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

We are Latin Americanist Hindi interpreters from the subcontinent, bespectacled Brazilian graduate students who served in the Israeli army, rangy Galician professionals fresh from the European Union's halls. We are Welsh-Egyptian pan-Arabists in feathered Panama hats, dainty U.N.-bound Lebanese, and Argentine French literary translators.

Well, that's who they are, some of my 500 fellow interpreters at January's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a progressive powwow 150,000 participants strong.

I, on the other hand, am an Israeli-born Jew living in the United States, with an elite education and an upper-middle-class background. Only a vote for Bush last fall would have completed my role as the consummate World Social Forum pariah.

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.

"So you're the enemy," laughs one interpreter.

Enemy or not, being an interpreter seems like the perfect way to participate in the anti-Davos while maintaining some neutrality. A couple of days before leaving for Argentina on a thesis research grant, I heard that the Forum was desperate for certain languages. Hebrew was on the list, and they would cover all expenses for a week in Brazil.

As a longtime fence-sitter, I figure I can weather the tough talk about Israel—to say nothing of the United States—that this will inevitably entail. So it's no surprise that my list of assigned events is laden with "Confronting Zionism: Bringing Together Global Movements Against Racism" and "Youth Caravan From the Arab Street." Clearly, it's gonna be a party for me and the two Brazilians on the Hebrew team.

Our closest allies, thanks to the scheduling, are the Arabic-language team. "We interpreters will have one solution to the Mideast conflict," one young Lebanese woman says graciously. At our first event, another borrows my mirror. "I love Estée Lauder!" she gushes.

That morning's panel on the racist foundations of Zionism is stalled by the fact that none of the interpreting equipment works—recurring theme—so we mostly sit around and try to help informally.

My Spanish comes in handy for two attendees who want to comment: a Mayan activist from Guatemala with gold teeth and traditional dress, a young Mapuche woman from Chile.

"We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause," I say slowly, translating their responses into English for the Palestinians. "We too had our land taken away by the colonial oppressors . . . "

Are interpreters allowed to comment? This isn't exactly the most formal setting, so later, as politely and diplomatically as I know how, I ask the panelists to clarify the applicability of the word "racism" to describe the Israeli discrimination against the Palestinians, since I think it doesn't encompass the multiple races, ethnicities, and religions at issue.

"I say racism because it's the kindest word I can use," replies a panelist from the West Bank. Her voice shakes. "I could use 'apartheid.' I could use 'genocide.' "

When she starts describing the effect of the separation wall on her life, she has to stop, because she's crying.

From that moment on, everyone onstage directs their comments—all of them—to me. They look me in the eye as they tell me what my country has done to their lives.

"Is it possible for a prisoner to love the prison guard?" asks one panelist, a kindly older Palestinian man. Surprisingly enough, the answer is yes. He tells the audience about his own experience in an Israeli prison befriending the man who guarded him, who reminded him of his father. Later, he tells me that I remind him of his daughter.

The handful of Israeli Jews at the Forum are proudly anti-Zionist. I meet one who grew up in a kibbutz after his leftist parents were forced into exile by the Argentine dictatorship. Radicalized by his army service during the Lebanon war, he says, "I went and joined the most far-left, out-there group I could find." He hands me a video called Anti-Zionist Jews and tells me I can find him at the Palestinian tent any time.

A few days later, sent to a debate on strategies against neoliberal globalization to do some emergency Spanish-English interpretation, I end up in the back, talking to another interpreter from an unidentified South American country.

"You're Jewish?" he asks, peering at the Hebrew label on my interpreter's tag.

I nod.

"But you're the nicest Jew I've ever met!" he exclaims.

English isn't his first language. Who knows what he really means?

Sure enough, "nice" has nuances. Gesturing toward my pale face and blue eyes, he explains: "I mean, I didn't know Jews could be good-looking. I thought they looked Semitic."

I spend my free time trying to find a panel that has nothing to do with the Middle East. It isn't easy to find an event of any kind that's actually happening at the appointed place and time. I wander through the crush of humid tents, between street vendors and impromptu marches of Hare Krishna and Trotskyists.

But I can't escape. The first tent with some action is an event sponsored by the local Jewish community, bringing together Bethlehem University executive vice president Manuel Hassassian and Edward Kaufman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Also present is a rare, rightward voice, Pilar Rahola, a Catholic journalist from Spain, who is defending Israel in fervent tones when I walk in.

"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.

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 forThe Boston Globe and a senior at Harvard.

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