Interpretation, Perspective


At the NCTA February meeting, Iraqi interpreter Haitham Jasim was interviewed by Steven Goldstein and shared some of his experiences working for U.S. Forces in Iraq. BY SARAH LLEWLLYN

Haitham Jasim answers Steven Goldstein's questions.

Haitham Jasim answers Steven Goldstein's questions.

The first meeting of 2009, held February 7th, began with a presentation by NCTA President Tuomas Kostiainen of current Association data and was followed by the announcement of the results of the 2009 Board elections. Re-elected to the Board were Tuomas Kostiainen as President, Yves Avérous as Vice President, and Raffaella Buschiazzo and Sonia Wichmann as Directors. J. Mónica Pérez was newly elected as Director.

NCTA was honored to host special guest Haitham Jasim, an Iraqi engineer who worked in Iraq as an interpreter for the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps from 2005 to 2006. In 2006 he joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a project manager. Associating with the coalition forces placed Mr. Jasim in grave danger, however, and resulted in a bounty being placed on his head by his fellow Iraqis. Ultimately, with the help of his commanding officer, Mr. Jasim and his family were granted immigrant visas under the new visa category created for Iraqi and Afghan nationals working for the U.S. government. The family arrived in the U.S. in July 2008 and settled in San Jose. Mr. Jasim was interviewed by Steve Goldstein.
Steve began by asking Mr. Jasim how he first became aware of the fact that he might be able to get a job with the coalition forces and why this was of interest to him. Mr. Jasim explained that he had developed a curiosity about Americans after growing up watching American movies and he was particularly fascinated by the U.S. Marines, having read an article about them in Reader’s Digest. In Baghdad, he was aware that other Iraqis were working with the forces on the street as translators/interpreters, but was unsure how to go about applying for such a job himself. After graduating in 2005 with a degree in electrical engineering, he noticed a poster on the street requesting interpreters for the coalition forces. It was a pivotal moment in his life. His son had been born that morning and later that day he received a phone call from his brother announcing that their father had been killed. All of a sudden, Mr. Jasim had two families to support. Since he had an excellent command of English, he decided to apply.

Mr. Jasim’s interpretation duties were often conducted under very hostile conditions and part of his job was to gain the trust of the local people for whom he was interpreting. Steve asked him how he managed this and whether he was able to ascertain if people were telling the truth. Mr. Jasim explained that, unlike his commanding officer who had more experience in interrogation techniques, he could not necessarily tell if someone was being truthful. However, he would always try to establish an emotional connection with his countrymen and place himself in their position. He did not want to be thought of as “being against them.”
He was given four days off a month, when he would go home to his family. He had to keep the true nature of his work and the identity of his employer secret from friends and neighbors, and even from his own children. This was no mean feat. In Iraqi culture, it is normal to ask a lot of questions and expect all of them to be answered. Telling someone “it’s none of your business” is not an option in Iraq. In Mr. Jasim’s case, he would usually say that he worked as an engineer.
Steve wondered whether Mr. Jasim had encountered any unusual language challenges in the course of his duties. As it turned out, his first linguistic challenge occurred on an early medical mission involving a case of hemorrhoids. This presented a challenge to Mr. Jasim, who understandably had not yet encountered the term “hemorrhoids” in English.

Mr. Jasim noted that he had considered working as a translator or interpreter in the U.S. but for the moment he is too busy settling in. His children are adjusting well to school in the U.S., but it has been a more difficult transition for his wife, who misses her friends and her work as a human rights lawyer for the Iraqi government.
Did he see himself returning to Iraq at some point? Most definitely. The first people to help the country should be its own people, he explained.

When questions were opened to the floor, Mr. Jasim was asked if he wore a mask when he was in the field. He said that while this was the practice of some interpreters, he chose not to. For him, it was important to be open with your interlocutor and let him see your expression. Another audience member asked if the coalition forces understood the job of interpreting and whether he was well treated. Mr. Jasim said he considered himself very much a member of the U.S. army and was treated as an equal.
NCTA extends its warmest thanks to Mr. Jasim for this fascinating account of his service in Iraq. SL