Lost in Translation

This is a personal story. Few years ago I stood on the Olive Mountain, facing the old city of Jerusalem. There is an observation point there, and usually it is crowded with tourists, coming to Jerusalem from all over the world. That day wasn’t different. I found myself in the middle of a Swedish group, all with big black cameras and Scandinavian accent. Most of the Swedes were fascinated by the ancient walls and the massive cube of the Temple Mount, but one of them found another object of interest.

A bunch of Arab kids from a nearby village played next to the Swedish group. One of them had a toy – a cardboard airplane – that he threw around, laughing. The tourist recognized a great photo op, second only to the blue eyed Afghan girl in the National Geographic magazine – an oriental child with a toy plane in front of one of the holiest places in the world. He waved to catch the kid’s attention and then started a conversation based on spontaneous sign language.

I was born in a European country, so I understood what he intended to say. I grew up in Israel, so I understood the kid’s answers. But both of them, unable to see that they came from different societies, different civilizations, didn’t understand the other – but thought they did.

And so, the tourist said: “you will stand over here, and point the plane at me. I will count to three and take a picture”. Only the kid heard something different. He was especially confused by the gesture of pointing the plane at the tourist. He asked: “do you really want me to stand over there and throw the plane at you when you will count to three?” And the happy tourist said “yes”, proud that he managed to have a conversation with a local. The kid looked at his friends, amazed by this “majnoon” – crazy man.

Then they took positions, the tourist holding his camera and the kid pointing his plane. “One”, the tourist lifted a figure. “Two”, the kid’s friends moved closer in disbelief. “Three”, and the plane hit the tourist’s face.

The kids ran away, not forgetting to pick up the toy. The group walked back to the bus. And only the tourist stood there, sad and insulted, but most of all – surprised. Why did it happen? Did he do something to offend the kid? He didn’t deserve this…

One can only wonder how this incident influenced his views about the ME, but it probably did and not for the better. Maybe he still sits at home sometimes, somewhere near Stockholm, thinking about it during the long Swedish evenings.

And this happens all the time – not the plane throwing but the ignorance (or arrogance) to think that everybody are just like me, are thinking just like me. He didn’t have a clue – and probably still doesn’t – that the kid heard something completely different, that the kid lives in a different world, by different values and with different perceptions. It happens at the personal, the professional and the national level, time and again. And time and again western people, organizations and countries, with the best intentions, trying to help, to impose some policy to bring peace and prosperity to this troubled ME (“Hey! This time it must work!”). Time and again they fail.

You can’t win a football game playing chess. You can’t make people understand without understanding them. And we all know what they say about good intentions.


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