BAGHDAD, Iraq—College students whisper the word when they spot U.S. troops in Baghdad streets. Vandals scrawl the word across military vehicles. Sneering taxi drivers mutter it when convoys block their cabs.
"Ulooj," they say, and while some use it with disdain and others more lightheartedly, it's unmistakably not a nice reference—though what precisely the ancient term from Arabic literature means depends on whom you ask. Among the translations offered: pigs of the desert, foreign infidels, little donkeys, medieval crusaders, bloodsuckers and horned creatures.
While no one can quite pin down the original definition, Iraqis agree on the modern definition: "It's the American military," said Maria Hassan, a 23-year-old history major at a university in Baghdad. "We use this word from the past for our occupiers of the present."
The revival of "ulooj" (pronounced oo-LOOZH) is the handiwork of Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf, the alternately comical and caustic information minister from the former Iraqi regime.
In the first days of the war, Sahaf sent Iraqis running for their dictionaries when he used the word in a speech to describe advancing U.S. forces. Today, "ulooj" lingers as the unofficial national nickname for American soldiers, even among many who profess support for the U.S. presence.
"The Americans always use fancy words for their operations here—Desert Storm, Iron Grip—so we should also have special names for them," said Ahmed Kandeel, a 20-year-old Egyptian who attends university in Iraq. "What does `ulooj' mean, anyway? Isn't it `pigs of the desert?' "
Ali al Khateeb, who translated Sahaf's live remarks into English for foreign journalists during the war, said he was stumped the day his former boss mentioned "ulooj" at a news conference. Khateeb said he racked his brain for a suitable translation as Western reporters stared at him with impatience. He finally settled on "the enemy" for lack of a better definition.
"I went to my old professors after that press conference to ask them for a more precise word," said Khateeb, who's now a producer for an Arabic-language satellite TV station. "One told me it means `little donkeys' and the other said it's `big monsters with small minds.' No one can say for sure. It was an obsolete word before the war."
Few soldiers are aware of their new moniker. Iraqi children delight in shouting it as they smile and wave to passing U.S. troops, who happily return what they think is a genuine greeting.
Alaa-Edin Elsadr, an Arab-American spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, knows soldiers sometimes use derogatory terms for Iraqis, but he said that was no excuse for "ulooj."
"Our people tell us it means something like `animals,' " he said. "It's definitely not funny. If someone wants to create a nickname for us, there's not much we can do about it, but we feel it's culturally insensitive."
Salah al Qureishi, a linguistics professor at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, said he consulted four dictionaries when he first noticed his young students casually using a word he last recalled seeing in yellowed texts describing the conquests of a seventh-century Islamic ruler.
"I was astonished," Qureishi said. "I thought, `Where on earth did they get this word?' "
Qureishi said the information minister unearthed "ulooj" because he "wanted to find words not used by common people so he would stand out as superior and intellectual." He said "ulooj" also was a good example of how Saddam Hussein, the ousted dictator with notoriously flowery speeches, enjoyed invoking Islam's golden age to remind his countrymen of Iraq's glorious past. The only problem was, most Iraqis weren't quite sure what their former leaders were talking about.
Qureishi pulled a tattered old Arabic dictionary from his desk drawer and flipped to the entry for "ulooj." He ran his finger down several derogatory meanings, but stopped and laughed when he came to the last definition on the list.
According to the al Waseet dictionary, a rare alternative interpretation of "ulooj" is "strong men" or "good fighters."
"I don't think Sahaf ever saw this definition of `ulooj' when he was looking for names for the Americans," Qureishi said with a smile. "Saddam would have beaten him."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+nickname