Spring 1994 (2.1)
When Words Fail
The Notion of "Refugee" and the Theory of Translation
by Galib Mammad
It was my first experience as an official interpreter - October 1992. I had been given the responsibility of translating for members of an international relief team who were on a "fact-finding mission" to view the living conditions of refugees in Azerbaijan. It was on this assignment that I first began to doubt what I had been taught at the university about translation theory. My professors had convinced me that it was possible to translate any and every concept into another language. I believed this; I had no reservations.
But I soon began to question if it were really possible to adequately translate the concept of "refugee" to others who, sympathetic though they might be, really were not aware of many cultural implications. Were I to meet my professors today, I would suggest that maybe the notion of "refugee" just doesn't fit such a theory as there are some experiences too deep and too painful for other individuals to fully comprehend; too much gets lost in translation because of different cultural expectations.
For example, how do you translate the tragedy of a refugee mother, who has spent most of her life successfully managing a home, and then her child or elderly parents die in the terrifying flight from everything known-home, family, friends, and community? How do you translate the shame of a father-the traditional provider-whose family now lives exposed to the elements with hardly a shelter over their heads? My professors had taught me everything, but they had failed to teach me this.
So there we were-me and my international guests-on our way to the region of Gazakh approximately 500 kilometers west of Baku, an area considerably distant from the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the conflict with Armenians had been concentrated prior to that year.
Gazakh is a beautiful region. In Azerbaijan, if something is beautiful, we say, "Allah created it when He was free and had nothing else to do." Such a description fits Gazakh and its people-they are products of His mercy and glory. The people are very warm and sincere. The nature is peaceful and serene.
Photo: World War II veteran driven from home in Kafan, Armenia in 1989. At the Azerbaijani/Armenian border near Zangelan.
Photo: Oleg Litvin.
We arrived at a village just as the sun was beginning to set behind the mountains-mountains, which used to be a source of pride for many centuries but now had become the object of fear and hatred. From behind these mountains and their peaks, the enemy's missiles had rained down on them, killing their sons and daughters, destroying their schools and houses.
But for me, the most disturbing sight was not the destruction, nor even the sorrow of the people. I had already seen so much of that. Somehow when you see too much suffering-too much tragedy, you become numb. At first, the pain is sharp and you're not ashamed of your tears, but later everything changes. Somehow you get used to war.
But what shocked me the most that evening was the children. At first glimpse, everything seemed normal. They were running around, playing noisily, offering us apples and pears. Some were smiling; others, crying. But when I gathered them into my arms and sat them on my knee, that's when I saw the difference.
It was their eyes-the eyes of these small, innocent creatures. They were like-transfixed-wide open, as if frozen in a permanent expression of fright. Their eyes had become home to fear - not the usual ocean of calmness and security. Tragically, these were the eyes of children who knew war. How do you describe the paralysis of fear on a child's face?
Later as we were walking through that Gazakh village looking at the destroyed homes, talking with these distraught people, an old man of about 70 years, approached us. His home had been almost totally demolished.
He spoke and I interpreted. But this old man was not grieving the home he had lost, nor his son who had been killed. Not at that moment. No, his sorrow was of a different nature.
You see, these foreigners who had come from so far away were "guests" for him. And for the first time in his life, guests had arrived and he was not able to offer them his home. He could not extend the hospitality that his ancestors had proffered for centuries. He had no home. Strangely, he did not curse the enemy who had caused this destruction. He was simply deeply ashamed that he had no home to offer his guests-a cultural expectation that he had always been able to fulfill. This was a great loss and it pained him deeply.
Let me explain. Azerbaijani people are famous for their hospitality. In rural areas, families own their own homes which include a large yard. Surrounding their property, there are walls - traditionally one or two meters high, built of stone or wood. If you knock at any gate and enter the yard, even at two o'clock in the morning, no one will ask you who you are, or why you have come. If you knock and enter, then you are a guest. It is not culturally acceptable to inquire of a guest his reason for coming. You wait until he tells you.
There is a sacred rule among our traditions - a guest must be treated with the deepest respect and esteem. A guest becomes the master of the house. You stop your work and offer him everything. A single meal that you prepare may cost a month's wage. But you do it. Sometimes, you celebrate by slaughtering a lamb. In the provincial areas of Azerbaijan, a guest from America, Britain, or France may come only once in your lifetime. And you do everything to make it a memorable event just to honor him.
Such was the basis of this old man's grief. The rare opportunity of a foreign guest had come and he could not meet his own expectations; consequently, he felt shame and disappointment.
