We met with Rena Netjes. Former Egypt/Libya Correspondent at BNR Nieuwsradio, and Associate Fellow & Researcher at Clingendael Institute. In an interview with Rena, 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?

My road to Arabic via Hebrew. I grew up in a small village called Lemelerveld, in the east of The Netherlands, not far from the German border. My parents always told us stories of what happened under Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and how (Protestant) preachers who preached in Germany and The Netherlands had been warning of what was going on the 1930s in Germany. My grandparents from my mother’s side had been hiding Jews fleeing from Amsterdam, and from my father’s side British pilots found a safe haven in their farm.

In Summer, Israeli’s teenagers and some adults with one or two Israeli Arabs would come to visit for a week. They extended their trip to Germany for the Reconciliation Program with an extra week to The Netherlands. My parents arranged host families in Lemelerveld, the excursions to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, to Giethoorn, to Madurodam in The Hague, and so on. Since there was not always much enthusiasm in the rural community where we lived in the east of Holland to host the one or two Israeli Arabs, they mostly ended up at my parents’ home as well. At the end of the week, there was always a big dancing party with a lot of Israeli music at one of the farms in Lemelerveld. One year, I was 16, my parents were rewarded for their voluntarily work two free trips of 14 days from the municipality of Tel Aviv, I think it was. They had to pay for the plane ticket themselves. My mother asked me if I liked to go with my best friend high school. How nice. My best friend wasn’t allowed to go. So my parents spent a whole evening talking with her parents about the trip, how it was completely organized organised and safe. Then her parents changed their mind.

That Summer in Israel, I loved the Hebrew very much. It was more or less a lot of –eem –eem –eem and –oot – oot – oot to me: The male and female plural ending of present tense verbs, nouns and adjectives. I have to be fair, I think the hot weather and being more exotic than French were also reason of why I fell in love with that language. I also liked the difference in life style very much, going out late at night while you can still enjoy the nice hot weather.

Every Sunday afternoon at the end of the lunch, we would listen to G.B.J. Hiltermann, with his weekly radio column: in which he discussed “The situation of the World”, and often would speak about the Middle East. In the afternoon, my parents would put on classical music. I hated it that much that I fled upstairs with the Readers’ Digest and read stories such as the kidnapping of Terry Waits by Hezbollah in Lebanon. I wanted to understand the Middle East.

I tried to learn Hebrew from a book, but I didn’t get the change in pronunciation from B to V, K to Kh and P to F, So I decided to study Hebrew at University. I had been doubting about Fashion Academy and Middle Eastern Studies, but chose the latter. At high school, attempts were made to direct me to study Chemistry, but I followed my heart.

And French? Well, after six years of high school, my level of French was okay, and a study would mainly mean studying literature. I had meanwhile also begun to try to learn some Spanish because we were planning to visit Spain from Southern France that year. And my parents’ friends from Southern France were bilingual. A good way to practice.

So I went to university in the east of Holland, to Nijmegen with my best friend whom I went to Israel with. When I arrived they told me: Didn’t your high school inform you? Hebrew was cancelled as a major starting from this year, you can only do Arabic and take Hebrew as a minor. I was very disappointed. I think I even called my mother and said some think like: Now I have to learn the language of the enemy. Yes, we came from quite a pro-Israel background. Starting from that year, one could only study a lot of Modern Hebrew in Amsterdam, but there the academic year had already started six weeks earlier. It would be impossible to catch up. The introduction week of Arabic in the eastern city of Nijmegen was big fun though, nice lessons, and nice students. I decided to take Arabic as a major and Hebrew as a minor. After all, also in Israel many people speak Arabic. But Modern Standard Arabic happened to be extremely difficult, and out of the 44 students who started, only seven made it to the end. There was no time for Hebrew at all. I just made it and decided that this was also not what I exactly wanted and moved to Amsterdam to study Hebrew. The first year of Arabic would count as a minor. But then Modern Hebrew what I wanted was only 20% of the study, the rest was Biblical Hebrew, Mishna, Medieval, Modern Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic also. But in Amsterdam there was the possibility after one year of Arabic (what I had) to continue half of the time Arabic and half Hebrew. So finally I could take Modern Hebrew, and the one year Arabic helped me a lot with that. The Arabic at the University of Amsterdam consisted out of mostly Modern Standard Arabic, we had to translate 2,000 pages of Arabic literature, whereas in Nijmegen it was only 1,000. And next to the other phases of Arabic also Egyptian and Moroccan colloquial courses.

I got a scholarship for Modern Hebrew in Tel Aviv and for Arabic in Cairo. The one for Hebrew was especially excellent, because I turned out to be the only student in The Netherlands who was applying that year and professor Van Uchelen asked his colleague at the Tel Aviv University to give me a very good scholarship. After I finished for extra levels of Hebrew, I was entitled to follow regular classes in Hebrew at the University in Tel Aviv. I did Palestinian literature for my literature list in Amsterdam taught in Hebrew. I recall how the class was divided in Jews and Israeli Arabs and how they were sitting apart during breaks, and me the only one joining once the first group and next time the other.

