We met with Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Iraq Chair in Arabic & Islamic Studies Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies at Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies (IMES), University of Edinburgh. In 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!