We met with Anthony Calderbank, Arabist, Arabic Literary translator and former British Council Director from the UK. Anthony, studied Arabic at Manchester University in the Department of Near Eastern Studies from 1978 to 1982,.  In an interview with Anthony, we asked him the following questions:

Tell us about yourself

Tony (Anthony) Calderbank, from Bolton. I studied Arabic and Persian at Manchester University in the Department of Near Eastern Studies from 1978 to 1982 and graduated with a first class joint honours degree. For the last 18 years I have worked for the British Council in Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and Bahrain. I am currently Country Director Libya, based in Tunisia. Before that I worked in higher education and taught English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo and Arabic and Translation at Salford University in the UK.  

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

This autumn it will be forty years since I began to study Arabic. I majored in Arabic and never had the opportunity to visit Iran. Since I graduated I have directed my attention to Arabic and can hardly remember a word of Persian. It was my destiny it seems to have this relationship with the Arabic language and this engagement with the Arab World.   

Although I spent six months in Damascus as a student it was in Cairo that I really learned to speak the language and after the first five years my Egyptian Arabic was not bad: no grammar mistakes, good pronunciation, wide vocabulary of Egyptian words and an understating of the techniques of Egyptian conversation. When I worked as a teacher in a primary school in the Shubra district of the city I would go for days hardly speaking a word of English. And as my knowledge of spoken Arabic improved so did my ability to read and understand the written languages. 

I spent a further ten years in Egypt then went to Saudi Arabia. It was a revelation. For me Egypt had been the Arab World and Egyptian Arabic the language. Now, experiencing Najd and Hijaz and Yemen and Oman I realised the limitation of that view. I noticed how people smiled when I spoke my Egyptian dialect. I began to relish the sound of gahwa and shugga rather than ‘ahwa and sha’’a which were starting to sound a bit delicate to my ear. And then there were all the flowery honorifics and titles that Egyptians use with one another, basha and bashmuhandis and so on, where the Saudis would simply say akh. My Arabic changed. I stopped using obviously Egyptian words, I’d say sayyara instead of 3arabiyya for example. And having gone on to spend time in South Sudan with Juba Arabic and in Bahrain with they say samach instead of samak, my Arabic is now a bit of a mix, although the Egyptian shows through when I go on for too long.          

The only thing is I struggle to write quickly. I can touch type, I did a typing course in Cairo many years ago but, but it’s quite slow, and I do not have the spontaneity of tapping out an email in Arabic like I do in English.  

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

Two things made me choose to study Arabic at university. I was interested in languages, had done French, German and Latin at school and wanted to do a different one. I was applying to do Italian when my French teacher said: why don’t you do Arabic or Japanese, try something completely different. Good advice. At the same time the BBC was showing a series of programmes on the World of Islam Festival. One episode featured an old calligrapher. He sharpened a reed pen then dipped it in ink and made the most beautiful letters on a sheet of parchment. I was instantly smitten.  I wanted to learn how to make those letters, how to say them so I applied to do Arabic. 

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

It is an endless journey, the mirage of native speaker competence shimmers in the distance, forever out of reach. I am always learning new words and ways of saying things. I never knew, for example, that in Tunisia when telling the time they use divisions of five minutes.  I still struggle to understand what people say. At university we studied classical Arabic, and essentially learned to read texts from the past, and although that provided us with an excellent grounding in the cultural heritage of the golden age it didn’t prepare you to buy a cup of tea. I experienced that frustration which I think is common to many who study formal Arabic and then arrive in The Arabic speaking community. It takes time before you can understand or say anything. I lived with family in Cairo and sometimes they’d ask me to repeat things I’d said: Tony, tell us what you said to that guy in the shop, and when I said it they’d laugh and laugh and I never knew why. 

I translate literature and while it’s completely addictive it can also be very frustrating, knowing exactly what the Arabic means but struggling to put it into English. Other times I haven’t a clue  what something  means and I ask a native speaker and  they say: I’m  not sure what that means. And then there’s the fact that you can’t always be sure how to pronounce a word you’ve never seen before because the vowels aren’t there.  

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

I started off as a teacher, I wanted to teach Arabic and share it with others. I taught it in Cairo to foreigners and then in UK to undergraduates. When I left teaching I continued to use Arabic. In some ways working with the education and culture sectors I interact more closely with Arabic speakers and use the language more effectively than I did as a teacher. I conduct meetings, do media interviews, give presentations and discuss matters of interest and concern with a wide range of people.   The downside is that have less time for translation now and that is something I am planning to return to, one day. 

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

It takes time, and tenacity. If you want to learn to speak the language like native speakers do you have to immerse yourself in an Arabic community, preferably with people who don’t speak your language, so that you have to use Arabic. At the same time you can learn other things that while not directly Arabic, still involve the language. I studied Arabic calligraphy and Islamic illumination in Cairo for years. You’re concentrating on making the letters but the teacher’s words as he describes the shapes and techniques and tells tales of the great masters wash over you and seep in subconsciously. I also learned how to cook Egyptian dishes by watching and listening and that had a similar effect. 

And I was very lucky to have started with a study of the ancient texts because that would have been difficult to replicate later on when I’d started work. It allowed me to understand where the dialects are coming form and how it all fits together because whatever people say about the varieties of Arabic and the diglossic/multiglossic nature of the language there is no denying the interconnectedness of all of it.  

Further Resources

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