We met with Mr. Leslie McLoughlin (FRGS, FRHistS) Arabist, Scholar & Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. In an interview, we asked him the following questions:
Tell us about yourself
My name is Leslie McLoughlin. I was born of British parents in 1935 in Ormskirk , Lancashire, a market town near Liverpool . My secondary education was at St.Edward’s College, Liverpool , from 1945 to 1951. I then had what is now called a Gap Year when I worked locally to earn enough to fund the travels which I planned for 1952
In that year I travelled with a fellow-student to the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland . We sailed from Tilbury , UK to Gothenburg in Sweden . From there we hitch-hiked to Stockholm and arrived there on the very day, 23 July 1952, when the Swedish press had the story of Gamal Abdul-Nasser and the “ Free Officers“. They had announced that King Farouk’s reign was at an end and he would be sent into exile.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
In September 1952 I began a 3-year degree course in Medieval and Modern History at Manchester University. It was at Manchester that I began to take an interest in Arabic and Islam, inspired by fascinating lectures given by Charles Beckingham: he later became Professor of Islamic Studies at SOAS, University of London.
After graduation in 1955 I began my 2 years of National Service in the Army. Most of that period I spent near Hamburg in Germany , where I learned German to “A” Level . I have since then continued to work on improving my German , which has been essential for the study of Arabic literature. German is necessary, for example , for the study of the “Mu’allaqaat “ since the German commentaries on pre-Islamic poetry have not yet , I believe , been put into English.
After National Service I was commissioned into the Royal Army Educational Corps ( RAEC ) . The RAEC assigned me to learn Arabic at Durham University with a view to my teaching Arabic to military personnel in the Army’s school for Arabic in Aden , known as CALSAP (Command Arabic Language School , Arabian Peninsula)
The year at Durham was followed by 6 months of intensive study of Arabic in Lebanon, where the Foreign Office had established a school for Arabic , known as MECAS i.e. Middle East Centre for Arab Studies. MECAS was invaluable for making progress in Arabic, as we were in an entirely Arabic-speaking environment.
All the instructors were native speakers, either Lebanese or Palestinian and we had continuous exposure to Arabic in all the mass media and films as well as mingling with the villagers of Shemlan where MECAS had been established in 1944. Its founder was Bertram Thomas, the famous explorer who made a remarkable journey in 1930-31 through the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter, the “ Rub’ Al – Khali “.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic? What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
After MECAS I taught Arabic for 2 years in Aden where I met my future wife. We married in 1964. In 1964 I had my first official assignment as an interpreter for military matters and since then I have used Arabic in all Arabic – speaking countries with the exception of Algeria.
In the period since 1964 I have used Arabic on a daily basis in one way or another. Naturally, there have been difficulties in the process of learning Arabic , as is normal with any learner of a foreign language. However, the student will find that through insisting on using Arabic on all occasion he/she will continue to improve in the skills of listening, speaking , reading and writing.
The student should above all appreciate that native Arabic speakers who are Muslims are enormously impressed that the foreigner has made efforts to learn the language of the Koran. It is impossible fully to understand Muslims without knowing Arabic and it is impossible to have a deep knowledge of Arabic without understanding Islam and in particular having a good knowledge of the Koran .
The student will also find that a good knowledge of Arabic is invaluable in Arabic countries which have a Christian population, such as Egypt , Lebanon , Syria and Iraq. It is important to remember also that a knowledge of Arabic and of Islam means that one can be in touch with Muslims in all parts of the world .
To return to the story of my progress in Arabic …. Because I was by around 1980 familiar with many Arabic dialects I felt comfortable to be asked to be the interpreter in London for HM The Queen, Prime Ministers, Ministers and the Ministry of Defence from 1983 to 2009.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
Naturally, I have given much thought to the best way to learn the language. My main recommendation is that the student should be placed in an Arabic-speaking environment as soon as possible so that the acquisition of Arabic should be as close as possible to the process by which anyone acquires the mother-tongue. With the use of modern IT it is perfectly possible to simulate total immersion in the target language.
A further recommendation is that when students are actually in the Arab world they should ideally live with an Arabic-speaking family. A very useful extra activity, of course, is to have an occupation ( possibly as a temporary worker, say, in a bookshop ) in which he/she is obliged to use Arabic.
- University Profile
- From Arabia to Exeter: a family’s story:The delicate language of international diplomacy is well known to Arabic Interpreter Mr Leslie McLoughlin who has lived a life more akin to scenes in James Bond films.The daring escapes, assassinations, riots and civil wars were part of life for Leslie and his young family, who have lived in numerous Arab countries since 1961.
- Ibn Saud: Founder of a Kingdom, Palgrave Macmillan / St.Antony’s,1993. A Nest of Spies…?
- An Informal History of MECAS, Alhani Books, London, 1994. In A Sea of Knowledge: British Arabists in the 20th Century, Ithaca Press, 2002.
- Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter: The Odyssey of an Arabist 1959-2009, Motivate Books, 2010.
- Guide to Speech Making in Arabic, 2012