Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

America's Arabic 'man in the middle'

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Gamal Helal (second from right) translates for Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton (Picture courtesy of White House)
Mr Helal, second from right, has been present at a number of key talks

Over the last two decades, as American presidents have come and gone, there has been one constant in US-Middle East relations, one man.

Few know his name, but the next time you see a picture of an American president or secretary of state meeting an Arab leader, you might just notice the same man sitting in the middle, whispering in their ears.

Gamal Helal is often known as the man in the middle.

"That's what they call me sometimes, the man in the middle," he said.

"Most of the meetings that we do in the Middle East are one-on-one, so our principal, the other side and myself."

The interpreter is once again in the thick of the action, currently touring the region with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Gamal sees the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. And that's a uniquely un-American quality
Aaron David Miller
Friend of Gamal Helal

Some of the best advice Mrs Clinton, Mr Mitchell and President Barack Obama will get could be coming from Mr Helal.

An Egyptian Coptic Christian who first came to the US in the late 1970s to study, he rose through the ranks of the State Department and is now the chief interpreter.

But he is also a senior adviser on the Middle East, a voice of experience whose role is praised in Bill Clinton's memoirs.

"Gamal sees the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be," says his friend Aaron David Miller, a former senior adviser on the Middle East at the State department and author of the book "Much too promised land" about America's peacemaking effort in the region.

"And that's a uniquely un-American quality. We, having been born here, are much too optimistic and have an idealised conception of what's required. Gamal, with his Egyptian roots but a passion and love for America nonetheless, has a much keener and better understanding.

"Gamal became a force not just with the Arabs but also with the Israelis who came to admire and respect his honesty and detachment. I've seen him talk to secretaries of state and occasionally presidents in ways that are quite remarkable, honest and clear."

Baseball analogies

Mr Helal says his job is not just about translating words but also bridging cultures and he tells fond stories of having to explain typically southern expressions used by Secretary of State James Baker, who was from Texas, or the baseball analogies that Americans are fond of to Arab leaders with no knowledge of either.

"I always feel very responsible in every meeting. If I don't help the two sides to communicate - and communication goes beyond the language and the words - I feel I've not done my job," he explained.

"Interpreting is making sure people understand not only the meaning, but the idea and concept and where you're going. Words are dynamic - they have a life."

Mr Helal will not betray the confidence of those he translates for and will not discuss details of conversations or policies.

But in a recent, and rare interview, he gave a grim assessment of where things stand in the aftermath of the Israeli military offensive against Gaza in December and January.

Gamal Helal (L) with US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Picture courtesy of White House)
Mr Helal, left, translates for George Mitchell and Mahmoud Abbas

"There is no doubt that the war in Gaza and what Hamas has done has put the brakes on peace," he said.

"Senator Mitchell could have been in the region talking about the peace process, instead he is dealing with a short-term ceasefire."

His view of the situation is as much shaped by his background as by the life he has built in the US.

At his home in Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington DC, I meet his 13-year old son Alex who was born in the US.

Together in their living room, they show me pictures of the powerful men who have become their friends: Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell.

Alex is a regular at the Christmas parties at the White House and the Observatory, the residence of vice-presidents.

He also has pictures of himself sitting in the chair of the commander-in-chief in the Oval office.


For Mr Helal, the pictures are a reminder of how much time has passed and how elusive the peace remains.

He translated Yasser Arafat's words in 1993, during the groundbreaking Oslo Accords with Israel, signed on the White House lawn.

"I never thought I'd witness a day like this. This was history. I'd lived the other part of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the other side while living in Egypt," said Mr Helal.

But there has not been another day like it since, and Mr Helal has many more anecdotes about frustrations and disappointments than he does about positive developments.

As part of his wider Middle East brief, in 1991, he translated Secretary of State James Baker's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.

During a meeting in Geneva, the message was: "Withdraw from Kuwait or be driven out."

We cannot afford more setbacks and delays, or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made. And now is not the time for recriminations. It is time to look ahead.
Gamal Helal

"It was my first big meeting. Some said I was baptised by fire. It was nerve-wracking for me, frankly," he said. "I was very scared. I was basically shaking."

And he was there when peace talks broke down at Camp David in 2000, the last real serious peace effort.

"I remember during the Camp David talks, President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak asked me to go to talk to Arafat. I had a good relationship with Chairman Arafat and was able to talk openly with him, and perhaps say things his advisers wouldn't say or tell him," Mr Helal reminisces.

"I spent an hour, hour-and-a-half, with him and he didn't say a word. I told him everything I wanted to say about the need not to miss this opportunity. He listened and listened and listened - very carefully. Then he looked at me and said 'I can't'."

Mr Helal had to break the news to President Clinton.

Time running out

Now it is Barack Obama's turn to take a stab at the task that has frustrated so many before him.

Mr Helal says the new president is committed, but realistic about what can be achieved.

"The US will not impose anything. We can provide energy, we can provide enthusiasm, we can provide support... But the parties will have to answer the question - do they want peace or not? And if so, how will they go about it?"

But both he and Aaron David Miller are worried that the time for peace is fast running out as talk grows about the end of the two-state solution.

Gamal Helal (Third from left) translates for President George H W Bush at a meeting with Kuwaiti leaders (Picture courtesy of White House)
Mr Helal also acted as an interpreter for George H W Bush

"I don't believe in ticking clocks, but we have watched this now for a long time. And the changes that have occurred in the region have really weakened the hand of the peacemakers and strengthened the hand of those for whom time is not an adversary," said Mr Miller.

Mr Helal also referred to changing realities on the ground, from Hamas's hold on power in Gaza, to Israeli settlement growth. The likely return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu is also seen as a setback.

"If the opportunity is missed and if peace cannot be achieved fairly soon I think the reality on the ground could make it impossible... I don't think there is much time left for the idea of peace to prevail between Israelis and Palestinians," said the translator.

On the ground in the Middle East, Hillary Clinton has come face to face with that reality, sounding her own alarm about the conflict that is so often about history and the past.

"Time is of the essence. We cannot afford more setbacks and delays, or regrets about what might have been had different decisions been made. And now is not the time for recriminations. It is time to look ahead."

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