Bush's telling Abu Ghraib gaffe

By Joan Walsh

Published May 25, 2004 2:02AM (EDT)

Given the importance of President Bush's Iraq address, it's the wrong time to be petty, but someone needs to say that his stumbling over the pronunciation of Abu Ghraib was a stunning gaffe -- and yes, I mean "gaffe" in the Washington definition of the word, as in a slip of the tongue that inadvertently reveals what the speaker really thinks -- or in this case, doesn't bother to think.

Is Bush the only American who hasn't discussed the torture scandal enough in the last month to have decided already how to pronounce the prison's name? I've come to say "Abu Ghrabe," with a long A (sounds like "hate"), which Google seems to say is the correct pronunciation. But the point is not to insist there's a clear, written-in-stone right way to pronounce it; there's no time to consult Arabic experts, and that isn't the point. I've heard knowledgeable people say "Abu Gribe," with a long I, as in "spite." Bush's mangled version sounded kind of like "Abu...Guh...rrab," as in "grab," which may be a Freudian take on it, given the groping and sexual abuse that went on there.

But the worst of it was the way Bush got stuck on the word, parsing out the syllables lamely, as though he'd never read or heard them before. In fact the way the prison scandal unfolded seems to indicate that Bush and his advisors really hadn't heard of Abu Ghraib before they invaded Iraq, didn't know about its symbolism as a fortress of terror, or they never would have turned it into the concentration camp it became. It took Salon's Phillip Robertson only a few days in Baghdad last year to suss out the meaning of Abu Ghraib -- he interviewed a poet who'd been imprisoned and tortured there for eight years, and he meditated on the meaning of the awful prison in a great piece last May, a year before Abu Ghraib became a household word.

Abu Ghrabe, Abu Ghribe, Abu Ghrab, it didn't necessarily matter how Bush pronounced it, as long as he showed a weary, fed-up familiarity with the word and all it meant, and a determination to make sure this sort of scandal never happened again. But he didn't. That may have been the most important moment of Bush's speech, and the president fell on his face again, badly.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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