Sgt. Kevin Higgins looked down at the spread of humus, eggplant salads and pickled vegetables a robed waiter set before him. Probing gingerly with his fork at one of the Middle Eastern delicacies, and surrounded by a dozen fellow soldiers, the Florida reservist chose his words diplomatically: “I don’t like appetizers very much, even in the United States.”
Qatar, with its shopping malls and 24-hour American fast-food restaurants, offers the some 4,000 U.S. troops stationed here plenty of creature comforts from home.
But as Washington sends tens of thousands of reinforcements to the Persian Gulf in preparation for possible war with Iraq, U.S. commanders are increasingly concerned about how their troops conduct themselves in the countries that host them.
On Tuesday in neighboring Kuwait, unidentified gunmen ambushed two American civilians working on a Pentagon contract, killing one. U.S. troops in Kuwait, which number 17,000, have been targeted by Muslim extremists in previous attacks.
In Qatar, a small peninsula-shaped sheikdom with a population of 150,000, there have been no strikes against the American military contingent, which will direct a war if President George Bush gives the order.
The government sees a military alliance with Washington as key to its long-term security, and Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has turned over several military facilities to U.S. control.
But suspicions at the American presence — and Washington’s future designs on the region — linger. So the Army has contracted with a tourism firm to educate U.S. troops about local culture — a move the Pentagon hopes will minimize friction between the Americans and their Qatari hosts.
“We’re trying to be good guests,” said Maj. Dan Amos, a U.S. Army Civilian Operations officer at Camp As Saliyah, a sprawling facility south of Qatar’s capital where the U.S. central command would have headquarters during a war with Iraq.
“We don’t want to offend the Qataris. We want to kind of blend in with them and learn while we’re here.”
Groups of U.S. military personnel — from soldiers to spouses of officers deployed to the region — are signing up for five-day courses that teach the basics of Arab culture, including basic phrases in Arabic and the ground rules for tough bargaining in Middle Eastern souks, or markets.
The culmination of the course is a day trip around Doha, the capital, where recent graduates were quick to point out the difference between a Qatari and Saudi hagal, the circular band that holds a turban in place.
“The Qataris have tassels,” said Spc. Keyla Grant a 23-year-old from Charleston, S.C.
U.S. troops in Qatar have an unusual degree of freedom for Americans in the Persian Gulf, and military personnel frequent local restaurants and shopping malls.
Wearing uniforms off base, however, is strictly forbidden. Soldiers are also cautioned to avoid donning casual clothing with American flags or an American theme. Officials here say the army’s cultural boot camp seeks to lower the military’s profile and promote ties between military personnel and the local population.
What not to do?
In a Doha restaurant for their graduation meal, soldiers got to use their new knowledge.
“I know not to show the soles of my feet, or to try to reach out for things with my left hand,” said Spc. Grant, referring to two seemingly innocuous American habits that can offend in the Arab world.
Pvt. Terri Sheldon, a California native deployed in Qatar for the next six months, said she felt more comfortable leaving Camp As Saliyah after studying Qatari traditions.
“We know what to do and what not to do, so I don’t go out and do something silly and embarrass myself,” she said.
As he pondered the large bowl of chickpea-based appetizers before him, Sgt. Higgins brightened up.
“The course taught me to understand how people could react to me over here. That’s important,” he said.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in the Persian Gulf.