We met with Melissa Gatter, a PhD candidate from the USA. Melissa is a PG Arabic alumni studying for PhD Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. In an interview with Melissa, we asked her the following questions:
Tell us about yourself
I am Melissa Gatter, a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge. I am currently writing my dissertation on time and emergency in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, where I completed about 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork. Prior to this, I completed my MPhil in the same faculty, and my research was on childhood and humanitarianism in Za’tari refugee camp. I graduated with a BA from the University of Chicago in 2015, having carried out fieldwork for my bachelor’s thesis on modes of waiting and identity expression among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees living in urban and camp settings. Throughout all of these experiences, I worked with various humanitarian organizations serving these communities. I am originally from Chicago, USA.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I began my Arabic journey 8 years ago as a first-year undergrad at the University of Chicago. I started out with MSA and began to pick up Jordanian Arabic in 2014 and then Syrian in 2016. I completed my MPhil and PhD fieldwork and internships with NGOs entirely in Arabic, and at the moment my colloquial skills are probably stronger than my MSA skills.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
During my last year of high school in 2011, I was fascinated by the Arab Uprisings. Growing up in the US with much of my childhood under the Bush presidency, my understanding of the Arab world was limited to images of war and violence. The revolutions exposed me to a more complex picture of the region. When I entered university, I signed up for Arabic language classes and courses on the Middle East to learn as much about the region as I could. I wanted to figure out how to change the misconceptions that many Americans have about Arab countries. I knew the best way to strengthen my knowledge would be to pursue ethnographic research, and for this I needed to gain linguistic and cultural fluency.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
By second year Arabic, MSA grammar became more complicated, and I was losing confidence in my ability to ever really speak and understand Arabic. This changed when I spent the following summer in Jordan, which forced me to not only practice but also to want to get better so I could be able to communicate fully with Arabic speakers for future research. I returned to Arabic classes after that with renewed motivation. Every trip back to Jordan since then has seen a vast improvement in my Arabic skills, my ability to not only understand a diverse range of accents but to also be understood. Over my eight year journey, I transitioned from being terrified to use my Arabic to having to think before speaking in Arabic to being excited to converse with someone else in their native tongue to finally dropping the “shway” when asked if I speak Arabic. A moment of intense pride occurred during PhD fieldwork, when I realized that I had fulfilled my goal to be able to carry out all my interviews and interactions with my informants entirely in Arabic. The language was no longer the biggest challenge in my research, and that was a huge moment for me.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
As I’ve mentioned, I have carried out ethnographic research with refugee communities and humanitarians using Jordanian and Syrian colloquials. I hope that wherever I end up next keeps me connected to these communities as I look to bridge the gap between research/academia and humanitarianism.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
Learning Arabic is so much more than studying a new alphabet and complicated grammar. The Arabic language is intrinsic to cultural practices. When you learn Arabic, you inevitably become more fluent in the culture, and this kind of fluency can greatly change how native speakers perceive you and is key to establishing trust, especially in fieldwork. The most important recommendation I could give is to spend time in an Arabic-speaking country and insist on conversing only in Arabic. Ask native speakers to send you their favorite shows and films for both cultural and linguistic exposure. You will remember anything you learn organically over anything you memorize for a class, but do appreciate your MSA coursework for the foundation it provides to jump into any colloquial dialect. I will always remember something one of my first Arabic TAs told me: “You might sound like a five-year-old for a bit, but that’s ok because that’s how languages are learned.” So enjoy the process, remember the language does not come to you overnight, and with a bit of persistence you will eventually suddenly realize how much you’ve grown from the beginning.
What’s your favourite Arabic word?
I quite like يفضفض (to get off one’s chest/to vent) because it sounds like what it is, and I like how there is one word that encapsulates the relief of venting to someone.
What is your least favourite Arabic word? Why?
I don’t love the word for cinnamon (قرفه) because it is too close for the word for ‘disgusting’, which is the last thing I want to think about when adding cinnamon to a recipe
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
Edward Said, his thought-provoking writings helped me to better reflect on my positionality in fieldwork.
What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
Jerusalem. Everything about it is beautiful: the natural landscape, the view above the rooftops in the Old City, the Dome of the Rock. Jordan’s serene Wadi Rum is a close second.
What is your favourite Arabic quote?
من محمود درويش – على هذه الارض ما يستحق الحياة (On this land is what is deserving of life)
What is your favourite book? Why?
Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry book, ‘State of Siege’. It was the first book I read in Arabic, and it held even more significance as I was studying abroad in Jerusalem at the time. I shortly after visited his memorial in Ramallah, and I will always revisit his work.