My Journey to Arabic

Meet Marilyn! | My Journey to Arabic #28

We met with Prof. Marilyn Booth أ. مارلين بوث Scholar, Arabist, Literary Translator & Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at University of Oxford. In an interview with Joanne we asked her the following questions:

  • Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
  • How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
    What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?
  • What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
  • Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
  • What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
  • What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

Beirut, September 1966: My father, a scholar of history of religion in central Africa, had decided a few months before to spend his sabbatical at the American University in Beirut because he felt he needed to learn more about Islam. He had also, already, become concerned about American attitudes to Palestinian aspirations to nationhood, and wanted to learn more about that. He and my mother made the quite amazing decision to move a family of four young children to Beirut for a year: we took a ship from New York to Naples, picked up a VW bus that they had ordered, and had a crazy drive from Italy to Beirut.

I was the oldest of four children: three of us attended the fabulous American Community School attached to AUB (and I still remember the walk every afternoon up those stairs from AUB… and I’m still in touch with friends from that time, which is significant for language and caring in a global sense). We were kind of jealous of our very little sister, who went to an Arabic-language nursery school and came home singing songs in Arabic. I didn’t learn any Arabic that year except for the usual phrases. I did have a fantastic French teacher and so, a bit ironically, my understanding of the fierce importance of studying language, in a city where my desire to study Arabic was formed, also came through French.

Beirut politicized me, and Beirut made language political and therefore elementally essential, like having food. Because becoming politicized is about opening up to the world, and that means you need language. But there were very specific elements to this. We (as a family) spent time in Palestine (the ‘West Bank’ was then in Jordan), and we also knew Palestinians in Lebanon. Not only did I become aware then that Palestinians were and are a nation, in their own land, denied that land and that nation: this was sharpened by the particular time in which I was there. I remember an almost surreal week, one of our last weeks at school in the spring. We had been writing plays to perform: I co-wrote one on ancient Greek women, and we were literally performing this, when parents started showing up to remove their children from school. We were wearing togas made out of bedsheets. It was the 5th of June, 1967.

I remember an awful evening when my parents said, we are leaving now, we have a chance to get on a ship, and we children were crying. I remember I had made an art piece, a sculpture out of toothpicks (probably awful, but I still remember it!) and I was so upset that we couldn’t take it. On the other hand, the trip back to the US was pretty great. We were on an American freighter, just us and a couple other passengers. My brothers and I made elaborate road systems on deck with chalk for our toy matchbox cars, and I learned how to play Pinochle from the sailors that we did (amazingly) hang out with.

But getting back to the US was also a shock. At age 13 I had arguments with people about Palestine. It was actually going back to the US that made me realize that Arabic was my future and my fate. I never intended (even when I was doing my doctorate!) to be an academic. I intended to be a journalist who knew Arabic and cared. This might seem a standard (and still important) goal now, but when I was a teenager, very few people in the US were studying Arabic. My father, as a quiet but steady supporter of Palestinian rights, went through so much challenge and pain.

I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, to study Arabic. It wasn’t a fab place at that time to study Arabic, but nowhere was. (Thankfully, a lot has changed!). But maybe in some ways that was good. A few of us went through intensive Arabic boot camp as freshers, taught by a visiting professor whom I later visited in Irbid, Jordan, as he and his wife were retiring. He was a teacher whom I came to adore but who didn’t know how to teach language to American 19-year-olds. In some ways, that was good.  Because of those three-hour-long gruelling classes, I was able to recite (and sort of understand) Surat al-Nur a couple of months in, and then, we were reading the amazingly beautiful style of Taha Husayn in al-Ayyam before I’d finished my first year. So I got a great and intense introduction. And I was able to continue Arabic, read texts and even work on manuscripts with incredible people (Muhsin Mahdi, Annemarie Schimmel, William Graham, and Widad al-Qadi – all fabulous teachers who gave me a lot). I feel very fortunate, and I try to model what I was given in the way I teach, though no doubt I do it much more imperfectly. I have to say, though, that at Harvard no one ever really taught me how to deal with the hamza! I am still really bad at that! And we were never taught how to speak, in either fusha or ‘ammiyya. I got the latter from years of living in Egypt, and from my academic interests. I never got the former as well as I should have, though a year in the CASAW programme in Egypt helped a lot with that, too. I’m glad Arabic is taught more as a living language now than it was when I studied it.

