Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, etc.)
My name is Alex Henley. I grew up in London, with parents born at opposite ends of the Islamic World: Morocco and Malaysia. I initially read Theology & Religion at Durham University (2003-6), where I spent two years studying Biblical Hebrew. I stayed on at Durham to do my MA in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (2006-7), then moving to Lebanon to work as a research assistant at the Lebanese Emigration Research Center. This time in Lebanon persuaded me to take up Arabic in earnest, spending a year in Edinburgh University’s intensive programme before beginning my PhD in Middle Eastern Studies (completed in 2014). Having spent four years at Harvard and Georgetown Universities in the US, as well as a brief stint teaching at Qatar University, I am now a Lecturer in Islam at Oxford University.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I began studying Arabic informally in 2007, spending 2008-9 in intensive study at Edinburgh and Damascus Universities, topping this up with short courses at the Qasid Institute in Amman and IFPO in Beirut. I reached a high enough level to conduct my PhD fieldwork interviews in Lebanon and translate Arabic sources, and even taught beginners at Harvard and the Middlebury summer school, but still consider myself more a learner than a teacher.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
One summer as an undergraduate, a friend persuaded me to spend two months backpacking around the Middle East. Without a (coherent) word of Arabic, and shockingly little knowledge of the region, we travelled overland from Cairo to Istanbul, learning as we went. I was hooked for life. A few years later, my first Arabic tutor was a Dr Hourani, relative of the late Albert Hourani at Oxford, who had me read – very falteringly – his own two-page ‘History of the Arab Peoples’. At Edinburgh, the charismatic combination of Jonathan Featherstone and Mourad Diouri showed me that even I, a hapless non-native, could negotiate the various registers of formal and informal Arabic.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
Learning Arabic is all ups and downs – but if it were quick and easy it wouldn’t be so rewarding! On numerous occasions I’ve felt overwhelmed by a new challenge: moving to Damascus University, where I had to learn all the grammar again in Arabic; deciphering the Qur’an with a Jordanian sheikh who spoke no English; doing interviews with Lebanese who would slip between colloquial and formal Arabic with odd French words thrown in, all in the course of a sentence; finally teaching other beginners under Middlebury’s strict ‘language pledge’, and planning classes with Egyptian colleagues who often seemed to be speaking a different language! Arabic will never stop throwing up hurdles, but if you swallow your pride and don’t mind getting your hands (and knees) dirty, you’ll always be learning something new.
What careers are you planning to pursue using your Arabic language skills?
Committing to Arabic despite its difficulties has enabled me to do research I never could have dreamt of otherwise, opening up a world of fascinating encounters. It has been essential to my academic career in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, and as I continue my research and teaching at Oxford, I’m still improving my Arabic. My next project will involve interviewing religious leaders in Jordan and Palestine.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic?
Sadly, most students give up at the first hurdle. What sets the rest apart is the tenacity of an explorer: if you just want to reach your destination quickly, learn French; if you’re looking to take the road less travelled, are ready to rough it a little, and don’t need your hand held through every step, make Arabic one of your life goals and enjoy the ride.
What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
Immerse yourself, and don’t be shy! Push yourself to keep listening, even if you don’t understand, and keep talking, even if you’re not sure you’ve got everything in the right place. Mistakes are part of learning, and everyone respects the person who tries (and sometimes fails) in Arabic.