Guy Ritchie’s – The Covenant

I just finished watching this film, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, which is out now on Amazon Prime. The film is about a US Army Special Forces Sergeant, John Kinley (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who, in the Afghanistan War, end up having to be rescued by his Afghan interpreter, Ahmed Abdullah, (played by Dar Salim). The film raises some important questions about interpreters and although many interpreters may not face such dangers as the hero Ahmed in this film, an interpreter’s life can be varied and present unique situations, some pleasant, some unpleasant.

I’m aware of Guy Ritchie’s work and his usual quite brutal gangster films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and also Snatch. Indeed I was unaware he had any other interests than organised crime (well, and Madonna, of course). It was a surprise seeing him behind this title. Not only is he a Brit directing a film about the US Military, the films is not massively over-violent or bloody, especially within the genre of war films. It’s quite quaint and tells a real story. It doesn’t depict a biased view of the Taliban or Afghans either. I think it captures the sort of mood I would envisage on the ground during the War in Afghanistan and I spoken to quite few people who have had involvement in this terrible conflict which is now gladly over, even if Afghanistan is not fully stabilised, although arguably this has never been the most stable region of the world.

The Interpreter character, Ahmed, is introduced to the Special Operations combat squadron after the previous interpreter dies along with a US soldier in an exploding lorry attack, orchestrated by the Taliban. This in itself clearly demonstrates what sort of dangers are inherent in being a military interpreter. Often interpreters are just civilians and are exposed to dangers that are quite different to the average citizen. The film clearly marks out how dangerous working for the US military can be seen in Afghanistan. The whole role of an interpreter , in general, is to operate between two parties and to retain neutrality – An interpreter is the vehicle between two parties that may see eye to eye or may be at complete loggerheads. Political conferences are very significant for interpreters’ work and indeed the Nuremburg Trials were where the interpreting industry really developed a lot of its standards in terms of translating booths. The bias can be a bit towards the people are putting food on your table and those who will be getting you home to bed safe at night but conflict within the interpreter’s views are apparent. He has a loyalty to his own people and his own family and his own language and these moral values can be quite challenged when working in a hostile environment, potentially for a foreign invader, which in essence is exactly what the US Army is. However, war brings out Darwinist tendencies and war economics induce entrepreneurial activity. Survival means just that. Ahmed says he is doing the job just for the money, yet it seems he is also looking for a way out and without spoiling the film, the USA VISA issue for him and his family are what he is really seeking as a goal for his work.

It’s interesting noting the sort of tension he faces in addressing locals on behalf of his commander. He gets a lot of quite nasty abuse and he is seen very much as an enemy. He’s in camo, US military fatigue. He is a legitimate target for the Taliban and later, after the rescue it does all go horribly wrong for Ahmed, as the media explosion of the heroic rescue has some pretty dangerous and grim consequences for him and his life. It I was a potential interpreter in a war zone I would certainly weigh up my options, especially after watching Guy Ritchie’s film.

I’m no expert in Dari or Pashtun or Arabic so was pretty reliant on the subtitles as I’m sure most viewers would be. I daresay, though, that quite a lot of Afghans will enjoy the film. It’s accessible to a global audience and with Guy Ritchie being a Brit, it’s perhaps not very pro-American Military Propaganda. Usually, wherever the US military goes, Hollywood is soon to follow and some of the best films ever made have come out of pretty major US foreign policy catastrophes where War has gone wrong. Need I mention Vietnam?

As a quick aside there is a story to the Wez G – Taliban House DJ mix. It was made as a present for someone to protect them during the Afghan conflict. A DJ in essence is an interpreter. He’s also, like film producer, an artist. Every artist delivers a product that weighs up all sorts of factors. This Taliban House DJ mix has a military house music theme. It talks of rescue, nukes, lonely travelling, bombs…. it would appeal to a US soldier. But equally, it talks of the dangers of war and is anti-war and against it. I thought, if a Taliban fighter happened to listen, I”d like him to enjoy it too. I’d heard that the Taliban had actually banned ALL music in Afghanistan which really hit a sore note for me personally.

The Taliban House mix was used on a live satellite link web radio broadcast from Langley Virginia on a constant loop for over 7 years . Every US Army helicopter that flew into battle in Afghanistan was listening to Wez G – Taliban House. It’s a proud moment in my DJ career and feedback that I have had has been really good from within the US military establishment.

Around that time I had been studying Arabic language at Cardiff University for two years. I was approached to become an interpreter for the US Army out in Afghanistan helping in interrogations at Bagram, the military base mentioned in the film, if I could retrain and learn Dari which is one of the principle languages in Afghanistan. Dari is essentially the same as Modern Persian or Farsi or Iranian. It is written in Arabic script wit a few extra letters and there are a lot of crossover loan words but it is still quite fundamentally different from Arabic which is a semitic branch of Indo-European. Dari sounds a lot more akin to French perhaps? In the end this didn’t happen although I did make a start on learning Dari. Have a listen to Taliban House and I shall move swiftly on to the next aside.

Above is Language Cafe which is my little weekly community language project in Caldicot at Together Works Community Centre. It’s free to attend. The aim is to pop in and share your language skills and if necessary and you are not a native English speaker we can assist in getting you up to speed here. I’ve got a quite a bit of experience teaching French and Spanish privately and the aim was to hopefully get people dropping into language cafe, focussed on learning these two languages. The goal of language cafe was sort of achieved a bit, but right from the outset I’ve been having to think outside the box. I’ve been speaking loads of Russian to Ukrainian refugees, the most interesting for me was an elderly gentleman from the Donbas with no English whatsoever. He’d popped in for a cup of tea and he was a bit shocked with my (rather rudimentary Russian language skills) – His grandson found it all highly amusing! Also I did get to test the Dari as the wife of an Afghan interpreter, who was repatriated in Monmouthshire after the War ended and the Taliban seized power, pops in regularly. My Arabic is slightly better (but very rusty) so we mainly chat in that. Her and her husband were the lucky ones and if you watch the film you’ll see that my little aside is relevant.

Local Newport East MP Jessica Morden has been one of the leading voices on the situation of Afghan interpreters and visas and repatriation here in the U.K. Below shows here actions in Parliament on this particular subject. It is a credit to Jessica’s work that there are Afghan interpreters living peacefully here in Monmouthshire and I certainly would hate to have to use my language skills for a potential enemy force and that prejudiced my own native people against me, only to be left high and dry when the work stopped. Loyalty is a concept in translation that operates at many levels. Translators and interpreters are not paid handsomely. At best it’s a liveable wage with very high pressure in terms of time with a lot of sporadic breaks.

The film really does put the interpreter centre stage and as the hero. Often interpreters in films are only bit part roles. The noble cause and loyalty of the Sergeant gives me a bit of faith that sometimes your work does reach the right people and good things can happen. Get out there and watch Guy Ritchies The Covenant and enjoy!

Leave a Reply