From a war of words to speaking his 'peace'

Mubarak's interpreter reflects on his Hebrew broadcasting career and loses nothing in the translation.

dr. ali hassan 298.88 (photo credit: )
dr. ali hassan 298.88
(photo credit: )
SHARM E-SHEIKH, Egypt - For the first years of his radio career Dr. Hassan Ali Hassan broadcast the message of war against Israel in Hebrew. Now, the man who studied renowned author A.B. Yehoshua "to know thy enemy" uses his mastery of the Biblical language to bring a message of peace to the Israeli public. On Sunday, during the joint press conference of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Hassan's low voice translated Mubarak's words from Arabic to a beautiful flowing Hebrew for millions of Israelis to understand. It is a job Hassan, 60, does with a passion. He loves Hebrew, a language which he began studying at Ein-Shams University in Cairo in 1963 because he was curious about his enemy. "At that time the tone was one of war," recalled Hassan, speaking in Hebrew during an interview with The Jerusalem Post before the press conference. "The government radio broadcasts were saying how we as Arabs could destroy Israel very quickly; that Israel could not continue to exist. During that time I was a student. I felt like the rest of the Arab public because the government told us so. But I was curious about Israeli society. I wanted to know who are these people." Little was available except for government propaganda. By learning Hebrew Hassan was able to follow Israeli media and learn more about the "other side." The year he graduated from university his suffered a devastating defeat in the Six Day War. It was then he began his Hebrew-language radio career working at Kol Kahir (Voice of Egypt in Hebrew). "Those were very different days," he said. "For us the results of the war were a catastrophe." Hassan began broadcasting the government's new message. "The basic principle was that what was taken with power will be returned with power," he said. "We could not accept the continuation of the Israeli occupation and we had to continue to prepare to liberate our land." Lingual fluency was not enough for Hassan, who wanted a greater depth of understanding of Israeli society. He did a master's degree with his thesis focusing on "concepts and understandings of conflict and peace in the writings of A.B. Yehoshua." Meanwhile, he worked his way up in the Egyptian Broadcasting Authority. He served as director of Kol Kahir and later as the chairman of the foreign languages department of the EBA's radio service. His broadcasts changed radically after the Yom Kipput War, which Egypt considers a success. "We said [after the war] we want to achieve a diplomatic accord through a peace agreement and normalization," recalled Hassan. "It was a realistic tone that recognized and respected both sides' right to exist. It also recognized the rights of the Palestinians to have a state." It took another few years before he had his first opportunity to speak with a native in the language he had studied and used for so long. "I don't remember the person, but I remember the event," he said with a smile. "There was a meeting in 1976 about the transfer of bodies of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the 1973 war. I spoke with Israeli correspondents. I felt there was the opportunity for connecting... that this situation of war cannot continue." Hassan's obsession with Hebrew continued. At Cairo University he successfully defended his PhD thesis: a linguistic comparison of the conjugation of Hebrew and Arabic verbs in the Torah and the Koran. One of his most satisfying accomplishment was in helping establish Egypt's Hebrew language satellite station, Arutz Hanilus (the "Nile Channel") in 2002. Although the station broadcasts from 6-8 p.m. every day, most Israelis are unaware of its existence. But Hassan speaks of it with pride. "We are trying to pass on in Hebrew, to the average Israeli, our stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Hassan. "We also want to open a window to the Israeli citizen about Egypt: Egyptian culture, history, civilization, antiquities and as a land of investment [opportunities]." Unlike Egyptian broadcasters in other languages, the Hebrew-language TV and radio teams have no native speakers with whom to practice. "We speak in the office among ourselves in Hebrew in order to keep up the language," revealed Hassan. "That way my friend can correct me if I use a wrong word or pronounce something wrong." The Hebrew teams follow the Israeli media through TV, radio and Internet. "You are for us the guide - both written and oral," he said. "Through you we know the developments of Israeli society... Reading the press I understand that the majority of the Israeli people are now against the occupation after 39 years." Although he retired in December, Hassan was happy to continue to fulfill his role as Mubarak's interpreter, a role he took on in the 1990s when Israelis and Egyptians began holding joint press conferences. "I am the official, the chief, and the only translator for President Mubarak at these events," he said. "Now I talk about how to prepare the situation to obtain peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians." He has not only translated Mubarak's words into Hebrew, but he has also translated Ezer Weizman's, Ehud Barak's and Ariel Sharon's words into Arabic. His favorite was Weizman. "Weizman, may his memory be blessed, was a sweet man, close to the Egyptians, in touch with the feelings of the Arabs. He had a sense of humor. I felt close to him," he said simply.