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BRASILIA, May 10 2005 (IPS) - South American and Arab leaders taking part in the two-day summit that opened Tuesday in the Brazilian capital were facing a serious risk of not being able to understand each other – literally.
The problem was the dearth of experienced Arabic interpreters in Brazil, one of the most difficult glitches that the organisers of the Summit of South American-Arab countries had to overcome.
The solution was to “import” interpreters. In the end, the coordinator of the simultaneous interpretation services at the summit, Simone Troula, found 26 Arabic language interpreters, only three of whom are from Brazil.
Through her contacts as a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters, Troula hired 22 interpreters from Cairo, one of whom works in Geneva and another in New York. The 23rd foreign interpreter is from Argentina.
The three Brazilians were hired even though they had no experience in international conferences of this magnitude.
“Imagine the disaster that the summit would have been without simultaneous interpreting from Arabic to Portuguese and Spanish and vice versa,” Troula commented to IPS, blaming the difficulty in finding interpreters on the fact that this is the first-ever summit between leaders from South America and the Middle East.
The challenge of finding interpreters reflects the distance between two regions which nevertheless have much in common, said Argemiro Procopio, professor of international relations at the University of Brasilia.
“The beauty of this summit, an undertaking that is more than commendable, is that it is an important step towards overcoming a mutual lack of familiarity,” he said.
That distance is surprising given that between 16 and 17 million people of Arab descent live in South America, including around 12 million in Brazil alone, said Michel Alaby, secretary-general of the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce.
Procopio pointed out that the Lebanese community in Brazil is two to three times the size of the entire population of Lebanon itself.
Most South American cultures have felt a strong Arab influence, as demonstrated by a photo exhibit, one of the activities held parallel to the summit.
But that is not only a result of immigration, said Procopio, who noted the “indirect influence” from the original colonists from Spain and Portugal, two countries that were heavily influenced by Arab culture in past centuries.
Many Brazilians are aware that the remittances sent home by Brazilian migrants living and working in countries like Japan and the United States exceed the revenues generated by several of the country’s main export products, but few know that remittances from Lebanese immigrants in Brazil are helping to rebuild Beirut, he added.
The problem is that there are no reliable figures for the total amount of remittances sent by immigrants in Brazil to their families in Lebanon.
The flow of remittances between this region and Lebanon is actually a cause of concern for the U.S. government, which suspects that the tri-border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together, home to a large Arab community, is a source of funding for international terrorist activities, said Procopio.
Trade between Brazil and the countries of the Arab world amounted to 8.19 billion dollars last year, five percent of Brazil’s total trade revenue.
But while people in Arab countries drink Brazilian coffee and consume Brazilian honey, most of it is imported from Germany, Italy and other European countries, where the products have been processed.
This week’s summit provides an “excellent opportunity” for Arab countries to begin importing South American products “directly from the source,” said Procopio.
Brazil mainly imports oil and petroleum by-products from the Middle East, but that is changing now, since South America’s giant will soon be self-sufficient in oil and natural gas itself.
“It isn’t oil that has triggered South America’s interest in stronger ties with the Arab world,” said the professor, who pointed out that half of the countries in South America export oil or natural gas.
“The most important thing is renewing and strengthening cultural ties and raising awareness among people in the two regions that they have much in common and a great deal to gain from increased cooperation,” he said.
For that reason, he argued, the summit is “decades late in coming.”
“A forging of closer cultural and spiritual ties” that should extend to other fields, like trade, is the aim of this week’s summit, said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
According to the minister, the summit is already a success due to the simple fact that it is being held.
He also pointed to the participation of 1,250 entrepreneurs in the business seminar and fair held simultaneously with the summit, including 250 from the Arab world, 700 Brazilians and 300 from the rest of South America.
Besides the language and cultural differences and the sheer distance that separate South America and the Middle East, the members of the business community expressed concern over the shortage of transport between the two regions.
There are few sea routes and no direct flights, and communications and cargo traffic largely go through Europe.
The Arab countries participating in the summit organised by the Brazilian government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are Algeria, Bahrein, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The South American countries that have sent delegations, meanwhile, are Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.
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