We met with Simon Peter Loynes, a Tutor from the UK. Simon is has completed his PhD at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department at the University of Edinburgh. In an interview with Simon, we asked him the following questions:
Tell us about yourself
My name is Simon Peter Loynes. I’m from Cambridge, England where the grass is green, but you cannot always walk on it. After a long break from study, I completed a Masters degree at SOAS in Islamic Societies and Cultures in 2013 and in summer 2019 I was awarded a PhD in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I began with a year or so of intense study at the American Language Institute in Fes, Morocco in 2014-15. The teaching was generally exceptionally good, but one teacher particularly stood out, Abdul Hafid, whom I consider my Arabic mentor. I had taught myself the script before going to Morocco and by the end of my study was able to read, slowly, classical texts. My spoken wasn’t too bad either. Since then, I’ve used Arabic every day for my PhD thesis—primarily through reading the Qur’an—although I have not been focussing on Arabic per se. Of course, by reading the Qur’an my Arabic has undoubtedly improved, particularly my understanding of grammar. Speaking, however, has taken somewhat of a backseat.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
This, perhaps, goes a long way back. At secondary school I was introduced to the writing of Paul Bowles, an American author who lived much of his life in Tangier, Morocco. This sparked a fascination with North Africa, its music, folklore and, of course, religion. Later, I lived next to the Abu Bakr mosque in Cambridge for seven years and would hear the prayers from my roof terrace. I then finally undertook a Masters degree focussing on Islamic history. I knew that in order to take this further, in any and every sense, one would need to grasp the Arabic language. I also wanted to open up another world by learning another language. Then came the move to Morocco, a place that had already held a large part of my imagination. And Fes, did, very much feel like home. Some days I’m still amazed that I can understand the beautiful Arabic script.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
The initial period of study was very intense as I had little time to get a good grasp of Arabic before starting the PhD. I was often very tired after the 5 hours of classes, 5 days a week, which ran for 6 weeks at a time. I think I completed four of these courses before moving onto private classes reading classical texts, mainly Ibn Hisham’s Sirat Rasul Allah. Vocabulary never seemed to stick and that’s still my biggest challenge today. The moments, however, when you have a little break through, well, there’s much reward in those. And learning Arabic really opened up other Semitic languages. Although I only have rudimentary Syriac, this was a lot easier to grasp than my original foray into Arabic.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
I have primarily used Arabic for my PhD and this was the initial goal. I’d like to return to speaking and to become more familiar with spoken Arabic, especially Moroccan darija. I am pursuing postdoctoral opportunities and will soon also be working with Arabic texts as part of the ‘Kitab’ project at the Aga Khan University, London.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
I’m not sure if I’ve become an ‘excellent student of Arabic’, in fact, I am sure this is not the case. But, I would say that it helps to be around native speakers, especially for pronunciation. I suppose reading as much as you can, although I’d need to take my own medicine here, as well as speaking (if that’s one of your aims). Personally, I’d say that time and commitment are key. If you have those, you’ll go a long way.
What’s your favourite Arabic word?
Waḥy: I’ve spent a lot of time working out what it means.
What is your least favourite Arabic word? Why?
I don’t have one.
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
Muhammad Fahmi, a dear Moroccan friend who passed away this year. Rahmatu ‘llahi ‘alayhi.
What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
Morocco: my home from home.
What is your favourite Arabic quote?
وَلَقَدْ أَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكُمْ آيَاتٍ مُّبَيِّنَاتٍ وَمَثَلًا مِّنَ الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلِكُمْ وَمَوْعِظَةً لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ
And We have certainly sent down to you distinct verses and examples from those who passed on before you and an admonition for those who fear Allah .Qu’ran 24:34
What is your favourite book? Why?
The Qur’an: the first Arabic book.