Jewish Journal

From Their Lips to Our Ears

MEMRI's translations bridge the gap between the West and the inner worlds of Arab and Islamic countries.

by David Margolis

Posted on Jan. 17, 2002 at 7:00 pm

A Palestinian youth throws a tear gas canister back at Israeli soldiers during clashes in the West Bank City of Ramallah, Jan. 11. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

A Palestinian youth throws a tear gas canister back at Israeli soldiers during clashes in the West Bank City of Ramallah, Jan. 11. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Writing about the breakdown of the Oslo process in the October issue of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz was able to quote liberally from Egyptian and Palestinian newspapers. Not being an Arabic speaker, Podhoretz's access to this material came by way of translations made by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

Political pundits Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman and A. B. Rosenthal have also recently cited Washington-based MEMRI for material from Arabic-language sources that they used in their columns. So have writers in The New Yorker Magazine, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many other periodicals.

Little known just a few months ago, MEMRI now seems poised to become a crucial player in satisfying the needs of the United States for a fuller comprehension of Arab and Islamic societies in the wake of the September terrorist bombings.

Who and what is MEMRI? Founded by Yigal Carmon, a counterterrorism consultant to the Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin governments, the organization aims, in Carmon's words, to "mirror the Arab world" by accurately translating current texts from its media and culture.

"The Arabs are living in two different worlds," Carmon explained. "Their inner world is in Arabic. Those who interface with the West speak in a different language, literally and figuratively, and with different content. We want to bridge the gap between the West and the inner world of Arab and Islamic countries."

In Carmon's view, Islamic and Arab societies have greatly benefited until now by maintaining an isolation from Western monitoring.

"But now that The New York Times and the Washington Post pick up what is written in the Egyptian press -- that the Zionists are at fault for the bombing in New York, for example, or that the United States is dropping poisoned food to Afghan civilians -- the Arabic media will have to change," he added. "There's no way for them to go on as they have. MEMRI united their world. And not to their happiness."

MEMRI has scored a number of important coups in the last few months. Directly after the Sept. 11 bombings, it publicized an interview, directed to the Arab world, in which Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Al-Gamei'a -- the Al-Azhar University representative in the United States and imam of New York's Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque -- blamed the Jews for the terrorist attacks, adding that "if the Americans knew that the Jews carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, they would do to them what Hitler did."

Carmon said the sheikh had previously seemed a reliable and benign source of information for U.S. journalists.

MEMRI also broke the controversial story on the interview in which the late Faisal Husseini, long regarded as a Palestinian moderate, asserted that peace negotiations with Israel were only a tactic, and that the Palestinians aimed at creating an Arab state in all of Mandate Palestine. Although doubts were raised about the accuracy of the interview soon after Husseini's death, Carmon insisted that the Arab paper that published the interview has a tape of it and noted that no evidence was ever produced that Husseini had been misquoted.

Not only is the mainstream Western media using MEMRI's material, according to Carmon, but so is Ha'aretz, Israel's left-leaning newspaper-of-record. This opens the possibility for more accurate appraisals by the Israeli public of Israel's neighbors.

Whether in Israel or the United States, Carmon said, "this is a great achievement. Three years ago, no one cared what the Arabs were saying in Arabic."

This was partly self-serving ignorance, he added, speculating that the truth might have conflicted with accepted policies and conventional wisdom. "But today, you can hardly find a columnist who is not proud to be in the know."

Carmon has appeared on talk shows on Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television station that has been called the Arabs' CNN. His interlocutors acknowledge the accuracy of MEMRI's translations, he said, and argue only with his interpretations. At the same time, MEMRI receives hate mail from people in the West who read the translations and conclude that MEMRI is anti-Semitic and pro-Taliban.

Carmon insisted that MEMRI's coverage is "absolutely balanced," not aimed at selectively making the Arabic media look bad. If it does not always seem so, that is because there is "so little material in the Arab press that has a different point of view -- so little that is positive."

Nonprofit and independent, MEMRI has no political agenda, he insisted. "We are not doing propaganda," Carmon said. "We are not hired by anyone. Our aim is to provide information."

However, MEMRI deals with highly politicized issues, making its work implicitly political. Moreover, beyond accurate translation, it offers analyses and interpretations -- that is, opinions. Occasionally, to make its pro-Israel point, it goes beyond the Arabic media.

In late October, for example, it distributed a translation of military analyst Ze'ev Schiff's Ha'aretz column arguing against the notion that the Sept. 11 attacks were a consequence of U.S. policy in the Middle East. On Sept. 3, it distributed prominent Israeli dove Shlomo Avineri's soul-searching op-ed piece in Ha'aretz on the left's refusal to admit the failure of the Oslo process.

Nonetheless, Carmon believes that MEMRI is not part of any Jewish lobbying effort. "We have no Jewish agenda, no Israeli agenda," he declared. "The Israeli-Arab conflict is not our focus."

Currently preparing a report on textbooks in Arab countries, for example, MEMRI does not need to concentrate on Arab attitudes toward Jews and Israel in order to demonstrate how alien a reality most Arabic speakers inhabit, Carmon said.

Their textbooks and press are full of "crazy material on, say, social issues and women's rights," he said, as well as "racist stuff about Jews -- nose-measuring, Nazi stuff that was already scientifically discredited 50 years ago."

MEMRI's growth has been swift. It now has a worldwide staff of 17, plus translators. Its Washington, D.C., headquarters provides translations to legislators, journalists and other opinion makers. The organization also maintains branch offices in Israel, where the raw material from the Arabic-speaking world is most easily available, and in London, where translations into French and Spanish are disseminated.

MEMRI expects to open a Berlin branch soon, publishing German translations, and it has plans to include Italian in the near future. "That will do it," said Carmon, meaning that MEMRI's work will then be accessible to virtually all literate people in the Western world.

While some of MEMRI's $1.3 million budget comes from what Carmon refers to as "foundations," with some money donated by non-Jews, MEMRI's main funder is an anonymous Los Angeles philanthropist, whose international business interests "make him want to be circumspect" about his connection to the organization, Carmon said.

To disseminate its translations and analyses, MEMRI operates an active Web site at www.memri.org  and provides its material free of charge by e-mail subscription to anyone. The e-mail list, Carmon said, currently numbers 10,000 and is growing at the rate of "hundreds of requests a day." The Web site is being strengthened with a search engine so that users can do research on it.

A native Israeli and an Arabic speaker, Carmon was a colonel in Israeli military intelligence before his counterterrorism work with the Israeli government. More recently, he was partners with Itamar Marcus, a U.S. immigrant to Israel, in a now-defunct organization called Palestinian Media Review.

When Carmon left Palestinian Media Review to found MEMRI, Marcus inaugurated Palestinian Media Watch www.pmw.org.il . Although the two organizations overlap somewhat in their agendas, Marcus focuses on analyzing and understanding Palestinian society, while MEMRI emphasizes translations and analysis out of the larger Arab and Islamic world.

Clean-shaven, with short-cropped, white hair and an easy smile, Carmon is clearly pleased with what MEMRI has accomplished so far.

"I'm proud that the Arab world is now represented by itself, by what they actually say, by primary sources that people can read for themselves," he stressed. "The truth is compelling."

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