Celebrating International Day of Sign Languages: Exclusive interview with Naji Zakarneh, Secretary General of the Arab Sign Language Organization

Sign language, often referred to as the silent language, is an invaluable means of communication for the deaf and hard of hearing. It removes linguistic barriers, connecting individuals through expressive gestures and movements.

Each year, on September 23rd, the United Nations commemorates the International Day of Sign Languages. This year’s celebration comes under the theme of “A World Where Deaf People Everywhere Can Sign Anywhere!” This occasion serves as a global reminder of the importance of sign language in enabling the deaf community to thrive and participate fully in their communities to achieve their personal potential and aspirations and contribute to society’s development as well.

To commemorate this day, the Qatar Career Development Center (QCDC) conducted an exclusive interview with Naji Zakarneh, the Secretary General of the Arab Sign Language Organization and Advisor to the Qatar Society for Rehabilitation of Special Needs.

Zakarneh is also a reputable journalist and sign language interpreter for the Al Jazeera News Network.

Zakarneh’s journey is an inspiring testament to the trans-formative power of sign language and the profound impact it can have on individuals and communities alike. His personal and professional experiences have molded him into a passionate advocate for sign language and the deaf community.

Naji’s journey spans nearly three decades, during which he has been facilitating communication and fostering awareness, culture, and education among the hearing-impaired community. His commitment extends beyond his role as a translator; he has become a bridge between the deaf and the hearing world, striving to ensure that deaf individuals have equal access to information, education, and opportunities.

In this exclusive interview conducted by QCDC, Naji shares insights into the world of sign language, his motivations for choosing this path, and the remarkable stories that highlight the profound impact of his work. Join us as we delve into the world of sign language and celebrate this widely recognized and beloved figure:

Q: First, let’s address the global deaf community. Their numbers are vast and diverse, particularly in third world countries where there is a lack in awareness regarding sign language. How can you explain this phenomenon, and what can officials and educators do to assist the deaf and their families?

Naji: “The numbers in the deaf community are truly overwhelming, which is why we have always emphasized the importance of training and educating people in sign language, to enable them to help the deaf and their families. The goal is to open pathways for the deaf to realize their right in learning and understanding, and to help them communicate with the world.”

Q: What motivated you to pursue a career as a sign language interpreter?
Naji: “I’ve been working with the deaf for nearly thirty years. I found joy in assisting the deaf community, with the primary aim being recompense. Secondly, it’s about raising awareness among the deaf in various fields. Deaf individuals are entitled to awareness, culture, and education. We also need to guide the deaf through education within schools, among other human rights they struggle to enjoy.”

Q: Translation of sign language plays a pivotal role in facilitating our communication with the deaf and hard of hearing community. Can you elaborate on the benefits of being a sign language interpreter, both in terms of personal growth and professional development?

Naji: “Certainly. Initially, I learned sign language from the deaf themselves. Later on, I expanded my vocabulary by learning many different signs. I understand the deaf person’s culture and how to communicate with them. Currently, my sign language skills are highly proficient. As a sign language interpreter in Al-Jazeera, we’re always evolving, adapting, and innovating in all programs. We take constructive ideas and beautiful concepts to convey them to the deaf community, aiming to raise awareness and enhance their knowledge.”

Q: What advice do you offer to individuals aspiring to enter the field of sign language, especially regarding education, training, and challenges they might encounter in this field?

Naji: “we say the primary responsibility lies with families, and we collaborate with families to shape the personality of the deaf individual. It’s essential for us all, whether at the local or Arab level, to work together. This includes schools, families, and the entire community, to uplift the deaf person’s thoughts, culture, knowledge, and development.”
Q: Throughout your career, can you share a humorous incident or another challenging experience you encountered while working?
Naji: “Certainly! There are many heartwarming stories. For example, I was on my way to a football match along with many deaf people inside a bus. While in the bus, we saw an elderly lady standing on the street. I asked the driver to stop and invited the elderly lady onto the bus. She sat down, but she was scared. She kept looking around with fear in her eyes from all the signs we were exchanging. I noticed her unease and asked her why was she afraid. Terrified, she yelled ‘you can speak! No, I don’t want to stay on, let me off the bus. I want to leave!’ thinking we were conspiring by signs to kidnap her!”