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Translating for Peace in the Middle East

Morton Deutsch, TC's legendary Professor Emeritus, co-edited a classic in the field, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. Now, thanks to a TC doctoral student and her mentor, negotiators in the Middle East will have the handbook in Arabic to guide them in their efforts.

Thanks to a TC student and her mentor, negotiators in the Middle East will have a handbook to guide them in their efforts 

The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, is a classic in its field, a negotiator’s bible for everything from labor disputes to marital discord. One of its three co-editors is Morton Deutsch, TC’s legendary Professor Emeritus, who more or less founded the field of conflict resolution 50 years ago with his study of competition and cooperation (theoretical work that was inspired by the creation of the U.N. Security Council). Another is current TC faculty member Peter Coleman, who has pioneered in applying systems theory and computer modeling to long-term, intractable strife.

The book has been translated into Polish and Japanese and other languages are on the docket—but not, arguably, the one that would be most useful in today’s world: Arabic. Deutsch and Coleman became aware of the problem two years ago, when, together with Eric Marcus, a TC alumnus and specialist in organizational change, they were putting together a second edition that would include chapters on conflict and religion, and conflict and human rights.

“Colleagues were coming to us who worked in the Middle East, telling us they had few resources in Arabic to conduct peace-building initiatives on the ground,” says Coleman, Director of Teachers College’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR), which Deutsch founded in 1986. “They were having to create their own materials. They asked us, ‘Any chance you’d consider translating the book?’ We went to our publisher, Jossey Bass, and they said they couldn’t do it, but that we could pursue it on our own.”

That proved easier said than done. For one thing, there was little money for such a project. For another, translating any complex piece of writing demands both a knowledge of subject and a command of language—particularly so when the subject is conflict resolution and the language is Arabic, which has no fewer than six different words for “conflict,” ranging from the kind you have with your spouse to the kind you conduct with armed forces.

“You can be perfectly literal in your translation and then discover that it’s meaningless for people working in the other language,” Coleman said. “So we needed someone who could really oversee the whole process.”

Enter Naira Musallam, a Ph.D. student in TC’s Social-Organizational Psychology Program who also works with Coleman at ICCCR. As a fluent Arabic speaker who has interned with such organizations as the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Musallam brought obvious assets to the job—including a network of professional contacts in the Middle East who could clue her in on which chapters would be most useful. But her official resume doesn’t tell the half of it.

“I’m part of the Palestinians of 1948. There was a war then, when the state of Israel was established and while many Palestinians were displaced, some stayed and were granted citizenship under a U.N. resolution,” says Musallam, a youthful-looking woman with a mega-watt smile. “There are about a million of us today. And growing up in that context, it wasn’t easy, because the country you live in and your own people are at war. I have relatives on the West Bank. So, you’re constantly negotiating your identity.”

Where others might have hardened in their outlook, Musallam, thanks to her upbringing, embraced the complexity. From kindergarten through high school, she attended the Mar Elias Institutions, an ostensibly Catholic school in her home town of Ibillin that had large contingents of Muslims, Druse and even some Jews, and that preached tolerance as its central message. (She, herself, comes from a Christian family—“what you’d call Episcopalian in the U.S.”) At the University of Tel Aviv, she worked at the Adler Research Center under Professor Zahava Solomon, working with both Palestinians and Israelis suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of political violence.

She came to the United States and Teachers College in 2003 on a State Department scholarship and not long afterward met her partner, Roland Minez—a West Point graduate who has served 15 months in Iraq.

All of which has combined to give Musallam a nuanced outlook that is all too rare, in the Middle East or anywhere else.

“My life is a constant negotiation among seemingly contradictory worlds,” she says. “I hang out with my progressive colleagues during the week and get one perspective, and then I see what the West Pointers are thinking on weekends. I say ‘seemingly contradictory,’ because really, they’re not. It’s very easy to say, ‘This is right, and this is wrong.’ It’s probably the easiest thing to do in life. It saves you a lot of thinking and stress and energy. But then life decides to put you in these other circumstances.”

It wasn’t until she was at TC, however, earning her master’s in Counseling and Clinical Psychology, that Musallam discovered her true calling. She took Coleman’s course, “Fundamentals of Conflict Resolution,” as an elective, and “something just clicked. As much as I enjoy helping individuals, I realized I wanted to work on a macro level. I took more classes at ICCCR and realized, OK, I want to be involved in this.”

Musallam will finish her coursework at the end of the fall semester and is gearing up to write her dissertation on a topic related to peace as seen from a dynamical systems perspective. It could be argued, though, that in her work on The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, she’s already logged the equivalent of a dissertation project—and then some.

“Naira has put in hundreds of hours on this, pro bono,” Coleman says. “It simply wouldn’t be happening without her.”

In addition to overseeing the translation, which comprises 10 of The Handbook’s 39 chapters, Musallam has written an introduction in Arabic that discusses the history of the Middle East, the different ethnic groups there and the region’s traditions of conflict and cooperation.

“I want people to understand that it’s not that we go there and suddenly educate them about conflict negotiation—because for centuries people have been doing it already,” she says. “In the media, you only get the dark side of the Middle East, but it really has a long history of tolerance and cooperation.”

She also is working on distribution. Right now the plan is to make the translated chapters available free of charge via the Internet to mediators working in the Middle East, while offering a published volume for a nominal fee to organizations such as the State Department, USAID, the United Nations and affiliated NGOs.

“We’d like to recover some of our costs and also be able to pay Naira for her time,” Coleman says.

Musallam is all in favor of that, but as with most of the challenges she’s undertaken that have to do with negotiation, she has no regrets.

“Doing this kind of work makes you take a hard look at your own assumptions and practices,” she says. “It really makes you grow.”

Published Monday, Dec. 8, 2008


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