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Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns are satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which. Howard Bashford, for example, is fictitious.
To those espousing the politics of wishful thinking, an unexpected break in the Iraq crisis came at the Muslim nations conference in Doha, Qatar.
After days and hours of droning diplomatic dialog, Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, burst forth with the first honest words of the conclave.
Addressing himself to Mohammed Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, Kuwait’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Mr. Ibrahim said, “Shut up! You monkey!”
Waxing even more eloquent he added, “Curse be upon your mustache, you traitor!”
Mr. Sabah al-Salem al Sabah – known as “Triple-S” to intimates – responded by calling the Iraqi a hypocrite, and his information minister, Sheik Ahmed Fahd al-Ahmed – also called “Double A” – stood up, waving a tiny Kuwaiti flag.
In the uproar that ensued, some witnesses swore they heard Triple-S utter an imprecation involving the flight of a bird of paradise and Mr. Ibrahim’s nasal protuberance.
Seeking comment from the anti-war movement, I called Dr. Howard Bashford at his home in California, and apprised him of the exchange. The famed scholar’s specialty is psycho-vernacular geolinguistics, but he also lectures in Peace Studies, dividing his time between the University of California, Berkeley, and Brown University.
He was galvanized by the information.
“Let me get back to you,” he said excitedly. “This calls for a bit of research, but if it means what I think it means, it’s BIG.”
The “bit of research” took until Saturday, and when Bashford called back, he was elated.
“It is as I thought,” he said. “If we just look at the surface, the words of Mr. Ibrahim and those of Mr. Al-Sabah could be interpreted as insults.
“Indeed, in Arab lands calling somebody a monkey can land you in severe difficulty. But did you note how Mr. Ibrahim followed up?”
I allowed that I had, but didn’t see how cursing Mr. Al-Sabah’s supralabial shrubbery in any way ameliorated the simian slur.
“Don’t you see?” said Bashford. “Monkey’s don’t have mustaches! What seemed an affront was in fact a recognition of the Kuwaiti’s humanity.”
“Well,” said I, “Triple-S didn’t seem to think so. One must be human to be a hypocrite, too, but I don’t think calling Ibrahim that was an expression of brotherly love.”
“Yes, yes,” Bashford replied impatiently, “but do you remember the ‘bird of paradise’ reference?”
“As I recall, that wasn’t too clear,” I said.
“That’s why we have the Internet,” the linguist sniffed. “Thorough research on the Web reveals that Triple-S’s musical taste runs to obscure American novelty songs. Do you recollect a little number – words and music by Neal Merritt – involving such a bird?”
I had no idea that Merritt was the composer and lyricist, but no American could forget Little Jimmie Dickens’ rendition of that classic – particularly the refrain:
May the bird of paradise fly up your nose;
May an elephant caress you with his toes;
May your wife be plagued with runners in her hose;
“OK,” I said. “So what?”
Bashford was condescending: “I wouldn’t expect a person who wasn’t a scholar of psycho-vernacular geolinguistics to tumble to this immediately. In fact, I had to gather more data myself, from colleagues in the philological and peace studies communities.”
He paused, waiting for me to prompt him, so I said, “Go on.”
He took a deep breath and continued, “Well, one of my colleagues was in Baghdad recently and she confirmed that when Saddam Hussein disagrees with somebody, he says jovially, ‘May the bird of paradise fly up your nose.’
“Isn’t that wonderful?”
I jested that this probably meant deceased Iraqi dissenters have been found with feathers in their nostrils, but Bashford remained serious.
“That doesn’t obviate the fact that Mr. Hussein and the West have a deep, psychological connection!” he said. “Now, pay attention:
“Hussein uses a line from a Western song, his diplomat and a U.S.-aligned diplomat exchange ‘insults’ that apparently include a reference to the same song. Ibrahim’s is more obscure, but where does a mustache grow? Beneath the nose! The conclusion is inescapable.”
Again he paused for effect, and again I prompted him: “What conclusion?”
“That the inspections are working!” he said. “We have to give diplomacy more time.”
“Your pro-inspections logic is so obscure,” I said, “the only thing I can do is borrow a line from Johnny Carson: ‘May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your toupee.'”
“Why, thanks,” Bashford replied earnestly. “You’re very kind.”