I’ve emphasised the political because that was so important to me. And it still is, even if I now work in the realm of academic history. Politics is everywhere, of course, and my research area now, focused on early feminism and translation as intellectual history, is resonant for politics today. I feel the same about literary translation. The choices we make – what to translate, how to translate it, what to accept from editors and publishers in the way of changes, paratexts, and cover art, how to write about translation – are political as much as aesthetic choices. I have been translating literary works ever since my PhD dissertation, where translating Bayram al-Tunisi’s ‘ammiyya poetry in a way that would speak to contemporary Anglophone readers was important (and I won an American Association of Teachers of Arabic award for those poems!). Ever since, translating novels and short stories from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and most recently Oman has been for me an artistic outlet and a political contribution in the broadest sense. My ‘politics of translation’ involves bringing Arabic terms into English lexicons, weaving the Arabic into the English in a way that confronts readers with unfamiliar expressions, beliefs, and modes of material life, but does so in a way that welcomes rather than alienates readers. I’ve also written forthrightly about the politics of translation between the translator (or second author of the novel) as agential, the first author, and the publisher. It’s good that this is an area that Translation Studies is paying more attention to now.

When I started to do Arabic, it was a ‘weird’ thing to do. It no longer is, and that is a very good thing. But let’s keep the political edge. There’s so much to do. And that was my original fierce reason to study Arabic.

“My journey to Arabic”, or MJTA for short, is an online initiative to capture learners’ stories across all spectrums and document their journeys, motivations, struggles and successes towards mastering the Arabic language and culture. Each story is published here at the eArabic Learners Portal as well as shared via our social media on Twitter

Submission Notes | MJTA

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SUBMISSION NOTES

Thank you for participating in this initiative. We would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on each of the following questions below. There is no word limit as such.

Please include the questions below when submitting your story.

  1. Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
  2. How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
  3. What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
  4. Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
  5. What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
  6. What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

Further Questions

  • What is your favourite Arabic word?   
  • What is your least favourite Arabic word?
  • Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
  • What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
  • What is your favorite Arabic quote?
  • What is your favourite Arabic book and why?

Further Information

  • Phonetic writing of your full name (in Arabic) ______
  • Twitter username (if you have one): _________
  • Instagram username (if you have one): ______

What & Where to submit

To submit your story, please email the following to m.diouri@ed.ac.uk 

  • Your story as a Word file (please write your thoughts under each question)
  • 1-2 headshot photos of yourself 

Sample Posts

For further profiles, see MJTA Profiles Index 

We will be in touch with you to review the final draft before we publish it online.

Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Thank you

Meet Joanne! | My Journey to Arabic #27

We met with Joanne Seymour, Polyglot & Translator from the UK. Joanne studied Arabic & Anthropology at the U. of Kent and then Education Studies at the U. of Bath.  In an interview with Joanne we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Joanne Seymour from the UK and I have always been interested in languages. At university I focussed on anthropology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, but an ERASMUS year in Germany gave me the opportunity to study Igbo and Yoruba, and my passion for non-European languages started from then. After I graduated, I worked in an entry-level position at a university and lunchtime googling lead me to reading more about short courses to learn MSA in Morocco. I packed my bags and set off for a 3-week course to Fes in 2004 and I haven’t looked back since. I ended up staying there to complete 4 courses and fell in love with Morocco in the process. The institute itself was great, the teachers were very knowledgeable and a lot of fun – something we all need when learning Arabic!

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

After I left Morocco, I moved to Dubai and worked in the UAE government for over 10 years, which improved my Arabic enormously. During my time there, I spoke Arabic with colleagues every day and proofread Arabic to English translations of technical documents, as well as general texts. Since I returned to the UK last year, I started a company for translation and proofreading, and have worked on a number of interesting projects, my most favourite being translating textbooks and phrasebooks for the Al Ramsa Institute for Emirati Arabic.

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

At university I had lots of Arab friends but I never once thought I would learn Arabic. I had learned a number of European languages, branched out into African ones, and then realised I had developed my own system for learning. When I first looked into Arabic classes, I thought it was just going to be an interesting trip to Morocco for a few weeks where I would pick up a bit of Arabic – I never expected that it would have taken me on all of the amazing adventures that it has! The teachers I met there really helped, they were so supportive and the learning was structured in such a way that we had a good combination of grammar plus vocab learning plus fun stuff.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

Of course! Just with any language, you have to find your own groove. Don’t spend too much time sweating over grammatical inaccuracies you make – if you focus on it, it just won’t go in! When I would feel bogged down with grammar, I would take myself off and listen to an Arabic song or read something fun or an interesting article and, hey presto, grammar rules would seep into my brain slowly that way. The ups are way too many to mention. Being an Arabic speaking Westerner in Dubai meant I had a very different expat experience to the norm. I truly believe speaking Arabic opened so many doors for me, both on a professional and personal level – from people remembering me for many years as the Ingliziya who makes silly wordplay jokes in fusHa and dialect, to being invited on family holidays with very conservative and traditional Emirati families.

