Culture Clashes: No intepreters to be had

In the heart of London, in the overheated halls of a political office, I usually filled my strenuously long days with the usual parliamentary assistant work of booking travel, replying to correspondence, updating the schedule and writing speeches.

I was poised to take my morning notes of items urgently needing to be dealt with, when I was informed that I would be spending the next three days as an unofficial political attaché to an activist from the Middle East. She was in London to address a special committee regarding the threats of ISIS to minority communities, targeting them especially for their slave trade and ritual humiliation and torture. Since she was coming all the way to London to address various members of Parliament, religious leaders, embassy staff, leaders of various nonprofits and politicians with special interest in the Middle East and human rights, she had asked to spend her free time before her address receiving medical care. She needed someone to book and guide her to all her appointments, and she was willing to pay for the very best private clinics on arrival.

I was excited to meet her, and was also, I admit, eager to spend a few days walking around London in the May sunshine. The moment before this woman, whom I will call Miriam, was brought in for an introduction, I was informed that she spoke no English and that her first language was a minority language hardly even known in her home country outside of the borders of her people’s territories. The gist of how I was told to get around the language barrier was: “You are expressive, so be expressive. Or use Google translate.” All other questions, I was informed, could be answered by some of the other staff who had already met her and were more aware of her particular mission.

A brief chat with the only Middle Eastern employee in the office told me little, but enough: Miriam had given up her successful law career to join her country’s parliament, and had won the only seat awarded to a woman of her minority background. She served with passion and intensity, but felt shackled by ineffective measures to secure religious, minority and gender protection for her constituents, and so she did not run for re-election; instead, she set out alone. Or rather, with her husband. She created a clandestine network of people willing to smuggle phones to women taken as sex slaves by ISIS, and whenever she got a call she and her husband would drive into the desert in the pitch dark seeking girls who had fled slavery, sometimes finding them near death from exhaustion, abuse or from injuries sustained during their escape. She dragged family heirlooms out of her own house to make room for girls she was desperate to rehabilitate and reunite with their families. She, her husband and their intrepid undercover agents rescued hundreds of young women. The government of her country had yet to offer assistance in any substantial way, and so Miriam looked west. She was sponsored by a charity, along with six girls she had rescued, to come and beg the British to intervene immediately.

Miriam had had a career in law before she had been elected to public office, and she had done well in both. When I met her I found her warm and personable, even without truly being able to converse. As I led her to clinics I had booked in Chelsea, she offered me short, faltering sentences, but I understood the two major points she was trying to convey: that she would not rest until the thousands of sex slaves were rescued, and that she was desperate to conceive a child, but worried there was something wrong. Although I would never dream of doing such a thing with any of the other diplomats and politicians I had met in the course of my work, I took her hand and squeezed it without thinking. Miriam looked at me steadily and I saw in her face that she had complete faith that I would direct her to good physicians. The woman was facing cold, dangerous deserts crawling with violent men each week to save runaway slaves; the least I could do was find a doctor who could help her.

Health conversations

I had booked an appointment with a top Chelsea medical clinic specializing in women’s health, and had explained in advance that I was going to be accompanying a patient who was a guest of the British government who spoke a minority dialect but was also fluent in Arabic. I had been assured that the language barrier was not an issue, and that two days was sufficient time for an examination followed by tests. It was made clear to me that as long as the patient paid cash up front, that she ought to leave London with a diagnosis and the medical advice that would help her and her husband to have a child. On arrival, we sat on elegant white leather sofas, sipping sparkling water and feeling optimistic. When Miriam was called in, she beckoned me to follow, which earned us a small frown. Her doctor was brusque and elegant, and she told me that while she was informed the patient required a doctor to speak Arabic that none was available and we would have to conduct an examination and have the notes translated at a later time.