During my second year in university, I started to teach both Arabic and Hebrew. I put advertisements and people reacted immediately. Teaching is a great way to repeat your language skills as well. After I graduated, I started to teach full time through my own business, Rena Lingua. And I am still teaching until today. First Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Colloquial and Modern Hebrew. Later on I took private lessons in Amman, Beirut and Damascus to learn the Levantine dialects, and started to teach them as well. In Amman and Damascus I asked the private teachers: ‘Look, these are the verbal conjugations in Egyptian Colloquial, please tell me what Jordanian and Syrian Colloquial is doing differently.’ In the end I did two studies, Arabic and Hebrew. Only I didn’t write the final paper for Hebrew to be able to call myself a Hebraist as well, because I had to work. When I graduated in Arabic, my father’s sister said in Lower Saxon, the language people speak in the Northern eastern part of the Netherlands: What can you do with Arabic? Well, I taught so much Arabic and Hebrew that was able to get a mortgage in Amsterdam.

Now I live in the centre of Istanbul, I had to flee out of Egypt after I had a coffee with an Al-Jazeera English journalist. Enough for 10 years of jail. Walking through the centre of Istanbul, especially down Istiklal Street I hear all these different Arabic colloquial variations: Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Libyan, Yemeni, Saudi, Tunisian, Moroccan almost all on every single day. Most Turks are not happy with so many Arabs. But to me, Istanbul is a linguistic (and culinary) paradise. I am writing analyses mainly about Syria, and about other parts of the Arab World. I teach Arabic and Hebrew to students in The Netherlands. And trying to learn Turkish, too, which has a lot of Arabic loanwords, but for the rest is a complete other kind of language. I have been watching Arab media since around 2004. In Amsterdam, I lived permanently; in Egypt from 2010 till the beginning of 2014. Still, I would like to be able to speak Arabic faster, and especially Modern Standard Arabic. Recently only, refugees would say: I didn’t expect you were an Arab, you don’t look like one. Or: from which Arab country I come from…and only last week for the first time an Egyptian asked if I were Egyptian. Although I love those questions, I know that I am still not yet there. So I keep learning Arabic. Forever. Knowing Arabic and Hebrew has brought me a lot of great things, from great people into my life to best food and to lots of interesting work. I was luckily able to turn my passion into a job. And I simply can’t get enough of it.

I reminded my aunt on the last time I saw her, ‘Do you remember what you asked me back then: What can you do with Arabic?’ She said: ‘Yes.’ And we both had to laugh about it.

What is your favourite Arabic word?

My favourite Arabic word is fusaifisaa’, mosaic, I think it sounds funny.

What is your least favourite Arabic word?

And my least favourite qabeeH, ugly, it really sounds ugly.

Who is your most inspiring Arab personality?

The most inspiring Arab personality is my Egyptian best friend.

What is your favourite place?

That is a hard question, because I liked both Beirut and Cairo very much. I like the heat in Cairo a lot. It’s sad that the authorities falsely accused and sentenced me so I had my own Exodus from Egypt. I live in Istanbul now, and the centre of Istanbul feels pretty much like living in Istanbul, Beirut and Cairo on the same time. So many Arabs are residing here now. It has become a hub for Arab dissidents and refugees. Plus many Arab tourists. During a walk through Istiklal Street, the main shopping street here, one can hear Syrian Arabic, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Gulf, Libyan and Moroccan… The same goes for the Arab restaurants and beauty salons here. And I often ask Arabs to give me a specific word or expression from their hometown.
For Arabists, Istanbul is a linguistic paradise.

Talking about different Arabic Colloquials, Syrian (Damascus/Homs) sounds the nicest, the cutest to me, it sounds more or less like French in Western European language. And I find Egyptian Arabic the funniest. Egyptians also seem to speak about three times as fast as other Arabs. I am actually glad that I am finally on this level of easily distinguishing different colloquials/dialects.

What is your favourite book?

I always liked ‘zawba3a fiy fingaan’ (Egyptian): ‘A sandstorm in a Turkish coffee cup’, which is a variety of Dutch and English ‘A storm in a glass of water’ .
Reading Arabic books has been a while ago for me; at the University of Amsterdam we had to translate 2,000 pages of Arabic Literature. On another Dutch university, only 1,000 pages, so we always felt kind of like treated harshly. But my Arabic is better than my Hebrew now because of this. It was really hard to grasp the meaning of sentences; in the beginning translating a few lines would take a couple of hours. In the end, we were able to do ten pages a day. Because I was so focussed on the structure and so on, I often missed a lot of beauty of the texts, I believe.

With my private students who learned Arabic next to their jobs, I chose to read ‘Aa3id ilaa Haifa’ of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. The plot is very surprising. I also chose to teach from this one because its Arabic is not that difficult.

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