Tell us about yourself
I’m Benjamin Geer. I was born in New York in 1969. I studied music, French, and linguistics. My first career was in software development. I did my PhD at SOAS, University of London, in Middle East Studies, on the history of nationalism in Egypt, and finished it in 2012. I then spent a few years in academic positions in Egypt, Singapore, and Germany. Now I work as a software developer for a Swiss public-sector institution focusing on the preservation of humanities research data. I also still do some academic research. I’ve written a blog post about my accidental career. You can find out more about my research here.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current skill level?
I started learning Arabic in London in 2003. Between 2005 and 2012 I lived on and off for a total of four years in Cairo. By 2012 I was very proficient in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. In my research I used Egyptian films and did interviews in Arabic, and a lot of my social life happened in Arabic. I could read modern Arabic literature as well as 15th-century chronicles without much difficulty, and I could write in a good MSA style. I haven’t been back to Egypt since 2013. I can still read and write just as well, but my spoken Arabic has started to get a bit rusty. Fortunately, it still comes back with an evening or two of conversation. It feels like an important part of me, and I’m determined not to lose it.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?
My first language was English, and I had learned French very well and Italian fairly well. I enjoyed learning languages, and wanted to learn a non-Indo-European language, but was having trouble choosing one. At the same time, I was involved in political activism in London and other European cities, in what was then called the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement. In 2003 I participated in demonstrations in London against the invasion of Iraq, and it was that political context that led me to decide on Arabic. My main motivation at the time was to understand the Arab world better so I could be a better activist in Europe. From 2005-2007 I lived in Cairo and studied Arabic full-time, while starting to learn sociology. I was keen to have a social life in Arabic, so I wanted to focus on spoken Arabic while still reading and working on MSA. So I studied Egyptian films that were based on novels; this way, I could work on MSA with the novel, and colloquial Arabic with the film, and use the novel as a preparation for understanding the film. I found myself wanting to answer sociological questions about the historical changes that these works reflected, and that led to my PhD.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
I loved living in Cairo and speaking Arabic every day. It’s been hard for me to adjust to life without Cairo. It’s not easy to find Egyptian Colloquial Arabic speakers where I live now.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
Arabic was essential for my PhD and subsequent academic research, and it has also been useful in my work on computer software for working with humanities data.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic?
I think you have to be an autonomous learner, which means that you’re in control of the learning process, setting your own priorities and choosing the methods that work best for you. It helps to learn something about linguistics, especially phonology: what exactly do you have to do with your mouth to produce that sound? Arabic classes can be useful at a beginning level, but once you reach intermediate level, I think private lessons are more effective, because you’ll get more practice speaking, and you can tailor the lessons to your own needs. I highly recommend living for at least two years in an Arab country, and spending as much time as possible speaking Arabic there every day. Spoken Arabic has generally been neglected in the teaching of Arabic as a second language. You’ll find no better source of real everyday expressions than films. I paid native speakers to transcribe entire films, I used the transcriptions to help me make sure I understood every word of dialogue, and I practiced repeating the actors’ lines, trying to imitate the actors as closely as possible. In the beginning, I took vocabulary notes, but eventually decided that they weren’t helping. The important thing is to encounter the same words again and again in different contexts, and to try to use them in speech and writing. A good way to learn good Arabic writing style is to sit with a teacher while they correct and revise your writing. I always refer to an Arabic text corpus (like arabiCorpus) while writing, to make sure I find the most idiomatic phrasing. Don’t trust machine translation systems; they’re useless for Arabic.
What is your favourite Arabic word? Why?
عود: I love the sound of the instrument and the sound of the word.
What is your least favourite Arabic word? Why?
مكتبة: is it library or bookshop?
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality? Why?
It’s hard to choose one, but one of them is filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, who I wrote a book chapter about: https://edoc.unibas.ch/61090/
What is your favourite place in the Arab World? Why?
It’s the Cairo I lived in, where I sat talking for hours in outdoor cafes with friends until late at night. But Cairo has changed since then, and you can’t go back to the past.
What is your favourite Arabic quote?
Since I’m thinking about Yousry Nasrallah, here’s a quote from an interview I did with him: الحداثة أنا بالنسبة لي هي قدرتك على إنك إنت عالم آه قد يكون مخيف وللا أي حاجة زي كده بس إنت مش خايف إنت قادر تتعامل معاه ‘To me, modernity means that yes, the world is frightening, but you’re not afraid, you can cope with it.’
What is your favourite Arab dish/meal? Why?
Egyptian محشي, probably because I eat tons of carbohydrates and I love vegetables, so vegetables stuffed with rice is the perfect dish for me.