Monday, January 14, 2008

The Man Who Caused an International Incident

Here's some news that had me and the boyfriend in splits just a few minutes ago:

From Yahoo News:

Gulf Prankster Possible Message Source

Relevant excerpts

A threatening radio message at the end of a video showing Iranian patrol boats swarming near U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf may have come from a prankster rather than from the Iranian vessels, the Navy Times newspaper has reported.
And the most interesting bit of all:

Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said the Navy was still trying to determine the source of the transmission but believed it was related to the Iranian actions.

"The Iranian boats were coming close to the ships, making aggressive maneuvers and objects were being dropped into the water," she told The Associated Press.

However, the Navy Times, a weekly newspaper published by the Gannett company, quoted several veteran sailors as speculating the transmission could have come from a radio heckler, widely known among mariners by the ethnically insulting term "the Filipino Monkey."(emphasis mine)

Now why exactly is this hilarious to us? Well, therein lies a story. My boyfriend goes on weeklong (or even longer) sailing trips in Greece whenever he's on vacation there. I had the opportunity to be on three such trips, two short ones in 2002 and a longer one in 2003. Our longer trip involved a fantastic nine-day cruise through the Aegean sea from Athens to Santorini and back, stopping at a few islands on the way but mostly spending time at sea.

It's a fabulous experience, but very, very intense. It helps if you don't get seasick under some pretty trying conditions (a very choppy sea with no wind can knock all but the most hardy out), are not picky about having to pee in bathrooms built to Popeye and Olive Oyl specifications (think half the size of airplane bathrooms) and do not want to cry for your Mama when the wind blows so ferociously that you think there's no way your creaky wooden sailboat can survive the onslaught.

On the plus side - sleeping on the sailboat decks under the stars as the boat is lapped gently by waves on the harbour, access to gorgeous secluded beaches with no road or trail access, taking showers on the boat deck, the excitement and frenzy of scampering across the boat to pull ropes when tacking or jibing, and those incredible moments of solitude and silence when the wind stops blowing in the middle of an ink-black sea with no human presence in sight within miles.

So there's the poetic, and then there's the prosaic, and then there are the bizarre and bizarrely funny moments within the prosaic.

On our Santorini trip, we traversed the Aegean Sea, that seas a fair amount of cargo ship and tanker traffic, given that this the access route to Greece's biggest port Piraeus. My boyfriend S is as true blue a sailor as you can get, and there's no greater joy for him than to pour over nautical maps and write captain's logs. He would insist on keeping the radio on, tuned to the unencrypted frequency used by sailors to casually communicate with each other.

It was the first day of our voyage and on our radio channel we had picked up the conversation between two Pakistani sailors on different cargo ships who randomly contacted each other and then proceeding to chat. This was particularly interesting to me as I was the only one on our boat who understood Urdu so I listened intently as they spoke of their ships, where they were going, what food they got on the ships, what cargo they carried and so on.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, it happened.

There was no mistaking what was being yelled -

"Filipino monkey! Filipino monkey!"

And so it went on five or six times more, before the sailors could recover from their conversation being so rudely interrupted.

And then one of the Pakistanis retorted

"You bastard, I'm not Filipino, I'm Pakistani"

But there was no stopping this fellow. On and on he went.

"Filipino monkey! Filipino monkey!"

The Pakistanis then resorted to the most gentlemanly course open to them and proceed to cuss the hell out of this fellow in the choicest Punjabi expletives. S had noticed the drone of this anonymous radio user (and how the conversation had switched from Urdu to English) and came down.

S: "What's going on? Who's screaming?

TM: "I have no idea. He just randomly barged into their conversation and started abusing"

S: "That's weird. I'm sure I've heard this same guy on this radio frequency say this before as well."

That incident kept repeating for the next two days that we were close enough to Piraeus. Invariably, at some point during the day, the two Pakistanis would use the radio to chat and the anonymous guy would barge in and constantly chant "Filipino monkey". The guy was not only batshit crazy, but he seemed to get no sleep at all. For no matter what time of the day the Pakistanis chose to chat, sure enough, within minutes our abuser would appear and start insulting them.