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

At the moment, I do translation on the side and work at a university in a position where I am lucky enough to be student-facing in a very international department, so I get to use Arabic on a daily basis. While it isn’t needed as such, it is very helpful and makes such a lasting impression on students (and their families). My colleagues are jealous that they don’t get packs of homemade zaatar sent from students’ mums back home!

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

Use the vast array of materials in the outside world – songs, poems, TV series etc. Embrace the differences between dialect and standard and don’t let it overwhelm you. Learning Arabic is probably one of the best academic and professional decisions I’ve made, it has truly given me the best opportunities and adventures. I’ve made friends with people from all over the Arab world and make it a point to go and visit their home countries, and I don’t expect to be finished any time soon! Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun with your learning.  

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.

 

Meet Dr. Paula Santillán Grimm: My Journey to Arabic #23

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We met with Dr. Paula Santillán Grimm, a lecturer in Arabic & Translation from Spain. In an interview with Paula we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Paula Santillán Grimm and I am a Spanish teacher of Arabic who looks Russian and has Argentinian roots! I hold a BA in Arabic Studies from the University of Barcelona (2000), and an MA in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language from the University of Michigan (2003). In 2016 I obtained a PhD in Arabic Linguistics from the University of Granada. I presently lecture in Arabic language and translation at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and at Pompeu Fabra University, as well as work as a freelance Arabic language translator and interpreter.  

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I began studying Arabic back in 1995. It was an extracurricular course offered at my school by a couple of alumni. I soon felt in love with this beautiful – both in shape and soul – language and felt so much attracted by the cultures it embraced. After that first approach to Arabic and a trip to Morocco, I decided to pursue my BA degree in Arabic Studies at the University of Barcelona. However, I soon realized that, in order to actually learn Arabic, I had to live Arabic; therefore, in the third year of my BA degree I applied for and obtained a scholarship to study Arabic in Damascus, where I spent two years learning and living Arabic. Shami was the first communicative Arabic that I learned…how? Living with several Damascene families, interacting with as many Arabic friends as possible (rather than with the “handy-to-me” Spanish native ones), watching musalsalaat of all kinds and talking to children and shop owners (they are a great resource to learn vocabulary because they don’t mind repeating words as many times as requested).

I presently command fusha and two variants: Levantine and Moroccan Arabic. With these tools, I can virtually communicate with any Arab willing to -or I believe so!

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?O

nce I had begun studying Arabic, my teachers showed to be terribly boring (they basically taught it according to the grammar-translation method), and so I soon realized that I wanted to try to improve that situation: there had to be funnier and more effective ways to teach it! In fact, I used to explain the contents of our lessons to my peers because I simply enjoyed doing that. I looked for a program specialized in the Teaching of Arabic as a Foreign language, and I found one at the University of Michigan. Thanks to a scholarship granted by La Caixa bank, in 2001 I was able to join that MA degree in TAFL in the US. In fact, I arrived in Ann Arbor a month before the 9/11 events, which represented a turning point in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies globally. From that time on, I have taught Arabic (fusha, shami and Moroccan darija) in three continents at nine relevant institutions (the University of Michigan, Middlebury College, Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, the University of Granada, IES Granada, Casa Árabe, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Universitat Pompeu Fabra and ESADE) to over 1,500 undergraduate and graduate students.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

Certainly, learning Arabic is a winding road…but the views are so spectacular! I think the worst period was in the onset, when I was taught Arabic by teachers who did not know Arabic and who taught it as a dead language. But, since that was the beginning, the rest of the trip became far more comfortable from then onwards: discovering shami Arabic; using Arabic as a lingua franca with other students; being able to travel around the Middle East alone; teaching a second language (Arabic) in a third language (English); teaching Arabic in an Arabic country; teaching Arabic to illiterate women; training teachers of Arabic… Nowadays people want everything to happen quickly; despite all the mindfulness trends, we still value the product more than the process. And learning Arabic is a process that deserves to be enjoyed.     

