Interpreter Is Valued Colleague on Reporter’s Journey

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 14, 2005 3 min read
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Editor’s Note: Education Week Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr is on assignment in Jordan to report on the education system of this strategically located country in the Middle East. During her two-week visit, which began April 1, she will also be filing occasional reports for

Yasmine Mousa is one of an estimated 900,000 Iraqis who have moved to Jordan in the past few decades. She, her husband, and three children moved here about two years ago, after the U.S.-led war began in Iraq in March of 2003.

As my interpreter during my two-week stay in Amman, Yasmine is my bridge to the language and culture of this society.

I credit her with most of what I’ve learned about schools in Jordan; only one of the principals at the six public schools I visited here spoke fluent English. For my conversation with the other principals and countless students and teachers, Yasmine has stayed next to me, interpreting practically every utterance.

Yasmine has the curiosity of a journalist and is interested in education in Jordan. She sends her one school-age son to one of Amman’s best private schools. Most people here who can afford it send their children to private schools.

Yasmine has been surprised by some of the evidence that points to the quality in Jordan’s public schools, which are called government schools. All of the schools we visited have computer labs. Some of them are attended by the children of university professors or other professionals. Previously, Yasmine told me, she thought the government schools served only the children of working-class people, such as taxi drivers.

As interpreter for Zehr during her two-week stay in Amman, Yasmine Mousa has been a bridge to the language and culture of Jordanian society. Mousa is one of an estimated 900,000 Iraqis who have moved to Jordan in the past few decades.

But seeing some of the educational resources available to Jordanian students has made Yasmine sad about the state of education in Iraq. She says that Saddam Hussein destroyed the school system there, which was once among the best in the Middle East. Even her Jordanian landlady tells her that Iraqis are known as “the people of science and knowledge,” Yasmine told me.

“Damn Saddam,” she has said often of the ousted Iraqi leader in our time together. “I blame him for everything that happened.”

But she doesn’t like the way the U.S. government has handled matters, either, since the defeat of the old regime. For example, she says it was a mistake for the American-led coalition to disband the Iraqi army. But like many Arabs, Yasmine makes a distinction between the U.S. government and Americans themselves. She treats me warmly.

We’ve shed tears together when she talks of people in her family who were killed in the war. Yasmine said she lost an uncle and aunt and neighbors.

“We didn’t want to leave,” she said of her family’s move here from Iraq. But when abductions of Iraqis became common, she and her husband decided they’d had enough. They feared they’d lose one of their children in an abduction. They left a fine home and cars behind, she said.

Now they live in a tidy, sunlit apartment in Amman. Yasmine, who was trained as an engineer, works as a fixer, or a person who schedules interviews, and interpreter for an American foreign correspondent. She was born in Istanbul and lived for a while in England as a child. Hence she is fluent in English. But she’s lived most of her 45 years in Iraq.

Not only has Yasmine interpreted for my interviews, but she’s also made numerous phone calls to set up interviews, reschedule them, or offer apologies when we are running late. She’s explained to principals my goals of wanting to see normal classes—not ones enhanced for my visit. She’s mediated during school visits when several Jordanians wanted to get a point across to me at the same time.

She’s given me tips on how to act in the local culture. For example, just before we interviewed a traditional Muslim man, she instructed me to put on my jacket. Layers of clothing signal modesty here. Yasmine, who is Muslim but doesn’t believe it’s necessary to cover her head, also put on a jacket. We sweated together through the hour-long interview.

She’s also been a friend to me in a strange city—checking in on me in the evenings by telephone and taking me out for coffee on the weekend.

Yasmine’s parents and sister still live in Baghdad. Yasmine suffers daily, worrying about their safety.

I feel closer to the conflict in Iraq after hearing Yasmine’s stories.

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