by Eric Jaren
Founder, Brown Bag Lessons
7/20/2014 - Bellbrook, Ohio
I learned a valuable life lesson during a trip to Egypt in 1992. We deployed on just a couple of days’ notice to support humanitarian relief efforts in Somalia. Once the mission began we were busy refueling C-5 and C-141 aircraft that were delivering supplies to the region.
The very first day in country I befriended an Egyptian, Yasser Muhammad Metwally. He worked in the hotel and during the tour I would stop by his shop every day on my way to catch the bus to work. Yasser offered terrific guidance; where to go, how to get there, what to buy, and what to watch out for. He joined us on some of the sightseeing trips and even brought me to the Cairo University so students could practice their English with me. Yasser and I became fast friends on this short deployment.
At work, our job was to marshal aircraft to the parking spot, inspect and perform necessary servicing and maintenance, and finally, refuel them for the next flight. The jumbo jet C-5 aircraft have a maximum capacity of 300,000 pounds of fuel and it can take 6 or 8 large refueling trucks to put on a full load. Unfortunately, lack of communication with the Egyptian refueling truck drivers created problems every refuel.
The trucks would drive directly under the wing of the C-5 aircraft. Each aircraft is surrounded by a “Circle of safety” that extends 10 feet around the perimeter of the aircraft, and all vehicles must be guided when inside the designated circle.
The language barrier made it practically impossible to communicate this rule. And driving under the wing; that is never allowed in the Air Force. No one on our team spoke Arabic and the Egyptians didn’t speak English.
This caused us to use nonverbal body language and hand signals to motion the drivers to backup, turn around, and move from under the wing. Usually the drivers just stared back. Eventually with enough body language the fuel trucks would reposition.
As I shared the problems we were experiencing to Yasser his response caught me off guard. Out of the blue he pointedly stated, “Eric, you don't speak any Arabic!”
He continued, “If I visited the United States I would not expect Americans to speak Arabic. I know you were cast into this situation with little time to prepare, but you have been here for weeks. You may not have time to learn Arabic on a short trip…”
Yasser concluded, “But you have to try!”
Then he pulled out a list of words, and said, “You must learn these 10 words.”
I practiced that night and the next day proudly recited: Shamel, Yamin, Kafia, Airga, Buraha, Shuah~Shuah, Shukran, and others.
Yasser said, “This is good, this is very good,” then pulled another list of words.
Taking the time to learn how to speak a little Arabic proved instrumental. The next time a fuel truck pulled under the wing I said “Airga”, meaning “back up.” Only this time the driver didn't stare back. He put truck in park, swung the door open and came over.
He looked at me and squarely said, “Are you speaking the Arabic?”
I replied, “Shuah~Shuah” (a little bit).
Are you speaking the English, now?”
He grinned from ear to ear and said, “Yes!”
The miscommunication with the refueling trucks wasn’t the fault of the Egyptians, it was ours. They didn’t know our rules, and for that matter many commercial airlines allow fuel trucks to drive under the wing. The effort to learn a few words in Arabic made a difference. The problem was not about communication. We arrived in country and expected the Egyptian hosts to accommodate our every need without ever attempting to show common courtesy. From that day forward fueling our aircraft was not a problem for me.
Throughout a 30 year Air Force career, and having traveled to almost 50 countries, I’ve learned that no matter whether you are visiting another country, another business, or someone's home, people are willing to overlook any misstep or mistake if you just show them the same dignity, respect, and courtesy, you would want in return.
My point is that you have to try.
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