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

The most recent -and challenging!- project I have been involved in is the coordination of an MA degree in Contemporary Arabic Studies offered by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in which all the courses are taught in Arabic (http://pagines.uab.cat/meac/). A wish: being involved in the set-up of an international accreditation of Arabic language proficiency levels.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

As you can imagine, I have been asked this question dozens of times, both by foreigners and Arabs themselves. At the beginning, I used to answer with sentences such as “memory is crucial” or “interaction is the key”. Nowadays, however, my answer has changed as it really depends on the kind of learner you are (something you will discover throughout the journey itself!). My suggestions would be not to settle for one’s strong linguistic points (i. e. practice the weakest as well) and trying to spend as much time as possible in an Arabic country.

Further Questions

– What is your favourite Arabic word?   سنبلة، شاشة، أمّهات

– What is your least favourite Arabic word?  إجّاص

– Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?  All Syrians struggling for a better life.

– What is your favourite place in the Arab World?  الصحراء والأسواق

– What is your favorite Arabic quote?  اختر الرفيق قبل الطريق though I like this one too: اختاري الرفيقة قبل الطريقة 😉

– What is your favourite Arabic book and why? لسان العرب because it feels like snorkeling in the Red Sea.

Meet Thomas Pierret! | My Journey to Arabic #22

We met with Dr. Thomas Pierret from Belgium, Former Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh.  He is currently Senior Researcher at CNRS-IREMAM.  In an interview with Thomas we asked him the following questions:

 

  • Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

I am Thomas Pierret, 38, from Belgium. I am an academic researcher specialising on the politics of modern Islam, particularly in Syria. I currently work as a Senior Researcher at CNRS-IREMAM in Aix-en-Provence, France. Between 2011 and 2017, I was a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh, Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. I hold a PhD in Political Sciences from Sciences Po Paris and the University of Louvain, Belgium (2009). Before that, I studied History at the University of Liège (2001), International Relations at the Free University of Brussels (2002), and Comparative Politics at Science Po Paris (2003).

  • How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I started studying Arabic in 1999. For the last ten years, I haven’t been taking any class, but I have kept on improving my language skills through daily readings and frequent conversations. I am a fluent reader, a good speaker, and a decent writer.

  • What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

During my undergraduate studies in (European) History, I spent summer holidays in Jordan and fell in love with the region. When I came back to the university in September, I took Arabic as an option course, with the goal in mind of specialising on the Arab world at postgraduate level. The need to understand Arabic for my subsequent research at Master and PhD levels is what motivated me to continue studying Arabic.

  • Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

The first four years I spent studying in Belgian and French universities, before I was finally able to take course in Syria, were encouraging as far as writing and reading were concerned (hard work was obviously paying off), but not so much when it came to speaking, because there were too little opportunities to exercise my oral and aural skills.

  • What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

Academic research.

  • What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

First, hard work, hard work, hard work. Second, seizing any possibility to spend time in Arab countries and study Arabic there. Third, I found popular songs very useful to learn colloquial Arabic. Fourth, one should not be exaggeratedly scared by the variations within the Arabic language (classical/modern standard/colloquial, colloquial variations); although some people might claim the opposite, learning several of these variations is not like learning two, three or more different languages: for instance, knowledge of classical Arabic is actually helpful to learn dialects, and vice versa.

 

Further Questions

– What is your favourite Arabic word?  

لؤي (lu’ay), because it is the name of my son (in French we transliterated it “Loueï”). It is a very old Arabic name which originally designated a type of small river in the desert.


What is your least favourite Arabic word?

مخابرات (mukhabarat, “intelligence services”), because they are the ugliest part of Arab politics; police states in the Arab world have ruined the lives of generations and destroyed civil society.


Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?

Ghiath Matar, a young revolutionary activist from Daraya (a suburb of Damascus) who distributed flowers and water bottles to the soldiers who were sent to suppress demonstrations in 2011. He was arrested by the regime and died under torture.


What is your favourite place in the Arab World?

Syria. I lived there for three years, first to study Arabic, and second to carry out field research for my doctoral thesis. Since 2011, Syria has been constantly on my mind, for obvious reasons.


What is your favorite Arabic quote?

