We met with Jamie Furniss, a Lecturer in Social Anthropology/International Development from Canada. Jamie, studied Arabic at University of Ottawa, American University in Cairo. In an interview with Jamie, we asked him the following questions:

Tell us about yourself

I initially trained as a lawyer in Canada, completing a three year degree in civil law (Quebec’s legal system) and a one year common law degree at the University of Ottawa. I came to the UK as a graduate student in International Development at Oxford, where I did my dissertation on Cairo’s Zabbaleen (waste collectors) and the long history of development projects with them. Development Studies is like a constellation of shared geographic and thematic interests that federate people from different disciplinary backgrounds. From the beginning I had a great affinity for anthropology so during my graduate studies I did everything I could to apprentice myself to the discipline through my methods, the amount of time I spent in the field, and language skills. I was very lucky to be offered the chance to join the University of Edinburgh’s department of Social Anthropology in 2013 after doing a post-doc at a Middle East Studies research centre in Lyon (France). More recently, I have had the chance to be affiliated at the Centre for Near and Middle East Studies at Philipps Universität in Marburg (Germany). I have continued to do fieldwork in Egypt, and more recently I have also begun spending more time in Tunisia and developing some researcher interests there. By now I’ve dabbled in many topics, including gender, masculinities, and violence; squatters movements and land theft in contexts of voids in state power; extra-judicial conflict resolution and reconciliation processes (sulḥ, in Arabic); and religion and humanitarianism. My core interests remain international development, environment and especially waste.

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I studied Arabic for the first time in 2000-2001 during my first year as an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa. I remember my teacher Najwa Gharzouzi very well. On my first day in class, a bunch of the other students (mostly Lebanese) were speaking fluent Arabic with one another in class waiting for the teacher to arrive! I learned later that they were engineering and science students who took the course to boost their GPA on their transcript. That feeling of being the hopelessly worst student of the class has never really left me since. My experience with Arabic has been the same was with yoga or running: it is not something I will ever be able to tick off my list as “done”. I just just keep practicing. Sometimes I get better, sometimes I get worse. No matter how good I get, there are always people who are so infinitely better than me that it seems magical and incomprehensible, and makes me want to immediately quit. The very first time I arrived in the region was on a flight to Cairo that, like all flights to Cairo (it seems), arrived in the middle of the night. I had a flat share arranged in advance and my roommate told me to get a cab to the “Flamenco Hotel”. My Arabic was so bad I didn’t know the word for hotel. The cab driver, even though he was picking up customers from the international airport, didn’t know “hotel” in English. With only the word “Flamenco” in common, we asked our way through the city at 3 a.m. and somehow made it. I had my first class the next morning, and I thought I was prepared, but of course got all the stresses, the “j” sound, and the ‘ain wrong as I struggled to tell the cab driver I wanted to go to al-jami’a al-amrikiya. At that time, when I met a foreigner who could give clear instructions in a taxi (right, left, straight, turn at the Midan) they seemed like a miracle worker to me. Today, in the right context, with the right interlocutors, on a topic whose vocabulary I am familiar with, I can do an hour long interview for my research, get a joke, or give a powerpoint presentation about what I do. At the same time, lift me out of that context and plunge me into a different location, accent, vocabulary, etc, and I still feel pretty much the same way I did on that very first day walking in Najwa Gharzouzi’s class.

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?

Who really knows why some things appeal to us and others do not – or whether if some chance events of our lives had developed differently it would all have taken a different course. When I try to think about why and how I became interested in Arabic, the furthest point I can reach back to was when I was a young teenager, probably about 13, and there was a little independent music shop in my home town called Rose Music. It was run by a guy with a white beard and a gold earring named Steve. You could go to Rose music and listen to any disc for as long as you wanted. One time I randomly asked to listen to these EMI Hemisphere discs of music from the Middle East. I especially remember the one called “Sif Safaa: New Music From The Middle East.” I lived in a very small town in Northern Canada. At the time there was literally one black family in the entire town (whom everybody of course knew of) and I had never heard the spoken sound of the Arabic language even a single time. It felt like I had discovered a secret from somewhere very far away. Not long after I went to a high school where we boarded on campus, and I had a Lebanese roommate named Samer Karam. When we met, I literally did not know Lebanon was a country: the only Lebanon’s I had heard of were in Pennsylvania and the Bible. The University of Ottawa is a pretty large university and when I received the course catalogue in the mail for my first year, it was a couple hundred pages. I was open to anything at that time and I went through it with a fine toothed comb, considering every possible course. When I saw they offered Arabic, I thought, “you know what, I’m going to see what that’s all about”. Once I had been to the region and began to understand the difference between the written and spoken language, I realized that what I mainly wanted to be able to do was talk to people, be understood, and participate in daily life. Since then, I have always prioritized learning the spoken colloquial. I wish my reading and writing were better, but it is hard to do everything.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

One time while I was doing my PhD I was invited to the Cairo home of a professor whose research I admire greatly. He is a great Arabist, has written absolutely fantastic research work on the region, and I always placed him on a high pedestal. As the evening drew on, we decided to have dinner, so he picked up the phone to order some food for delivery. It was the first time I ever heard him speak Arabic. His Arabic was great, and no doubt still much better than mine, but the experience made me think: I can do this. I realized that he too had an accent, and sometimes searched for a word or had to find a creative way of expressing himself. Later we talked about what it means to become fluent and he told me that very few foreigners ever achieve a uniformly high degree of proficiency with all types of materials, topics and settings. Most us only ever get comfortable in some registers and situations, according to our research or work.

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

So far the professional benefits of my Arabic have mainly been in conducting research, however there are many positions with international organization that require it and indeed if my Arabic were better, more of these positions would be open to me.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

If you know that you want to learn Arabic (or another difficult language)—and it is certainly a fantastic string to have have in your bow—I would suggest prioritizing it early in your studies. I feel like I have spent my whole life trying to play catch up and squeeze the Arabic in at the same time as doing my PhD, or while I’m in the field and just want to just focus on my research. If you do a first degree in languages, you can always pick up social science methods, a bit of history and politics, or whatever, later on. The opposite—to “pick up” the language on the side—will be much more challenging (though not impossible). When I was in my twenties, taking a year or two extra just to live in the region without doing much except study the language seemed like it would delay my ambitions. In retrospect, I was probably in too much of a rush to get it all done. Studying Arabic is like planting a tree. The best best time to have done it was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now. It’s a lifelong project.

What’s your favourite Arabic word?

Batatwi / بتاتوي – from the bread called واتب. I love this word because is the source of many inside jokes in Manshiet Nasser, where I have done a lot of fieldwork. My upper Egyptian friends there use it to make fun of me endearingly and it delights them that I know the word.

What is your least favourite Arabic word? Why?

Moussaqa/المسقعة I love this dish, but it probably took me 1 year before I could consistently pronounce in a way that people in Cairo understand. The combination of the qaf and ‘ain was almost impossible for me at first.

Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?

Nasreddin/جحا Guḥā, the satirical wise man.

What is your favourite place in the Arab World?

Cairo, because you never get to the bottom of it applied to myself, of course.

What is your favourite Arabic quote?

التكرار يعلّم الحمار

What is your favourite book? Why?

I’d rather go with a film, انتبه ايها السادة / Watch Out Gentlemen! The film is an allegory about the changes to Egyptian society under the Infitah economic policies, told through the social and economic rise of a garbage collector and illustrates many aspects of class and the 20th century modernist ideology in the country.


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