When police in Rio picked up an illegal alien babbling in an apparently unintelligible tongue they turned to Ziad Fazah, reckoned to be the world's greatest linguist. "I soon realized he was from Afghanistan and spoke a dialect called Hazaras," the 40 year-old Lebanese immigrant said. Through Fazah's help, the man was able to explain how he had been tortured by the Russians and was able to get asylum here. Fazah, who has been living in Brazil for 21 years, is fluent in 56 languages, winning him a mention in the Brazilian edition of the "Guinness World Book of Records" as the world's greatest living polyglot.
Fazah said his work is much in demand with Rio police. Recently he was called to interpret for another illegal alien who came from Eritrea, in northern Ethiopia. The man, who spoke a dialect known as Tucurum, was eventually deported. "Unfortunately the police couldn't pay me," Fazah said in flawless English. "But they said that if I ever have any problems I could call on them any time"
Fazah was born in Liberia but while still an infant moved with his Lebanese parents to Beirut. "By the time I was 17, I spoke 54 languages," Fazah said during an interview at his small, dark apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Flamengo. Aside from his mother tongue of Arabic, and French and English which he learned at school, Fazah taught himself all the languages. He began with German and moved on to such Far Eastern tongues as Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and Japanese.
At the age of 17 the Lebanese government called on him to interpret for a visiting delegation from Turkey. "When I began learning Chinese I went to the consulate of Formosa but they told me I couldn't learn it by myself," said Fazah. Determined, he bought a grammar book and a dictionary. "Two months later I went back to the consulate and they were so amazed they offered me a trip to Taipei. But I was in school at the time and could not go."
Despite his language skills Fazah has traveled very little outside of Lebanon and Brazil. At the age of 18, after graduating from the American University in Beirut with a degree in philology, Fazah moved with his parents to Brazil. His father had been living in Colombia and his mother, fearing civil war would break out, advised her husband not to come home. Instead, she joined her husband in Brazil. Fazah, who is married to a Brazilian and has one son, began working as a tutor in Rio de Janeiro, giving private lessons in Swedish, Danish, German and French.
Two years ago Fazah came to international attention when he had his abilities tested on a televised program in Spain. "They brought in people from Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand," said Fazah, whose business cards proclaim the fact that he "reads, writes and speaks 54 languages fluently." (Since printing the cards he has picked up two more languages.) He also participated in a program in Greece, where he was tested in Hungarian, Czech, Korean, Chinese and Japanese.
While in Spain, Fazah said he was contacted by an Israeli official. "They asked me if I was interested in working for the Israeli government but I feared what the Palestinians would do to me," said Fazah, who is Greek Orthodox. In the early 1970s Fazah also had a run-in with officials from the U.S. consulate, who were suspicious of his abilities to speak Chinese and Russian. "They feared I was a terrorist and asked Brazilian police to bring me in for questioning but after two hours I was let go."
Fazah is still learning new languages. The latest one he picked up was Papiamento, a Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish mixture spoken in the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao. Fazah, who can learn 3,000 words in two to three months, said Mandarin was the hardest language to learn because of the vast number of idiograms. Fazah claimed that in seven years he can learn the rest of the world's estimated 3,000 dialects. But his dream is to create a universal language that would be written as it is spoken. He would also like to work as a U.N. translator. "I feel a person with my skills is wasting his time in Brazil," he said.
Apparently he's still in Brazil. I can't read much Portuguese but the page I linked to above (now a 404) has contact info for him: Ziad Fazah O21- 552-5836 / 511-1828 / 511-8403 (Rio de Janeiro)
Last modified on 12/31/01