“I see myself as a very small bridge between cultures,” says Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi (Class of 1998), an AUP alumnus from the Emirates who came to international prominence during the Arab Spring when he “tweeted up a revolution” (The Guardian).
“This seismic event was taking place and there was a complete dearth of translation. I translated the first speech for fun and within hours, my Twitter followers had tripled from 3000 to 9000. To me, this was a clear indication that there was a genuine interest in the Middle East and its politics, not only from journalists, but from everyday people who might not know much about the region.” Over the course of a career, which has led him down many a path to any number of peoples, cultures, and countries, his global objective has remained the same: translation, in all of its forms. In this way, Al-Qassemi follows in the tradition of the majority of our alumni, whom we often refer to as cultural translators in their individual fields.
At the outset of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, having detected an unmistakable need, and without taking time off from his own articles and columns, Al-Qassemi sustained a frantic pace of tweeting speeches and news developments. “I felt compelled to fill the vacuum left by other news channels. There’d be a three-hour speech by an Arab leader and they’d sum it up in a sentence, when so much more had been said. For them, it wasn’t important to translate everything, but for me, everything needed to be documented and where better to do that than in a live translation on Twitter? If I had used another medium, like a blog, I wouldn’t have been able to do this literally minute by minute.”
The line between linguistic and cultural translation is not as strictly defined as it might seem. “Translation is one of the only ways that people can directly communicate with each other and understand one another’s cultures, so translators need to be bilingual and bicultural. You can’t say, I’ll translate what a French man from Lyon says in the same way that I’d translate what a French speaker from Mali says.” In fact, translation as mere linguistic exercise is irrelevant at best, harmful at worst. “We translate because the world is getting smaller and people are connecting with each other and we need to ensure that those connections happen. The role of the translator is crucial in the 21st century. A lot of the misunderstandings that have taken place in the last 20 years or so were at least partly due to miscommunication; people might not have been so offended if they’d understood the context.”
His passion for technology is directly linked to his enthusiasm for global exchange. “For me, technology has always been a portal to information, it’s a knowledge tool that has intrigued me over the last two and a half decades.” As a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, which in June, 2016 released a guide aimed at showing individuals, governments, and corporations how they might best use the Internet, he persists in his perennial role as cultural bridge, striving to create a space in which peoples and countries can safely meet and engage in dialogue. “We need to prevent the fragmentation of the Internet. You can’t have these isolated conversations, where Ugandans and Kenyans only talk to each other and Latin Americans only speak to other Latin Americans; it doesn’t work that way anymore.”
This thread extends into his work as a Fellow of the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research space that devotes itself to projects that merge technology, multimedia, the sciences, art, and design. “The Director, Joi Ito’s idea is that you don’t want all these super genius kids and faculty to work in a bubble. He’s chosen Fellows from different backgrounds and disciplines, in order to, hopefully, diversify and enrich the experience of the students and faculty, so that their research is applicable to the real world.” While passing on his own knowledge, he also absorbs a great deal from the students with whom he regularly meets. “When I see them digging deep into the human genome or trying to overcome the disabilities that human beings can experience, it renews my faith in humanity and in the world.” A bridge is only as useful as the people it helps draw together. Otherwise, it’s a bit like the tree that falls in the forest with no one around: poignant, to be sure, but perhaps not entirely relevant.
Six years ago, Al-Qassemi founded the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent initiative that manages, preserves, and exhibits his collection of Arabic art, in an effort to develop the region’s art scene and expose its artistic output to the international community. He describes the foundation as “an extension of my social commentary. It’s another way of tweeting or writing articles. I’m not an artist myself but I’ve been blessed with the ability to bring together these artworks and loan them to institutions around the world.” Despite the apprehension felt by many collections in the area about loaning out their work, the Foundation has gone a long way towards putting those fears to rest, while inspiring other tangible changes. “I see more people making websites, more collectors and collections willing to loan their works, more investments in literature about exhibitions, whereas before, exhibitions would come and go with, in some cases, almost no proof that they even happened.”
It’s in the very nature of translation that Al-Qassemi’s work is never quite finished: there will always be more groups with which to connect, more cultures to understand, more revolutions to publicize so that full and accurate accounts are not lost to history. As his endeavors overlap, serving as larger and smaller iterations of each other, the ways in which they make each other possible echo this sense of infinite prospect. “The money I make investing in global stock markets goes into buying art and I use my social media to disseminate and post information, which I also write about in different publications. All of the activities that I’m involved in are part of a virtuous circle.” The bridge that is Al-Qassemi continues to reach out, always hoping to find another person, waiting and willing, on the other side.