Mistaking Welsh For Hebrew in Libya



Outside of Wales, Welsh is a profoundly obscure language, to the point that some may think it extinct or invented. In Libya, Welsh is no more real than Elvish.

That linguistic obscurity led to two British journalists being detained in post-Gaddafi Libya on suspicion of spying.

Below are two versions of what took place. The first is as reported by the journalists themselves. The second is how I imagine their captors saw it (I can only imagine this; the militiamen have no spoken publicly).

The journalists say they were out late one night in Tripoli when they were detained by a militia group called the Misrata Brigade. In the absence of much central authority, and in the presence of large numbers of guns, militia groups tend to act as Libya’s main law enforcers.

The journalists, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson and Nicholas Davies-Jones, were taken to a military compound where they told their captors they worked for Iranian broadcaster Press TV. But the Libyans appeared not to believe them. It didn’t help that they had no visas or official approval for being in the country.

The men’s hotel room was searched, their video footage viewed. Another unhelpful detail: there was video of one of the two firing an automatic weapon.

Then there were the bandages. Montgomery-Johnson’s father is a nurse who lives in Wales. He gave his son some bandages to take to Libya, just in case. The wrapping on the bandages had writing on it, some of it in Welsh. But Montgomery-Johnson said their captors mistook the Welsh for Hebrew. And so the two journalists became suspected Israeli spies. No matter that Welsh, which uses the Latin alphabet, and Hebrew look as different as Arabic and Chinese do.

It took three weeks before the men were released and the Libyan government apologized.

So now, from the militiamen’s perspective…

They pick up two British guys who are out late at night. The two don’t have permission to be in the country, but they say they work for a TV channel out of, of all places, Iran. That just doesn’t ring true. Don’t the Brits and the Iranians hate each other?

Evidence from their video files suggests they’re doing military drills. What’s more, they’re expecting trouble: they have bandages. And what’s that language written on the packaging? If it were Hebrew—well, everything would fall into place. It must be Hebrew.

But it wasn’t. And so the men were released.

The only thing Welsh and Hebrew have in common is that they are both held up as success stories in language revival. But that is another story.

Also in the podcast this week:

  • Gullah, Haitian Creole and other creoles spoken in the U.S. This is the second part of my conversation with Elizabeth Little, author of Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country Travels in Search of America’s Languages. The first part deals mainly with native American languages. Previous podcasts on various creoles are here, here, here, here and here.
  • Musician Wilko Johnson. The former Dr Feelgood guitarist speaks about his life growing up in Canvey Island, Essex. He still speaks with a thick Estuary English accent. What is less known about Johnson is that he studied Icelandic sagas at college and still speaks some Old Norse.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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