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 Office. In an interview with Sir Walker we asked him 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.
Interview w/ Sir Harold Walker