We met with Dr. Camelia Suleiman, Associate Professor of Arabic Studies at the Department of Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University. Camelia shares her learning journey to Arabic in the following interview:

My journey with Arabic started very early in my life, in the quiet pastoral town of Nazareth. I loved the sounds of Arabic, and my eyes would simply flood with tears every time my grandmother sang me Palestinian ‘Tahaleel’, or songs for children to help me go to sleep. Hearing the Quran at the local mosque or on the radio moved me to tears as well. In school, I always loved to read, and I would read any book I could cast my eyes on. I read books on Greek and Roman history, over and over again. I also read the Arabic encyclopedia ‘Al-Ma’rifa’ from cover to cover from a young age (published in Beirut, and had red attractive covers).  

Our house was always full of books, which puzzles me now, as my early childhood was during the Israeli military regime over the Arab citizens who remained after Israel was established, and as many books were banned, or simply unavailable. As I started learning other languages, I also enjoyed the new sounds I was adding to my repertoire. I treated Hebrew as another dialect of Arabic, having felt the affinity between both languages back then. My schooling was in Arabic, but when I went to college, I had to switch to Hebrew, and to English. I don’t remember the switch to be difficult, but I missed reading in Arabic, and so in my free time, I continued to be an avid reader of Arabic novels and poetry. It was something I did for pleasure. This has accompanied me through all my life, even when I moved to the U.S. more than twenty years ago. I still live intimately with Arabic, in spite of not writing research in it.

I never had any formal degrees in Arabic. I studied psychology and English literature for my B.A. and linguistics for my M.A, both at Haifa University, where the sounds of Arabic and Hebrew mixed together vibrated through the city, and still do.

I did my doctorate at Georgetown University in the U.S., also in linguistics. I taught and published in linguistics, focusing on the sociolinguistic aspects of interaction. But, a few years after the events of September 11, 2001, and when the demand for Arabic in the U.S. universities soared, I realised that I need to be part of this movement which is bringing the Arabic language and culture into the academic and public circles in the U.S. That was a very fortunate career move for me, as I still enjoy educating generations of American students in and about Arabic. It also allowed me to travel extensively in Arab countries and to interact with scholars from all over the world, all sharing the love for Arabic.

It has been an amazing journey.

What is your favourite place in the Arab world?

My favourite place is not too far away from my birthplace: Old Jerusalem, where the old Arabic scriptures on walls and public spaces mingle with the modern sounds of Palestinian Arabic, oblivious to all the politics around it.

What is your favourite Arabic quote?

My favourite phrase in Arabic is

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم ‘Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim’ “in the name of God the Merciful, the Forgiving’.

Is there a more beautiful phrase to start the day with, especially, when taking a morning walk on a slightly misty day in Jerusalem, and seeing it inscripted beautifully on the stone of old and new buildings alike in the streets of this ancient city?

What is your favourite Arabic book?

My favourite book is Edward Said’s ‘Out of Place’, which starts with describing a childhood spent between Jerusalem and Cairo. Even though he wrote it in English, there were phrases which he copied verbatim from the Nazareth Arabic of his mother, intermingled with his scholarly English. 

Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?

One of my favourite writers is Mayy Ziadeh (1886-1941), who was born in Nazareth, but became famous in Cairo, when Cairo was the centre of Arab culture. One phrase of her really touches my heart every day as I live away from home:

“Where is Home? You are not one of us because you are of a different sect. you are not one of us because you are of a different sex. Why is it me who does not have a home? Why me? I was born in a place, my father is from one place, my mother is from another, and I live in yet another. The ghosts of myself move from one place to another. Where do I belong? Why should I belong to a homeland which lacks the conditions to be home?” (My translation).

Mayy Ziadeh (1886-1941)

كم منزل في الأرض يألفه الفتى وحنينه أبداً لأول منزل “How many homes can grow familiar to us, but we only miss the first home”

Abu Tammam, Abbasid Poet

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