How do you interpret some of Arabic popular music’s most dense and poetic lyrics into sign language?
According to Raja Hasan, you need to put your body into it.
In what could be a UAE first, the Jordanian interpreter will share the stage with Mohammed Abdu during his concert at Etihad Arena on Saturday, as he translates the revered Saudi singer’s songs to audience members who are hearing impaired.
There are no UAE statistics about the prevalence of deafness and hearing disabilities. According to the World Health Organisation, more than five per cent of the world’s population — about 430 million — suffer from debilitating hearing loss.
Speaking to The National before the show, organised by UAE company X Culture Events, Hasan reveals he received the set list in advance from Abdu’s team a fortnight ago and has been practising at home ever since.
“I also went into a deep dive of Abdu’s songs, in general, because it is not only enough to translate the lyrics literally,” he says. “But I also have to really channel the deep emotions he expresses in many of his songs.
“Abdu’s work is very deep and really melancholy. To capture that in sign language requires not just the movement of my hands, but different parts of my body — from my facial reactions to the shoulders — to really express the emotions of the lyrics.”
A way of expression
Hasan welcomes the challenge as he is a seasoned hand.
Currently working independently, he was a former sign language interpreter for Abu Dhabi TV’s current affair show Oloum Al Dar, completing a 15-year stint in January.
After leaving, he took freelance jobs at business and government events, including being part of the team interpreting the near nightly Covid-19 updates by the UAE authorities in the first months of the pandemic in 2020.
“It was really then I felt what myself and colleagues did really resonated with society,” he says. “I would get stopped sometimes in the street, here in Abu Dhabi, and people would thank me and encourage me to keep going.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy what I do. But I never forget there are a group of people solely dependent on people like me to give them the right information, it is this responsibility that pushes me forward.”
Hasan's interest in sign language dates back nearly 20 years.
“None of my family members are hearing impaired, so I entered this field out of fascination and this feeling of wanting to help and contribute in some way,” he says.
“So I studied the field in the University of Jordan where we would also use our skills to help deaf students. It was a very beautiful experience.”
It also remains a challenging endeavour with sign language following a set principles that doesn’t always mesh with the spoken word.
Some of these differences will become apparent when Hasan takes the stage on Saturday.
“Certain idioms can be tricky as not everything translates, especially some of the way we say things in Arabic, which is very descriptive,” he says.
“So if I translate the phrase ‘I will come to you like a plane,’ meaning, 'I will see you soon’, it doesn’t make sense. So in certain situations I will need to make it more literal and say that ‘I am on my way’ or ‘I will be there shortly’.”
That doesn’t mean sign language is dry, Hasan says.
“Like any language, the more skilled you are the more expressive you can be,” he says. “While certain sayings can be difficult, sign language is capable of capturing a lot of things.
“So when I translate the question whether someone wants a Pepsi or Coke, I use the movement similar to opening a soft drink can.”
Mohammed Abdu performs at the newly built super dome in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — in pictures
A human rights issue
Hasan says he does not know what proportion of audience require his services at the Abdu concert.
Then again, that’s beside the point.
“The fact that I am there on stage is important because it sends a message that everyone should feel included and for this, I have to state my gratitude to concert organisers X Culture Events for coming up with the idea” he says.
“Maybe at first people will find it strange that I am there on stage the whole time, but after a few songs I think they will welcome the idea of what I am doing.”
Hasan says he is confident that he and his colleagues will become a permanent feature of the UAE entertainment scene.
“I am positive it will be mandatory for some kind of interpretation to be made available at all UAE live events,” he says. “At the end of the day, we are not talking here about entertaining people. This is a human rights issue and that means anyone shouldn’t feel like they are shut out of any part of society.”
When more concert promoters, hopefully, see the value of what he provides, Hasan is ready for the next big gig.
“You know, with Mohammed Abdu I am starting with probably one of the hardest Arabic concerts to translate,” he says. “After this, doing any other Arabic pop concert should be relatively easier.”
Mohammed Abdu performs at Etihad Arena, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, on June 25. Doors open at 6.30pm; tickets starting at D788 are available at etihadarena.ae. You can also watch a live stream of the concert for Dh99 on Basita.live