I don’t know if it is an Arabic, or possibly Kurdish proverb, but while we were discussing the terrible turn of events in Syria after 2011, a Syrian friend once told me something like “when you plant brambles, you don’t grow watermelons” (I don’t remember exactly what is was in Arabic). I thought it was a cogent, even if simple, response to Westerners who moan about the alleged lack of alternative political forces to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. What this quote means is that such regimes have consistently made their best to destroy civil society and prevent organised social forces from emerging as credible contenders.


What is your favourite Arabic book and why?

I can’t think of a single book, but I am proud of the collection I acquired while doing research in Syria between 2005 and 2008. It consists of hagiographies of ulama and religious treaties. Some of these books were published in very small numbers and are consequently quite rare.

 

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.

 

Meet Valentina! My Journey to Arabic #21

We met with Valentina, a PG Arabic student alumni from Italy who has completed a Masters in Arab World Studies at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with the Universities Durham & Manchester.  In an interview with Valentina we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Valentina Marconi, I am from Perugia, a historical city located in the heart of Italy and famous for its universities, a summer Jazz Festival and a painter called Pietro Vannucci. I hold a Bachelor in International Relations from the University of Perugia and a Master in Arab World Studies, a joint programme between the University of Edinburgh and Durham University. I graduated in January 2013. After that, I have been working in different fields, mostly journalism and as a research editor for Dow Jones. I mostly wrote about the Arab Spring, gender, human rights and migrations. In the last year, I co-produced two documentaries on the right to asylum in Europe: the first was shot in Serbia and the second in Catalonia.

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I’ve been studying Arabic since 2010 and my current level is upper intermediate. During the Master course, I spent five months in Egypt and last summer I’ve been working intensively on my Arabic again, spending four months in Jordan.

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

I’ve tried to trace back my passion for Arabic to an event or an encounter for years by now, but my attempts at doing so left me with the conviction that my deep interest with this language cannot be attributed to a single factor. Since I was a teenager, I was deeply fascinated by languages, especially Arabic and Chinese. I think, beyond this, lies a deep curiosity for what looks different and challenging. I went on studying Arabic also because I was interested in understanding the politics of the region. If I am to identify a person who deeply inspired me, I could just think of Ilaria Alpi, a late Italian journalist expert of Middle East politics who was killed in Mogadishu in 1994, while investigating on weapons and illegal toxic waste traffic. She was just 32 years old and the truth about her death did not come to light yet.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

Yes, of course. I think ups and downs are part of the learning process. Especially after I graduate and went back to Italy, it was difficult to keep the level I had reached during the university years. Sometimes I was working in positions which did not require the use of Arabic and this made things more difficult. However, I have tried to always keep the door open, to exercise by myself, to actively practise with friends and keep my passion for this language alive.  

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

So far, I’ve been mostly working in journalism and media-related jobs. I plan to keep that in my life but I would also like to shift my interests toward research. Right now, I working on a PhD Proposal on refugees and state violence.

 

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

I think everyone is different and to give a general advice is difficult. From my point of view, the best way to go about it is the following: first, make Arabic become an integral part of your life (through human relations, travels, real attachment to places); second, don’t obsess too much about accumulating new words but let the language gradually sink in in order to really own it; finally keep the love for it alive (which is the conditio sine qua non, I think).

 

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.

 

Meet Ms. Coco Claxton! | My Journey to Arabic #20

We met with Coco Claxton, a PG Arabic student alumni from the UK  who has completed a Masters in Advanced Arabic at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh.  In an interview with Coco we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

I’m Coco Claxton, from the UK. I graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2016 with an MA in Arabic and Modern History. My interest in Arabic really began at school, when I developed my love of languages, focusing particularly on Spanish and French. I wanted to branch out and when my parents moved to Dubai, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to start learning a new language. In 2014 I traveled to Jordan to pursue a colloquial Arabic course at AMIDEAST in Amman. It was at this point that I became increasingly intrigued by Middle Eastern culture, politics and FOOD ;). Having finished my Undergraduate Degree, I wanted to continue my studies, and began an MSc in Advanced Arabic at the University of Edinburgh. During this rich and diverse course, we all came on leaps and bounds largely due to the fantastic teaching and the opportunity to study abroad at The American University in Cairo. Having recently graduated I started interning and later volunteering at the British Red Cross Refugee Services in Glasgow; In the last 6 months I have had the opportunity to volunteer in the Red Cross Youth department, take up a position as Triage Caseworker and have recently started interpreting for some of our service users. I also work part-time as a Young People’s Worker at Aberlour Childcare Trust.

