaks Urdu/ Hindi. Silky needs to work with Umer on such cross-cultural/linguistic issues.


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