We met with Dr. Thomas Pierret from Belgium, Former Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh. He is currently Senior Researcher at CNRS-IREMAM. In an interview with Thomas we asked him the following questions:
Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
I am Thomas Pierret, 38, from Belgium. I am an academic researcher specialising on the politics of modern Islam, particularly in Syria. I currently work as a Senior Researcher at CNRS-IREMAM in Aix-en-Provence, France. Between 2011 and 2017, I was a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh, Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. I hold a PhD in Political Sciences from Sciences Po Paris and the University of Louvain, Belgium (2009). Before that, I studied History at the University of Liège (2001), International Relations at the Free University of Brussels (2002), and Comparative Politics at Science Po Paris (2003).
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I started studying Arabic in 1999. For the last ten years, I haven’t been taking any class, but I have kept on improving my language skills through daily readings and frequent conversations. I am a fluent reader, a good speaker, and a decent writer.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
During my undergraduate studies in (European) History, I spent summer holidays in Jordan and fell in love with the region. When I came back to the university in September, I took Arabic as an option course, with the goal in mind of specialising on the Arab world at postgraduate level. The need to understand Arabic for my subsequent research at Master and PhD levels is what motivated me to continue studying Arabic.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
The first four years I spent studying in Belgian and French universities, before I was finally able to take course in Syria, were encouraging as far as writing and reading were concerned (hard work was obviously paying off), but not so much when it came to speaking, because there were too little opportunities to exercise my oral and aural skills.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
First, hard work, hard work, hard work. Second, seizing any possibility to spend time in Arab countries and study Arabic there. Third, I found popular songs very useful to learn colloquial Arabic. Fourth, one should not be exaggeratedly scared by the variations within the Arabic language (classical/modern standard/colloquial, colloquial variations); although some people might claim the opposite, learning several of these variations is not like learning two, three or more different languages: for instance, knowledge of classical Arabic is actually helpful to learn dialects, and vice versa.
What is your favourite Arabic word?
لؤي (lu’ay), because it is the name of my son (in French we transliterated it “Loueï”). It is a very old Arabic name which originally designated a type of small river in the desert.
What is your least favourite Arabic word?
مخابرات (mukhabarat, “intelligence services”), because they are the ugliest part of Arab politics; police states in the Arab world have ruined the lives of generations and destroyed civil society.
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
Ghiath Matar, a young revolutionary activist from Daraya (a suburb of Damascus) who distributed flowers and water bottles to the soldiers who were sent to suppress demonstrations in 2011. He was arrested by the regime and died under torture.
What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
Syria. I lived there for three years, first to study Arabic, and second to carry out field research for my doctoral thesis. Since 2011, Syria has been constantly on my mind, for obvious reasons.
What is your favorite Arabic quote?
I don’t know if it is an Arabic, or possibly Kurdish proverb, but while we were discussing the terrible turn of events in Syria after 2011, a Syrian friend once told me something like “when you plant brambles, you don’t grow watermelons” (I don’t remember exactly what is was in Arabic). I thought it was a cogent, even if simple, response to Westerners who moan about the alleged lack of alternative political forces to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. What this quote means is that such regimes have consistently made their best to destroy civil society and prevent organised social forces from emerging as credible contenders.
What is your favourite Arabic book and why?
I can’t think of a single book, but I am proud of the collection I acquired while doing research in Syria between 2005 and 2008. It consists of hagiographies of ulama and religious treaties. Some of these books were published in very small numbers and are consequently quite rare.