One thing about Syria is, they take their Arabic seriously. I was first attracted to Syria by the existence of Arabic institutes which taught proper, professional Arabic. I was not disappointed. It turns out there are several Arabic institutes in Damascus and they are all good. I studied at the so-called bad one for my first year, but I sure learned a lot of very useful, professional Arabic there!
(pause here for commentary on the situation in Syria: It’s hard to imagine a scenario where, after the current, umm, stuff, ends, the quality of Arabic education, both for foreigners and for Syrians, will be anywhere near as good as it now is. Did you know that engineering graduate students are still perfecting their linguistic and literary knowledge? Arabic is a required course of study as long as one is a student in Syria. And with language and literature comes culture. The dogged devotion to Arabic has helped nurture a deep sense of heritage and culture that I feel is being lost.)
Everyone told me that my Arabic school was weak, and to be sure after one year I’d graduated from the course but I knew I still had a lot to learn. So I transferred to another Language centre for a couple of months. It. Was. HARD. No wonder my school had such a bad reputation – it was a light fluffy breeze compared to the grammar, vocabulary and writing skills being taught elsewhere. It turns out, Arabic is a really, really hard language. I learned a lot, reaching near-fluency within a year and a half, but I think my success is largely because I didn’t know how hard it was supposed to be.
But I digress. One of the many Syrians who inspired me in this story was my Arabic teacher at that second, more challenging school. As many Arabs are, he was named after God: there’s Abdel-Rahman (worshipper of the Merciful One), Abdallah (worshipper of God), Abdel-Latif (worshipper of the Kind One), Abdel-Aziz (worshipper of the Great One), Abdel-Karim (worshipper of the Generous One) and so on and so forth. My teacher was one of these, we’ll just call him Abdel.
He was blond. Yes, many Syrians are, in fact, blond. There’s a surprising number of redheads as well. And even more have blue eyes! Abdel’s eyes were not blue, but he was blond and he wore glasses over his pointy nose. He was tall and skinny, a lanky chap. His overall appearance conveyed the message that this was a teacher who was serious about his business. He’d tower over us as he bounced energetically from desk to desk, checking up on our work. Or he’d loom in the front of the room and wax eloquent about some minutiae in the glorious history of the Arab people, which was intrinsically intertwined with the glorious history of Islam.
I recall that it was from him that I first learned about Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, named after an elephant’s tusks because of the way the Nile curves through Khartoum. After I moved to Khartoum, I often thought of Mr. Abdel and the education he gave me about the Arab league and the economic opportunities in Khartoum. He also taught me more than I’ll ever want to know about Arabic grammar. A blog post on Arabic grammar could hardly do it justice. A book about Arabic grammar could barely do it justice. A brief mention in a blog post is simply disgraceful. This awe of Arabic grammar is one of the things I learned from Abdel. Arabic is a great and magnificent language. Its students need to work hard at it, and it will be a painful process, but it will most certainly be worth it.
Abdel was one of the most popular teachers at that particular language school. When I say he was tall and blond, please don’t mistake that for good-looking. He was a nerd, through and through. But he loved Arabic and he was passionate about teaching, and his enthusiasm infused each and every one of us his students.