What's "from way downtown" in Farsi?

Someday, our entire age will be illuminated by two Persian guys describing a Shaq dunk.

Published November 14, 2002 4:12PM (EST)

Historians covet the small picture.

Nothing, generation after generation of them have concluded, brings alive a great moment of the past, or helps the reader to understand its context, better than an irony or twist in its minutia.

Who writes about the First World War without mentioning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand? And who writes about Ferdinand without mentioning that his chauffeur hung a right at the wrong intersection and had to pull to a stop directly in front of the place where Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip was standing?

What story of the Civil War is complete without the journey of Wilmer McLean? He was a Virginia farmer who had a house near Manassas Junction, Va. After the first major battle of the war was fought along the banks of the stream that McLean's home overlooked -- Bull Run Creek -- Wilmer moved his family far away, for safety's sake. He picked a place called Appomattox Court House. Grant and Lee would use his new home for the signing of the armistice four years later.

Edmund Morris opened his first book on Theodore Roosevelt not with his subject's first day as president, nor the occasion of his charge up Kettle Hill in Cuba, but rather on Jan. 1, 1907, as T.R. shook hands with hundreds of ordinary citizens as part of the "open house" tradition of New Year's Day at the White House.

And perhaps, in some future day, when historians are looking for that little extra spice to explain the curious and tragic early years of the 21st century, they will add to the roster of Gavrilo Princip, and Ferdinand's driver, and Wilmer McLean, and the anonymous recipients of Roosevelt's handshakes, the names of Nick Zahab and Nader Zehtab. If anybody can help you paint the small picture of the years 2001 and 2002, it'll be these innocent bystanders.

Fourteen months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department readily admit to a continuing shortage of employees who speak the languages of the Middle East -- particularly Arabic, Dari, Farsi, and Pashto. There has been no acknowledged successful recruitment of bilingual would-be opponents of the Evildoers. You'd think there'd have been some kind of Dick Cheney Memorial Scholarship in place by now. But we don't know of any night school at Arlington or Langley teaching staffers how to read these languages.

That this collective bureaucratic shrug of incomprehension should have existed on Sept. 10, 2001, is tragic in a way that requires no words to explain. That it should still exist 14 months later is farcical in a way that may require those future historians to explain.

Which is where Nick Zahab and Nader Zehtab come in.

They speak Farsi. They not only speak it, but they also speak both it and English well enough to translate fast-paced events from one language to the other, in an otherwise almost exclusively English-speaking environment, amid the raucous voices of literally thousands of Americans, under the pressures of deadlines and general public excitement.

Zahab and Zehtab would seem to be exactly the kind of guys who should be recruited personally by Tom Ridge, the director of Homeland Security, wherever he is these days. But the two men are very busy in Los Angeles, and anyway, they probably wouldn't be available before June. Unless Shaquille O'Neal's toe is much worse than everybody's saying.

Nick Zahab and Nader Zehtab are the radio announcers for the Los Angeles Lakers' basketball broadcasts -- in Farsi. Over Southern California station KIRN, they have expanded the reach of what for three years has been an all-Farsi broadcast by this season bringing the exploits of O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson to those who call themselves members of the Persian community of Los Angeles.

There will be, to our now proverbial future historians, something faintly naïve and endearing about the fact that the country couldn't summon enough people to understand the languages of those who wished to destroy it, but that at least there were a couple of guys to translate "slam dunk" into Farsi in Los Angeles.

Contained in this -- and no offense is meant to Mr. Zahab or Mr. Zehtab, nor is their loyalty questioned; hell, I'd rather announce the Lakers games than work for Don Rumsfeld, too -- is a kernel of that corny old American pursuit-of-happiness thing. Our perceived security crisis must compete with our desire to hear hoops on the radio.

And there will be, decades ahead, that familiar nostalgic glow provided by such a milestone in the continuing cultural assimilation of the nearly 100 percent of immigrants who, whether they intend to or not, wind up as American as Dennis Rodman -- often through the seemingly unimportant passageway of sports or music or media.

On the other hand, as our successors contemplate the Bush Doctrine and our time's bid for empire, as they try to reconstruct our thoughts not about the worst-case scenario but about the best one, they will wonder how in the hell we thought we were going to try to pacify Afghanistan, rebuild Iraq, shape up Saudi Arabia, dismantle al-Qaida, and neutralize worldwide hatred of America when the smart guys who happen to speak one of the other side's languages are otherwise occupied because the Houston Rockets were in Los Angeles one night and they had to translate an interview with the imported center, Yao Ming, from Chinese to English to Farsi.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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