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At a tense World Social Forum, an interpreter finds herself lost in translation

"If I were living in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn't be speaking to you today," she nearly shrieks in Spanish. "I would be a slave."

I feel sympathy for her onstage consecutive interpreter, calmly and monotonously following her in English. A couple of security guards the Jewish community brought along watch from the sidelines.

Rahola is whipping the crowd of a couple hundred people into a defiant frenzy. Particularly controversial statements are punctuated by audience members furiously waving the Palestinian flag.

A participant in January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil sends mixed messages.
photo: Irin Carmon
A participant in January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil sends mixed messages.

One questioner practically spits into the microphone what is easily the worst insult at the World Social Forum: "If President Bush were here," he says menacingly, "he would give you a medal of honor."

Kaufman tries to defuse the near riotous tension in the room. "Why are we importing the anger from the Middle East to Porto Alegre? We're supposed to be bringing a peaceful consensus back to our countries," he says. "The World Social Forum is not supposed to be a boxing ring for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

As the event disbands, I run into an elderly Argentine woman, a Hebrew-speaking Jew whose questions I interpreted yesterday.

"Did you see that they brought security staff?" she says indignantly.

I shrug. "I came late. Were they bothering anyone? It looked like they were just standing there."

"Bothering anyone?" she sputters. "Like I need them to treat me the way they treat the Palestinians!"

I think about her home country. I'd been in Buenos Aires only days earlier, in the library of the reconstructed Jewish center that was bombed a decade ago, killing 86. "I think as long as they're not bothering anyone, it's within the Jewish community's right to bring security staff," I say.

Her look of contempt as she leaves me is so acrid that I actually shudder.

On my final day, we interpreters compare notes. I'm slightly appalled, I say, by the trendy claiming of the Palestinian cause that I've seen all week: the slim Brazilian girls wearing checkered kaffiyehs as sarongs, the "Free Palestine" shirts vying with the longtime staple of Che.

But maybe every faction always wants to accuse the others of oversimplification.

This panel is about internal ethnic discrimination in the Israeli school system and the threat of school privatization. Read: not about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Turns out not to matter. After the presentation, a Palestinian delegate rises to comment.

It begins relevantly enough. "In the territories," he says in heavily accented English, "we barely have schools. They are tiny caravans that are like ovens, for thousands of children."

Soon, however, we're captive to a 20-minute rant about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and how Israeli discrimination has prevented Palestinians from having a proper sewage system. Everyone is squirming. No one is in charge, per Forum doctrine. And the bottom line is, no one in the room, anti-Zionist Israeli comrades included, wants to be the one to silence the Palestinian.

Having had enough, I tiptoe up and tap him on the arm.

"Sir. Can you please speak about education?" I whisper.

He frowns, momentarily snapping out of his zeal. "Education? Yeah. OK." He thinks. "The land that the Hebrew University was built on was stolen from the Palestinians!"

A plump Israeli anarchist in the front row whose fashion sense channels Nancy Spungen pauses between cigarette drags.

"Lost cause," she says.

Irin Carmon is a travel columnist for The Boston Globe and a senior at Harvard.

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