We drove southeast and visited refugee camps in Barda - a city of about 125,000 people in the central region of the country. At that time, refugees were being housed in hostels, schools and government buildings while houses were being built for them.
(Ed: Today the city is struggling to accommodate more than 90,000 refugees who live in any shelter they can find-including deserted railroad cars, forests, and even open fields along the highways.)
My guests wanted to tour a newly built camp so we found a new house under construction and as we were approaching from a distance, we saw a young man, about 25, outside in the yard. It was a hot, scorching day and he had taken off his shirt and was washing himself. As we approached, he raised his head, saw us, and without a single word of greeting, rushed into the house.
Though the house had no windows, the family was aware of our arrival and had already come out to greet us-that's another of our traditions. But this young man never did re-appear during our entire visit and my guests were puzzled.
Let me digress a moment. I'm 27 years old. I have never shaved in the presence of my father. This may seem strange, if not absurd, to any American or other Westerner. But don't rush to conclusions: try to understand. This is the way we Azerbaijanis live. I'm not ashamed of this; neither do I consider it old-fashioned.
If my father were to enter the room and I were without my shirt, I would immediately dress. This was how it was when I was 7, how it is now, and how it will be when I'm 47. And thus, to be without your shirt in the presence of neighbors or strangers is a great embarrassment. To be forced into those circumstances is tragic.
But back to my story. In this crowded, single room which served as dining room, bed room, and kitchen, all ten members of the family tried to tell their story at the same time.
Only one person remained silent-an old man-the father. From time to time, he would try to say something, but I could tell he was ashamed to speak in the presence of his family. But I knew exactly what he wanted to say and as none of the family members understood English, I took the advantage to explain to the foreigners what the old man dared not express.
You see, for a father to sleep in the same room with his daughters is not acceptable. To be unable to bring an end to such a situation is remorseful. The old man wanted to apologize for such circumstances.
In Azerbaijan, we use a metaphor to describe our elderly: we say, agh saggal (white bearded one) for an elderly man; and agh birchak (literally, one with white sideburns) for an elderly woman.
These terms signify that someone has lived a long life and, as such, deserves respect from younger generations. This person is a role model-someone you approach for advice, who personifies morality, who acts as final judge in difficult situations. And so it was that this old man felt inward shame for his situation. He had failed to meet up to the standards of the role in which he identified himself.
Let me relate one final incident. One day two Westerners were visiting one of the camps and came upon some women baking bread (lavash-a flat, thin sheet of bread). One of the refugee women rose and offered them some of the bread which she had cooked on her crude hearth on the ground.
The one foreigner, a doctor, smiled, but graciously declined the woman's offer. He had been working in the vicinity and knew the significance of that bread. He knew its caloric value, how difficult it had been for the family which had no source of income to purchase the wheat, to arrange for its milling, and to prepare it. So he refused as he didn't want to deprive anyone who might be hungry.
Then the refugee woman extended the bread to the foreign woman, and she, after hesitating a moment, smiled, stepped forward and accepted it. She, too, was conscious of the value of the bread.
Two Westerners: two drastically different responses - both based on what seemed logical from their own perspective. But with that simple gesture, the one symbolically rejected the humanity and dignity of those refugees who, accustomed to always showing hospitality to guests, had offered their ultimate gift to these strangers.
The woman, by accepting the bread, built a bridge into the hearts of dozens of people who stood round her. She would be remembered for a long, long time for her involvement in their lives. The rejection of the bread by the doctor, despite his gift of medicine, would never quite be understood.
You see, we have a tradition that we have honored for centuries in regard to "bread and salt" (duz chorek kasmak). If you share "bread and salt" (i.e., food) with someone, it means you expose your heart and soul to him. From that time onward, strong ties link you together. Neither you, nor that person is ever allowed to forget it. If ever hatred comes between you, you dare not shed blood because once you have shared "bread and salt", no one can trespass that confidence.
So to us, bread is not just calories or a source of nutrition, even when it is the main sustenance in our diets-as probably it was in the case of these refugees. In fact, it may have been their only food that day; nevertheless, when offered, it must be accepted, even if only a small corner is torn off and the rest passed on to others. It is a symbol of solidarity.
And thus, experiences like these have convinced me that I shouldn't assume translation is always possible when it comes to the concept of refugee, even when others see for themselves the people and situation I'm trying to describe. Culture is such an intimate part of our experience, it never deserts us even when we're stripped of everything familiar and wander homeless in our own native land.
From Azerbaijan International (2.1) Spring 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.