Lost with no translation

Who: me
What: the Middle East’s largest media event
Where: the Atlantis hotel in Dubai (you know, the one on the human-made island shaped like a palm tree)
When: a warm and humid morning in May
How: . . .


I walked into the conference with a confident stride.  Feeling fabulous in my black “I-am-serious-about-the-career-I-don’t-have” dress, Kenneth Cole heels and a Hermes scarf lent to me for the day by a dear dear friend (who lends out Hermes scarves anyway?).

I set my stuff down on a chair in the crowded hotel lobby so I could take a look at the program.  The lobby was filled with the who’s who of the Arab media world, after all the annual Arab Media Forum is the Middle East’s largest media event.  I had talked my way in to the free affair by spouting off some monologue about being a journalism student in the states and gently eluding (maybe adamantly stating) that I worked for my friend’s production firm in New York.  A little white lie never hurt.

A thorough examination of the program indicated that I had to pick one of three television workshops for the first session and then the rest of the sessions were to be held in the main ballroom (including one being patronized by…

———…Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and Vice-President, and Ruler of Dubai…

—————–– yup, they write that every time his name is mentioned in print:

———…Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and Vice-President, and Ruler of Dubai)…

IMG_0392I settled on a workshop entitled “Egyptian TV Channels: Will They Restore Glory to the Egyptian Media??” because what can go wrong when there are two question marks at the end of a sentence?

After a quick cup of coffee I located the breakout room, showed my conference badge at the door and found a seat.  The talk didn’t start for another 20 minutes so I took some time to read through the remainder of the program and text a friend who was most likely sitting in her office.

I looked at my watch: five minutes until this thing gets started.

I wonder if this will be in English?

Wait, where did that thought come from?  Of course it will be in English…right?

Time to use a lifeline.  I’m going to text a friend.

“Do you think this will be in English?” I write and hit send.  Message sent.

IMG_1031I glance around and notice for the first time that I am one of only six women in the room – one of which is on the stage as a presenter.  I also notice that every one of the sixty people looks Arab.

“I would think so,” says the text in response.


Then a follow-up text appears.  “But you never know…”

Damn.  Two minutes to go.  If I have any chance of sneaking out with my ego still intact I would have to make my move soon.

I know Arabic is the official language of Dubai and the UAE and the entire Middle East, but practically everyone speaks English here.  Seymour Hersch is speaking later and I’m pretty sure he is not fluent in Arabic…or is he?  And didn’t I see a couple other Americans in the list of presenters…?

Static in the speakers interrupts my thoughts as the room falls silent.  The panel of five presenters settles into their chairs.  The moderator steps onto the low stage and raises the microphone to his lips.

IMG_1909I wish I could type what he said, but I can’t – because it was all in Arabic.  I waited for the translation, but everything that followed was also in Arabic.  Every word – Arabic.  I casually glance to my left and see a room full of people listening intently.  My chances of escape now are less than slim.

“It’s in Arabic.  No translation.  What do I do?!” I quickly type and shoot the text out.

I should probably tell you where I am sitting in the room.  Front and center.  Okay, not first row middle seat, but pretty damn close.   One row back and four seats from the center.  There are lovely fluent Arabic speakers on my left, my right, and for rows behind me.  In front of me is another full row of these fantastic Arabic speakers.  I’m surrounded by people who know exactly what is going on here.  They understand every last word.

“Sit with a pretty Arab smile and meditate,” says the return text.

IMG_1970I’m not sure how a pretty Arab smile differs from a pretty American smile, but I pull it off.  For the next 90 minutes I sit and listen.  Listen to the presenters and the moderator.  Listen to the audience as I pass the microphone from the man asking a question of the panel on my right to the woman waiting to ask her question on my left.  I nod at times that seem appropriate and smile when the audience responds to a statement with laughter.  I perfect the art of being studiously attentive.

At the end of the talk I applaud the panel and slowly gather my belongings to leave the room.

Once I leave this room I can pretend none of this happened.  Not one of these thousands of people will even know.  I can go through the next two days without being “that girl.”

IMG_1634I find the main ballroom, which is conveniently enough the location of all the remaining sessions.  I ask the woman in the abaya scanning my badge at the door if there will be a translator available for this talk and she hands me a set of headphones and tells me to switch to channel two for English.

“Were these available for the last sessions?”  I hesitantly ask.

“No.  Not for the workshops.  Only for main ballroom,” she responds in nearly perfect English.

I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I didn’t just put myself thorough all of that for nothing.  In actuality though, it was a good experience.  As is the case with most Americans I can only speak one language, but even though I travel a lot and only speak English (and un poco Espanol) I am rarely in a situation in which I am left completely in the dark.  We should all be in the dark sometimes.  I think it’s good for our constitution.

IMG_2046The subsequent talks go off without a hitch and the handy headphone translator is oh so helpful.  A couple of the sessions, I find, are even in English (I was right Seymour Hersch does not speak Arabic).

I will pretend that nothing was amiss with the morning session.

An attractive man introduces himself to me at one of the next talks and we meet up later in the afternoon for lunch.  As we sit down to enjoy a beautifully catered spread he sparks up some conversation.

“Let me ask you,” he says.  “I saw you first at the workshop on Egyptian TV in Arabic.  Then I meet you in next session and you use translator.”

I swallow my bite of Arabic bread dipped in hummus.  Crap.


How did he recognize me?

“I do not understand,” he presses.  “Do you speak Arabic or not?”

A pretty Arab smile spreads across my face.

“Well…” I begin.



  1. Brian Schwarz said,

    August 24, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    “Silly American infidel,. Hahahahaha. …….Silence!!!!, I kill you.”

    At least you were able to dime yourself out for it. It does make me smile thinking about you sitting in the lecture nodding and laughing at all the jokes and makeing gestures to your neighbor like, “yeah buddy, that was funny wasn’t it”, as if you were living out a Seinfeld episode….. Good one.

    Now that you’re back stateside it would be nice to get a little facetime, nudge nudge.

  2. Lisa Brouelette said,

    August 24, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    “Crap”…LOL…that is funny! You know…it almost never works to hide when you most want to.

  3. Albert Rizk said,

    September 14, 2009 at 4:08 am

    he he he I like it the Arabic smile is so different than the american one ???
    I believe it was on beautiful smile .
    let me know if you continued or only began …

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