By Richard Edwards in Umm Qasr, Southern Iraq
Wandering the streets of Umm Qasr, dozens of people gather to chant his name: “Yahya, Yahya, Yahya.” He responds with a relaxed smile, opens his mouth – and the whole neighbourhood gathers to hang off his every word.
Lieutenant John Meredith is a soldier of the British Army and an interpreter. His weapon is not the rifle dangling around his neck, but his voice and a battered old dictionary that he keeps in his trouser pocket.
Brought up among the quiet rural charms of Hereford, he is now on the front line in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
John smiles and says it feels like a home from home.
“I don’t feel at all threatened here,” he said. “The people know who I am. I am called John – Yahya in Arabic – it’s a biblical name and one they can all recognise and remember.
“People feel comfortable with me and I feel comfortable with them.” John, 25, is an Arabic, Middle East and Islamic scholar. He studied at Durham University for four years before joining the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles.
In his current role, however, swords and, indeed, pens matter little compared to the strength of the spoken word.
“My biggest weapon is my language and my Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary,” he said, pulling out the creased old book, heavily thumbed and wrapped in a protective plastic bag.
“By interacting with locals you gain vital information on leaders and positions.
“Talking can also diffuse a situation and calm the most volatile atmosphere. Potentially, a few well-placed words can save lives.” Recognising and respecting the Arab way of life, said John, is the key. “It makes a huge difference to know the people and their culture, their sensitivities and habits.
“I know Arabs quite well and it is important to know what and what not to do. If you go into their houses, you should allow the men to escort the women outside first. Other little things are very important – such as always drinking tea with your right hand and never refusing anything that they offer you.” Meanwhile, the Lieutenant’s work in Umm Qasr, attached to 42 Commando Royal Marines in southern Iraq, has proved invaluable.
Yesterday, as he walked through the streets – the only soldier with no helmet on his head – he was directed to hideouts, weapons’ stores and Ba’ath party bases.
Commandos put together an inventory of up to 30 different items – grenades, mortars, rifles, pistols, ammunition and uniforms – to be taken away and destroyed.
“People want to give information,” John said. “They are still fearful. They have lived with the regime for so long that they believe Saddam is all around them – all-seeing and all-hearing. But they are desperate to help us to overthrow him, and often take me inside their houses, away from the crowds, to give the names and locations of his key men.” To a man whose hero is Lawrence of Arabia and who feels a part of Middle Eastern culture, seeing the state of Iraq for the first time is also a sad experience.
John said: “There are many very well-educated people here. They are the ancestors of the men who invented the wheel, writing, civilisation itself.
“They are a very bright people who have been led very badly. A lot of the people say to me this is both the richest and the poorest country. It has the richest potential, but fails to live up to it.” Being in the middle, meanwhile – the go-between for military commanders and locals on the streets – puts John in a difficult position.
HE said: “The hardest thing is that people are always asking for things I cannot deliver.
“I can speak their language, but that does not mean I can work magic to provide them with instant relief – medicine, water, electricity and food.
“It is frustrating. But all I can do is talk, reassure them and hope I am backed up by action.”
© Western Daily Press