This small annoyance seemed manageable for the sake of a speedy examination, I thought, although I was silently irritated that we had been given a doctor who spoke English and Spanish, instead of the fluent Arabic speaker we had been silkily assured would be available. Miriam and the doctor went behind a privacy screen and I waited, reading work emails and planning a suitable place to get Miriam lunch. Within five minutes the doctor emerged and without waiting for Miriam to dress, she began to explain to me that Miriam had contracted herpes and that the infection had obviously been attacking her body for quite some time without treatment. I was not surprised, as I knew the women she rescued were riddled with venereal diseases caused by months of rape. Some also contracted hepatitis, tuberculosis and various skin conditions due to their horrendous lodgings. What I was surprised by was the doctor’s tone — she dismissed Miriam’s worries of infertility with a wave of a bejeweled hand, and said if she had only practiced “proper hygiene” that she should have been able to get pregnant within the two years she had been trying. I felt uncomfortable at this nonchalant dismissal and angry that she spoke as if Miriam was not in the room at all.

I was given a prescription for herpes medication, and an awkward silence settled around us as the doctor waited for us to rise and go. I got stubborn, and said I would like a referral to a doctor who could give Miriam a transvaginal ultrasound, to rule out any internal damage. The doctor condescendingly told me that if Miriam needed such an invasive exam she would have told me so herself. I looked her dead in the eye and said: she has two days to figure out everything about the state of her fertility, and I am not letting her leave London until this happens. I knew from my own struggle to get pregnant over the previous four years that a transvaginal ultrasound was the first step to ascertain the health of her ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus. Miriam clutched my arm, her eyes full of questions. I asked for a translated copy of her medical notes to be sent to me, and we left the chill of the clinic behind and went to the hospital.

In the hospital we waited not one hour, but two, as multiple people tried to see us without offering a translator (which again, I had been assured would be provided when I called en route to our appointment). At last we were sitting in a hot, small office with a cheerful doctor who told me she had been born and raised in Egypt before coming to London for her medical education and subsequent career. She read the notes I had been emailed and then looked at us both. Speaking to me in English, she said that once the herpes was treated that Miriam should be able to conceive. My patience was short by this point, and I said Miriam needed and was happy to pay for a full internal exam. And would the doctor please speak to the patient in her own language, instead of speaking to me.

For ten minutes they spoke, and the tone of the doctor’s voice got less and less polite, her face more and more disapproving. Miriam stood suddenly and reached for my hand, and in my confusion, I stood as well, letting her pull me toward the door. The doctor was standing and not smiling, and I asked her if we would get an examination. She said she would call a different hospital as she did not have time, and said the appointment would be tomorrow and all the relevant information was being emailed to me. I was startled and left with Miriam, whose hand was shaking. On the train Miriam tried to explain: she told me that the doctor had criticized her Arabic, had told her she would have a child if “her people” were cleaner and less primitive, had told her she was causing a fuss over nothing, that women of her age should count having the one daughter she had as a blessing and not try to have more children “in her circumstances.” I was in complete shock, imagining if my own doctor had used my ethnic background, my language, my age or occupation to shame me for trying to have a family.

I was angry, but confused. I told Miriam we would try again tomorrow. Back at my office, I bolted upstairs to find my Iraqi colleague and try to see if she could illuminate things for me. She spoke to Miriam for a few moments and then told me that Miriam felt that the woman was racist. I asked if there was some reason that an Egyptian doctor would feel hostility toward Miriam’s race or her work in general, and my friend shrugged helplessly and said she didn’t understand it either, that she had been raised in the UK and didn’t know the intricate prejudices in that part of the world. She said Miriam was disheartened, ashamed that she was infected with herpes, frustrated by her lack of knowledge and by the nearly nonexistent language support we had been assured we would have.

Going to a doctor about fertility is daunting enough, even in a first language. I imagined all the medical terms in English I didn’t understand, and remembered how difficult seeing a doctor had been in France, even with my conversational French being far above average. Miriam seemed sad and tired, and I hoped the next day would bring answers and at the very least some respect from whomever saw us next.

The next morning, back in Chelsea, Miriam and I were told that it was highly irregular to have a full internal ultrasound done at such short notice, and that a translator was unavailable. I wanted to scream, knowing full well that Arabic-speaking doctors were available all over London, and I could tell that the tone of voice alone was making Miriam shrink again, being made to feel like an inconvenience. I wanted to shout at the receptionist that this was a hero, that she was paying them hundreds of dollars for one test, that the least she deserved was a smile and an apology for the translator being unavailable. We were sent like errant schoolchildren to wait.

