We met with Dr. Anthony Gorman. Tony is from Australia and he is a Historian & Senior Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History & Politics at the Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies department, U. of Edinburgh. In an interview with Tony we asked him the following questions:

  1. Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
  2. How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
  3. What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
  4. Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
  5. What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
  6. What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

After six years of travelling around the world I returned home to Australia, broke and just turned thirty. I had picked up a degree in Ancient History some years before and, after my long wanderings, had decided it was time to go back to study but now with an interest in the modern world.

Two areas of the world interested me: Latin America and the Middle East, both in which I had stayed for a considerable time. In the Middle East I  had spent considerable time in Israel where I was exposed directly to the reality of the political situation on the Lebanese border (this was not long after the Israeli invasion in 1982), where I arrived as a rather uninformed kibbutz volunteer and left with many questions. After taking advice from various quarters I decided that the Middle East had more to offer in terms of my interests, career prospects – and language learning challenges.

I enrolled for a PhD at Macquarie University working under Bob Springborg with a vague idea of wanting to do something on twentieth century Middle Eastern history or politics. From my undergraduate studies, I knew that language was critical to any serious research so I enrolled in an Arabic class in the Semitic Studies Department at the University of Sydney, the only university in Sydney at the time that offered it. I began classes with the modest ambition to be able to read through an Arabic text in preparation for some fieldwork in the Middle East.I was used to language study.

My undergraduate degree had involved 4 years of Classical Greek, some Latin and German. I knew my way around the vocabulary of grammar: number, tense, mood, case, all quite familiar concepts. The idafa was a breeze and broken plurals catchy though diptotes were a challenge. I had also picked up some other languages in my travels – good Spanish, some conversational Hebrew, but little more than a handful of Arabic phrasebook terms (and IBM) for my trip through Syria, Jordan and Egypt.At Sydney University Arabic IB was for complete beginners. It involved 6 hours class time each week, taught by 4 teachers who shared different aspects of the course: grammar, prose composition, reading etc. I also took Islamic Studies, basically a history and culture course.It was soon clear that the Semitic Studies Department was not one big happy family. It was made up of two arms, Hebrew and Arabic, which really had little to do with each other. However, the real hostilities were waged within the Arabic section, staffed by an Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian, who hardly spoke to one another. While they each had something to offer as teachers they seemed incapable of communicating, much less coordinating, the course with one another. So it was really 4 or 5 separate sub-courses. It wasn’t easy. The writing system that had been so mysterious was quickly learned and the grammar wasn’t so difficult but building and retaining vocabulary took a lot of time, even with Hans Wehr close by.My second year, Arabic 2B, had just one teacher, the formidable Syrian Samar Attar, who had recently published an Arabic language textbook, even if she made it very clear that her real interests were much more in literature (and indeed, she herself was a published novelist). So the course was better coordinated but didn’t offer much variety.

My clearest memory is of slogging our way through Yahya Haqqi, Qandil Um Hashim. The method reminded me very much of Greek and Latin classes – very close reading of the text, then learning it for the exam. So my reading was improving, although I was not acquiring the most suitable vocabulary for my research, but my speaking was very pedestrian and wholly MSA. Questions about learning spoken Arabic were usually hosed down with the standard defence: But what dialect should we teach? Better just to learn the Modern Standard.In January 1993, courtesy of an exchange agreement signed between my university and the American University in Cairo, I found myself in a distinctly cool Cairo, spending my first nights at the Amin Hotel in Bab al-Luq. I signed up for a number of courses including two of Arabic, MSA and Egyptian colloquial, each taught for 5 or 6 hours a week.

The teachers were the young but somewhat self-important Sami Musa for MSA and the avuncular laughing Yunus Khadrawi for colloquial. While they had quite different styles they were committed language teachers, not research academics forced to teach the language. Over the next 12 months, with their help, and a large number of taxi drivers and people in the street, I laid down the foundation of the Arabic I have now. The process was full of excitement and frustration: regular arguments over fares, tortuous conversations with papyrus sellers, misunderstandings because I heard ‘bakery’ (matbakh) not ‘printing shop’ (matba‘) and so on. Nevertheless, without that period in Egypt I doubt could not have developed my language level to the point where it became an effective tool of research.Since that time I have lived and worked in Australia, the Middle East and Europe, and most recently years been teaching Middle Eastern History at the University of EdinburghThe tradition of learning Arabic in the West has been burdened by the Orientalist legacy that has regarded the written language as the key to understanding its culture. It was viewed almost as a dead language, like Greek and Latin, to be learnt in order to read canonical texts.

This suffocating tradition has been compounded by the lack of qualified Arabic teachers who can teach it effectively as a modern living language (though with a long history). This was certainly the case in Australia where Arabic speakers were assumed to be able to teach their language or scholars of Islam and the Middle East were assumed to skilled in language pedagogy. This led to many potential students becoming frustrated with their lack of progress. Things have improved since that time. Despite these difficulties – and learning a foreign language well is never easy – hard work and application bring their reward and open up a new world, culture and perspective

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