US Army interpreter bridges cultures at African Lion 2024

BEN GHILOUF, Tunisia – The cultures of the United States and Tunisia differ significantly, from customs and signs of respect to social norms and taboos. In the joint military training environment of African Lion 2024 (AL24), overlooking these societal rules can damage relationships and inadvertently cause incidents.


“Every year, this exercise grows,” Karoomi said. “More Tunisians are coming, and more countries are joining. We have Libyans and Egyptians this year! This shows that we’re doing a great job. Countries want to join because they see it; they watch the news and see how we showcase these exercises.”
By Pfc. William Kennedy U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa Ben Ghilouf, Tunisia May 12, 2024
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BEN GHILOUF, Tunisia – The cultures of the United States and Tunisia differ significantly, from customs and signs of respect to social norms and taboos. In the joint military training environment of African Lion 2024 (AL24), overlooking these societal rules can damage relationships and inadvertently cause incidents.

U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa (SETAF-AF) considered these challenges when planning AL24. Among those tasked with addressing these challenges is U.S. Army Sgt. Qahtan Karoomi, a human intelligence collector assigned to the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, Utah National Guard. Karoomi serves as an interpreter at the exercise to help bridge the cultural gap between American service members and African partner nations.

“We are the bridge between two nations and cultures,” Karoomi said. “We don’t just interpret or translate words or documents. We interpret the culture, the background, the stories, the history. Often, I explain the historical meaning behind a specific word or story while I’m translating or interpreting.”

AL24 is a multinational joint exercise involving more than 8,100 participants from 27 countries, including NATO contingents. This setting presents numerous opportunities for misunderstandings.

“Our job is critical because we carefully translate, interpret and explain these two cultures to each other,” Karoomi said. “Without our work, it would be impossible for the people who need to collaborate to understand each other.”

Originally from Baghdad, Iraq, Karoomi became a local interpreter for the U.S. Army in 2003.

“When the war happened, I noticed that the U.S. Army in Baghdad lacked interpreters,” Karoomi recalled. “I decided to step up and help. Since then, I’ve loved the job.”

Karoomi continued to work with the Army in Iraq until he was able to join the force himself. He became an American citizen in 2014, and he believes his dual experience as an Iraqi and an American enables him to understand and articulate both perspectives.

“With our partner nations, they realize that the Americans care,” Karoomi said. “When I walk in and they see there’s an interpreter, I can see the sense of relief because they know I will explain things in a way they can understand. It’s the same for the Americans.”

Karoomi’s cheerful personality and signature bushy mustache have helped him explain cultural nuances and prepare U.S. service members for deployment, teaching them how to work effectively with an interpreter.

“I want to help them get familiar with working through an interpreter,” Karoomi said. “For example, they often speak in long sentences and don’t pause long enough for an interpreter to translate. I’m translating and teaching these new leaders skills they will need if they’re ever mobilized.”

Karoomi aims to foster stronger relationships between American and African partner nations during AL24. He also works in a counter-drug program for the DEA through the Utah National Guard, where his language skills are vital.

“In my job, I use my language a lot,” Karoomi said. “When we talk to Tunisians or Moroccans, I learn more about the language and cultural background. This improves my language skills and provides more tools to use when I return home.”

Throughout AL24, Karoomi has been involved in a variety of events, from interpreting customs instructions to discussing infantry tactics and medical techniques with military members from African nations.

As the exercise concludes in Tunisia, Karoomi is optimistic about the future of African Lion and the relationships between the U.S. and its African partners.

“Every year, this exercise grows,” Karoomi said. “More Tunisians are coming, and more countries are joining. We have Libyans and Egyptians this year! This shows that we’re doing a great job. Countries want to join because they see it; they watch the news and see how we showcase these exercises.”

SETAF-AF provides U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Army Europe & Africa a dedicated headquarters to synchronize Army activities in Africa and scalable crisis-response options in Africa and Europe.

For all photos, videos and articles throughout the exercise, visit https://www.dvidshub.net/feature/AfricanLionEx

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