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Title: Iraqi Phrasebook

Author: Yasin M. Alkalesi, Ph.D.

ISBN: 0-07-143511-5

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Copyright: 2004

Relevance: The Iraqi Phrasebook is ideal for anybody who needs to travel or work in Iraq or other nearby places. It is good for reporters, aid workers and contractors who need to have a smattering of Iraqi Arabic at their fingertips and features many phrases that are very helpful for reporters and other journalists.

Review: There are quite a few Arabic phrasebooks on the market these days, but Mr. Alkalesi’s Iraqi Phrasebook is one of the best. Not only does this book feature hundreds of useful phrases for general travelers and reporters, it also uses the specific Arabic that many Iraqis speak every day.

To get specific, the Phrasebook concentrates on a dialect spoken in and around Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad and although this form of Iraqi Arabic is not understood by everyone in this heterogeneous country, it is the dialect most understood by most of the population.

As anyone who speaks Arabic knows, the language varies – often quite markedly – from one country to the next and has dozens of sub-regional dialects. This means that people who are fluent Egyptian Arabic speakers, for example, may not understand their counterparts who are speaking the Moroccan, Lebanese or Iraqi versions of the same language. In this, the Iraqi Phrasebook is invaluable to those who need to communicate in this region.

The book starts readers off with the tried and true formula explaining the alphabet and how consonants and vowels are sounded in this version of Arabic. Grammar, including nouns, adjectives, articles, pronouns and verbs, is also discussed as is the important matter of how to form a question in Iraqi Arabic.

Language books often include these introductory pages to help readers make sense of a new language, be it Arabic, Mandarin or Parisian French. But because these sections deal with the nitty-gritty of a given language, they are often glossed over by those wanting to rush ahead and “just get speaking”. We liked, therefore, the numerous examples in the Iraqi Phrasebook’s formative chapters dealing with the structure and formation of sentences as well as basic vocabulary, greetings, small talk and other matters.

Most of the book features translations in a relatively easy (i.e., English-like) phonetic pronunciation format. In other words, the Phrasebook gives the phonetic sounds to the appropriate Iraqi Arabic words: it does not trouble the reader with the actual Arabic characters. This is very useful as most Westerners (the obvious audience for this book) will be so completely unfamiliar with the Arabic character set that their learning curve will be frustratingly flat.

The Iraqi Phrasebook does diverge from the general rule of offering phonetic-only transliterations when it comes to important signs that one might see in the street, on buildings and in other important locations. For instance, seeing or reading the English transliterations for “exit” is pretty much useless since any sign won’t be talking to you. On the other hand, seeing the Arabic characters for the word “exit” along with many other common signs is very useful for the traveler.

One of the few nits we had to pick with the Iraqi Phrasebook is that the font size isn’t a big bigger. Westerners – who are undoubtedly unfamiliar with the Arabic character set – may struggle unnecessarily with the smaller font supplied in the few examples of Arabic character translations.

Obviously, those familiar with Arabic, such as the author, will likely be able to immediately glance at a sign in Arabic and immediately know its meaning. This, of course, is very similar to one’s native language where one’s brain has actually memorized the shape of a word and, therefore, removed the necessity of actually reading it letter by letter. Those who do not know Arabic, on the other hand, do not have this advantage and thus would benefit from a larger font size in these few sections that feature direct Arabic text translations.

For a relatively small size of book, author Alkalesi has packed a lot of truly useful phrases and expressions into his text. We applaud his use of specifics that reporters and other journalists can use throughout their travels in this area. For instance, the phrases “I have no illegal items” and “there is no hot water in my room” may not find themselves in traditional phrasebooks, but seeing them (and many other similar expressions) both surprised and delighted our reviewers.

There are, of course, many different sections that concern themselves with the traditional tourist fare. These include how to change money, ask for directions, which transportation method to use, how to deal with health problems and a comparatively large food related entries.

Throughout the book, there are small explanations dealing with certain parts of the Iraqi culture as it applies to that specific chapter. A short, mini-article titled, Typical Iraqi Dishes, for example, is found within the chapter concerned with food and drink. We thought it useful that the various foods one can expect while eating at a roadside stand or other traditional eatery are explained. The book also has lots of entries for various religious holidays, weather, weights and measures and other practical matters as travelers might need on their trip.

Native knowledge
We also appreciate that the author has actually been to Baghdad and includes his notes to some sites within the bustling city. Mr. Alkalesi knows, for example, that Baghdad’s Gold Market (Suug idh-Dhab) is located on River Street which runs along the Tigris.

The book really gets going in Chapter 3 where a wide variety of phrases useful for reporters and other travelers are included. In this, the Iraqi Phrasebook offers quite specific examples to readers interested in negotiating the often complex journey from airport to hotel. Here again, we liked many of the real life phrasings offered up for translation including “where is my passport?”, “I have no illegal items” and “I’m here as a tourist”.

The typical tourist fare such as finding a hotel, getting tickets, checking out and handling problems are also offered, but we do note that the book often offers an extra phrase or two that many competitors omit. Whether these phrases are “Please go faster. I’m in a hurry” or “Could you reconnect me?”, it shows the writer understands many of the trials and tribulations that real world “in the street” travelers might encounter.

Although the traditional sightseeing and tourist phrases have also been included, we liked how non-traditional (i.e., authentic) Iraqi sports and other activities are also given. One of the many areas in which the book shines is in its area of specialized phrases. Here, not only does the book give a few idiomatic and common phrases, it also gives practical phrases concerning medical care, lost and stolen items, security and visas (both obviously a big concern for visitors) and various public services.

Reporters will be especially thankful for almost two pages of basic words and phrases concerned with press and media operations. These include the Iraqi Arabic words for “newspaper”, “program”, “reporter”, “government official” and many others. Other useful phrases such as “I am a journalist with Time Magazine” and “I am a broadcaster with PBC” can be very helpful for those occasions where a reporter is without his or her translator. Nicely, in this section, the author has also included phrases such as “I would be grateful”, “Thank you very much” and “Good-bye”.

The final chapter of the book consists of an English-Iraqi Arabic dictionary. Although, not a complete treatise, the section can certainly help avoid (or at least reduce) the tedious pantomime to which many travelers succumb when they do not know the language. It would have been nice to have an accompanying audio CD to help beginning speakers hear the language phonetics but this would likely have raised the price.

Those readers wishing to learn Arabic from the spoken word must look at other products such as Teach Yourself Arabic Conversation or Arabic on the Move (each of which contains three audio CDs as well as a small listening guide). Both sets offer well structured lessons on the basics of Arabic although neither offers specifics on Iraqi Arabic. Instead each concentrates on the dialects heard more in Egypt and the Gulf states. More basic books on the subject include Jane Wightwick's flashcard-sporting Your first 100 words in Arabic and her Read & Speak Arabic for Beginners (which has one audio CD).

Overall: The Iraqi Phrasebook is recommended for anyone traveling to Iraq or in regions close by. Although it is slightly too big for an average pocket and could do with a few diagrams or other memory devices to help beginning Arabic learners, the book is certainly well worth the weight in your camera bag or carry-on luggage.

A nice touch are many of the safety phrases that could be helpful in preventing injury to any traveler. Members of the media will also like specialized words relating to their profession including many of the tools of our trade such as “camera”, “video”, “international news”, “rioting” and “batteries” that escape most traditional phrasebooks. Recommended.

End of Review

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