 What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

My interest in Arabic was initially triggered by my parents move to Dubai, however long before that point my family has always been deeply invested in the Middle East. My Father was a documentary film maker, who made several films in the Arab world, whilst my mother was an air hostess for Iran Air and spent several years travelling in the region.

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I have been studying Arabic for 5 years, and I am now at an advanced level. However, due to the complexity of the language and the various different dialects in the Arab world, I believe that improving your Arabic is probably a lifelong challenge – but very worthwhile!

 

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic? 

I have definitely experienced ups and downs on my journey to Arabic; Having focused largely on formal Arabic during my Undergraduate Degree, it was only at Masters level that I really began focusing on colloquial Arabic – the Levantine and Egyptian dialect. This was very different to what I’d done before and therefore initially proved a great challenge. However, I am so happy that I had the opportunity to study colloquial Arabic at this level and that now when I communicate with people, I can do so on both a formal and informal level, thus breaking down barriers and opening up new channels of communication.

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

My career ambitions are largely focused around refugee services; this is the sector I feel truly passionate about, and I feel that in this field my knowledge of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture and politics can be put to great use – both as a channel of communication and as a means to make people feel comfortable, understood and supported.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

I think becoming an excellent student of Arabic requires great perseverance and patience on the part of the student. You must find as many opportunities as you can to practise and improve your spoken Arabic – find a language partner, join an Arabic exchange group or simply get watching all of these amazing Arabic series! Your knowledge and enjoyment of Arabic will only increase the more you immerse yourself.

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.

Meet Sir Harold (“Hooky”) Walker! | My Journey to Arabic #19

We met with Meet Sir Harold (“Hooky”) Walker,  British Former Ambassador to Bahrain, UAE, Ethiopia & Iraq. Sir Walker  has studied Arabic at the UK’s Foreign OfficeIn an interview with Sir Walker we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

I served 34 years in the Diplomatic Service. I joined the Service after National Service in the Royal Engineers and taking a degree in Modern History at Oxford.

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

The Foreign Office taught me Arabic, and used me for it. I think I was pretty well managed.  My recollection is that during my first year in the Foreign Office the Training Department summoned me and two of my colleagues (one of whom went on to become Ambassador in Baghdad and Rome and the other Consul-General in Casablanca) and said “You, you and you are going to learn Arabic unless you have strong objection”. None of us objected. I was pleased to be offered a language outside the European culture – and had always thought Chinese would be too difficult for me.

We were taught at the school that the FO used to run in the hills above Beirut, the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies. The basic course was ten months; if you did well on that, you did a further six months. That gave you a sound basis in modern written Arabic and a kind of “higher colloquial” based on the language used by educated people in the Levant. Of course you had to adjust your spoken language in accordance with where you were posted.

How did you use your Arabic language skills in your career?

I used my Arabic a lot during my first posting. This was to what were then called the Trucial States, where in my day hardly anybody spoke English. The only Ruler of the seven states to have had a modern education was the Ruler of Sharjah, Shaikh Saqr bin Muhammad al-Sharqi. High points were meals with the Ruler of Dubai, the late and great Shaikh Rashid bin Said al-Maktum. I gained a reputation for my liking for brains: the retainer would bring the goat’s head across to me and crack open the head with a jaw-bone.

All my overseas postings bar two were to the Arab world – Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq (I was an ambassador in the last three). In these various countries, I used my spoken Arabic to various extents; I always found being able to read it useful. I remember in particular a conversation with Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law in which I was arguing that Iraq should not pursue weapons of mass destruction and he was countering that the West was trying to hold Iraq back from technological advance.  I regret that after many years of retirement in Britain my spoken Arabic has regressed badly (I like to think that I could get it back in two weeks’ immersion), but I still read a certain amount of political material in Arabic.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

All foreigners find Arabic difficult. I am not sure why, since in essence it is a logical language that ought just to require application. However, it is exceedingly rich; the grammar is undeniably complex; there are a few sounds that foreigners cannot make without a deal of practice; and the spoken language varies widely across the Arab world. Application it certainly does require, and of course it is a great help to learn in an Arabic-speaking environment.  The rewards are enormous. You learn a truly wonderful language; you have an entry to an ancient and sophisticated culture.

 

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.