This would then blow out into a full scale insult war with the Pakistanis responding with choice words in Punjabi. As we sailed closer to Santorini, the exchanges became less frequent and then stopped altogether. However, as we approached Piraeus on our way back, sure enough, our sailor tormentor was back in action, this time harassing two Indian sailors. The modus operandi was the same - the sailors would start using the open channel to chat and then within minutes the man would begin his incessant drone of "Filipino monkey" in an extremely annoying sing-song voice. The sailors responded with swears, the man did the same, and then it just was a trade off of a volley of abuses.

I haven't been back in Greece after this trip, but every time S goes home and sails, he brings back stories of the "Filipino Monkey" man, still his up to his insane ways, polluting the pristine airwaves of the Aegean with his racist nonsense. However, S and I always thought the man was a local phenomenon, probably some Greek man with intense resentment for the fact that modern cargo ships predominantly draw their crew from the Philippines.

Turns out that this is hardly the case.

The Navy Times quoted Rick Hoffman, a retired captain, as saying a renegade talker repeatedly harassed ships in the Gulf in the late 1980s.

"For 25 years there's been this mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats," he said. "He could be tied up pierside somewhere or he could be on the bridge of a merchant ship," Hoffman said.

Wow, international man of mystery for 25 years? Who would have thunk. And apparently the man has targeted not only cargo ships, but US Navy ships as well. There is though, speculation that this may not be just one man but several of them involved in a copycat prank. But I could have sworn that the man we heard repeatedly on our Aegean sailing was just one man, popping up every other hour.

So there you go. If you ever find yourself traversing through the Strait of Hormuz, or the Aegean Sea and hear this absurd message repeated over and over, you'll know that you've been blessed with the rantings of the elusive, almost mythical "Filipino Monkey" man.

Update: Oh my goodness! Nearly 800 news items on the Google news search on "Filipino Monkey" already. And just check out some of the headlines -

Did ‘Filipino monkey’ nearly spark Gulf clash?

Filipino Monkey Started Naval Confrontation with Iran


And this satirical headline from Wonkette:

'Filipino Monkey' Nearly Tricks America Into World War III

Oh, "Filipino Monkey" man, you cheeky monkey you. Look what you've done now - you've made the real monkeys almost have a catfight.


Blogger Rimi said...

But this is incredible, Swati! Only a few days ago my greataunt and I were talking about how hoaxes have become difficult to pull with every manner of tracking and decoding devices these days, and greatly enhanced communication systems. And then you go and discover this Stuntmaster Bob for me, who has been pulling the wool on 25 years now. Who would have thunk indeed.

Still and all, with those textbook "boy's adventure tales" nautical settings you were in, encountering an elusive legend, however dubious, is quite something. When we're recovering from WW-III, what a story you shall have to tell.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in my best Ramsay brother voice: slow ly now

I yam caaming to youoooooooooo
you will explooooooooode in 2 minutesssssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!

1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is totally hilarious - I heard the tape of the SOH incident and knew something was weird about the voice, but did not connect the dots until saw Navy Times article about "Filipino Monkey" and the memory light came on. As a junior Naval Officer on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean during the late '80s was treated to this (or several) crazy characters who chanted "Filipino Monkey" hour after hour all night, every night, on Channel 16. He seemed to be all over the Mediterranean from Gibralter to Haifa. Our pet theory that he was a KGB agent who's job it was to harass all users of Channel 16 since no one could possibly take it on their own to spend so much effort.
Now that USSR is out of business, and this is apparently an Arabian Gulf phenomena as well, have no idea who is really behind it.

Very amusing to find something so weird and seemingly inconsequential become a world media story !

11:58 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Rimi: Isn't it amazing? And you're right, I just feel like I was in this really cool adventure that has all the makings of an international mystery a la Bond.

Anon1: Ha ha ha! Oh, and as others have noted, that accent isn't Iranian by a long shot - not even close. To hear the true Iranian accent, listen to the Iranian Navy video -

" Theees eees they Iranian Navy paatrol sheeeep" :)

Anon2: Great comment. And how cool that you were a Naval officer. So the theory was that this is a KGB guy? That would make so much sense. But I guess it isn't, because he (or all of them) are still very active in the region.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

This is brilliant!

2:00 PM  

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