Half an hour later Miriam and I were in a dark examination room, faced with a white-mustached man who blithely explained Miriam’s likely infertility to me with the ultrasound wand still inside her. Miriam held my hand and watched us intently as the doctor repeated himself to me, using the same dozen or so words as he had before, assuming that would help. I turned to her and I could tell she knew something was not right. The doctor’s patience ran out and he abruptly said, “Well? Aren’t you going to explain to her?” I told him I did not speak Arabic and he looked at the ceiling and sighed with irritation. Overwhelmed and feeling as though keeping Miriam waiting was cruel, I attempted, using words like “problem” and “damage.” She nodded but the question in her eyes never left, and I knew she did not understand. She could not bear one more mysterious diagnosis, and she Skyped her brother, who is a doctor in Baghdad. Her brother’s confusion at a call from a dim exam room made way for his absolute horror at being asked by the doctor to explain to Miriam she would not be able to have another child. He began to speak in their own dialect, and he spoke slowly, and I knew the moment he had reached the final point by how hard Miriam’s nails began to dig into my hand that she’d held through the examination. Her voice was low and even, her face steady, but the half moons burning into the back of my hand told me she knew and she was braver than I had thought.

After the exams

Outside the sun was glaring and the heat oppressive. Miriam looked vacantly across the street, still holding onto my hand, and I noticed my phone had 30 missed calls. I was supposed to bring her to the office immediately for a press briefing before her address that would take place in three hours.

I hung up my phone and Miriam pointed to a shop. I crossed the street with her to enter a pharmacy advertising hair appliances and cheap mascara in the front windows. Miriam scanned the shelves quickly and walked to the register with hand cream, a bottle of water and three pregnancy tests. She turned to me apologetically and said too brightly, “Just in case!” In order to buy her some more time before she had to be brave and brilliant in front of cameras, I stopped to get us sandwiches and it was then, with her mouth full in a busy commuter café, that Miriam finally cried.

I would later that day be screamed at for stepping out of our tight schedule to get those sandwiches, and I didn’t in all honestly give a damn. Miriam held my hand again on the train, and when we finally reached our stop, she paused on the street and took out her phone. She opened a gallery and handed her phone to me, showing me her six-year-old daughter. The girl was lovely and her eyes bright, her smile huge, and when I passed her phone back I told Miriam, “Beautiful.” “Yes,” she answered, “Beautiful. Beautiful daughter. Beautiful and good.”

Miriam went to her address two hours later and, this time with a proper translator of every variety of Arabic under the sun, she stunned me with her powerful demands that the British government at least verbalize their understanding to the wider world that ISIS was in fact perpetuating a genocide, and that tens of thousands of girls and women had been enslaved as part of a formula for reducing a people to nothingness. Ambassadors made weak excuses for their neighboring state’s inability to get involved, religious leaders sighed about persecution, politicians recited the notes their aids had written them the day before and I knew all would go on as before. Miriam would return to drive in the desert with her husband, filling her house with traumatized and injured girls she found by the roadside. My bitterness at them all was overwhelming, and I could feel my face grow stiffer the longer my jaw clenched at the absurdity of their empty words. Miriam looked over their heads and saw me by the door and she bowed her head and gave me a smile. I returned her smile, left Parliament, and quit my job the next morning, shortly after receiving her medical notes, typed in English, with a note suggesting I use Google translate.

One of the young women Miriam brought to London is now a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and I see her in articles every now and then, have met refugees who idolize her and are enthralled when I tell them I have met her. The victim who forged a path as a humanitarian is indeed an inspiration and deserves to be, but I always think sadly to myself that nobody will ever know Miriam’s name and face this way, that she never has sought or received the recognition she deserves, nor likely can she, for her own safety. Miriam and I are still in touch. She still sends me photos of her daughter, and still is working to be a mother to many.