 

 

Interview w/ Sir Harold Walker 

Interview with Sir Harold Walker, former British Ambassador to Iraq by Initiatives of Change UK Podcast

Sir Harold Walker explains his views on the migration crisis. He explains the moral and legal responsibility as individuals and as Britain.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/sir-harold-walker-an-ethical-foreign-policy-is-not-an-optional-extra-2357321.html

Meet Ólöf Ragnarsdóttir! | My Journey to Arabic #18

We met with Ólöf Ragnarsdóttir, a PG Arabic student alumni from Iceland who has completed a Masters in International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic (IRMEwA) at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh.  In an interview with Ólöf we asked her the following questions:

 

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Ólöf Ragnarsdóttir and I am from a small town in Iceland called Vestmannaeyjar. I graduated from the International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic (IRMEwA)  program at the University of Edinburgh in November 2016. Previously I had gotten my bachelors degree in Political Science from the University of Iceland.

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

My journey to Arabic basically started in September 2014 when I joined the IRMEwA program. I did not know any letters of the alphabet nor could I speak a single word when I started. After two intensive years, including a semester abroad in Birzeit University in Palestine, I had reached a level of high intermediate in Arabic. Both writing and speaking.

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

I wanted to learn to speak another language and Arabic was always at the top of my list. It is very different from Icelandic in many ways and a beautiful language. Also, I wanted to learn more about countries and the culture in the region and to do so properly you need to be able to speak with people, preferably in their own language.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

If someone says they did not, they are either lying or they are one in a million. There were times I struggled so much trying to wrap my head around complex Arabic grammar structures explained in English (which is not my mother tongue) to the point where I was crying in the bathroom between classes. However, that is all worth it for the moments when you realise you actually understand and can use said structures naturally. My first time having a conversation on Arabic in front of friends from Iceland is also a moment I will not forget, they were so impressed.

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

For now I am teaching Arabic in the University of Iceland, which is probably the best job I have ever had. I have also been working for the city of Reykjavik as a cross-cultural mediator for Arabic speakers. My dream is to go back to Palestine and spend at least a year there in the near future and be surrounded with Arabic in everyday life. I have not yet reached the level of fluency I dream of.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

Time, time and more time. I know this is a cliché but it is also a fact that the more time you spend immersing yourself in the language, the quicker you learn it. Do all the homework, and a little extra. I guarantee you will see the results. Also, be sure to only compare you to yourself. We all learn differently and what works for your college might not work for you.

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.

 

 

Meet Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila | My Journey to Arabic #17

We met with Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Iraq Chair in Arabic & Islamic Studies Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies (IMES), University of EdinburghIn our interview, we asked him the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

I’m Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila. I defended my PhD  dissertation in 1994 (University of Helsinki, Finland), after which I was a Senior Researcher at the Academy of Finland before in 2000 becoming Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Helsinki, which chair I held until 2016. Since then, I am Iraq Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?  

Formally, I started studying Arabic in 1980 when I was seventeen, but I had studied the language on my own for a couple of years as a schoolboy.

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

When I was about 14, I read a book on Classical Arab culture by a Finnish scholar, Professor Jussi Aro, and got interested in it. I wanted to learn the language (Classical Arabic, not MSA!) to understand the culture and started reading the Qur’an with the help of Hans Wehr’s dictionary and Carl Brockelmann’s Arabische Grammatik. The next book I read through when I was already at the University as a student must have been Ibn Hisham’s Sirat Rasul Allah. I was, and still am, fascinated by the Classical Arabic civilization: its literature, history, and culture. Language has been the key to this culture: without Arabic, you can never go to the original sources themselves and you are at the mercy of translators: what they choose to translate and how they interpret the text marks the limits of your possibilities without Arabic.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

Learning Arabic has sometimes felt like a never-ending story. And it still does! But that’s also the beauty of it: you’ll always be sure to find a new difficult poet to tackle with.

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

I’ve always been within the walls of the Academy, but I’ve translated about a dozen books from Classical Arabic, too, as well as written a number of Finnish books on Islam and the Arab culture and reading Arabic has been instrumental for these works, too.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

To become an excellent student of Arabic one needs to work hard, but so it is also elsewhere. Just sit down and read, if you’re into Classical Arabic, or go out and speak, if you prefer spoken Arabic. Arabic is not an easy language, but nor is it an impossible one to learn. And as soon as you get going, you start to enjoy it!

 

“My Journey to Arabic” is a blog to capture learners’ stories and their fascinating journeys towards mastering the Arabic language and culture.