A new perspective on the Arabic language

01 Nov 2010

In view of the ‘Symposium on His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Academic Chairs and their Contribution to the Development of Human Knowledge’ to be held at Sultan Qaboos University from November 1-3, a series of interviews with incumbents of the Sultan Qaboos Chairs who will take part in the event were conducted.

In this interview, Professor Yasir Suleiman, Professor of Modern Arabic at the University of Cambridge, provides interesting insights into his personal interest in Arabic studies. The Professor also reviews his activities in the Chair and what he considers to be the potential benefits of meeting the other Sultan Qaboos scholars during the symposium.

Jointly organised by the Ministry of Higher Education and Sultan Qaboos University, the event will, for the first time, bring together eleven of the fourteen incumbents of the Sultan Qaboos Chairs from prestigious universities around the world.

The symposium represents a significant contribution to the commemoration of the 40th Year of the reign of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. During the symposium, the Chair holders will present papers and share their ideas for further advancement of the objectives of the His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Chairs. The papers are themed on the topics of Oriental Studies and International Relations; Applied Sciences and Human Resources. The presentations are intended to inform all those who are interested in the goals and accomplishments of Oman’s Chairs in view of their role in encouraging and supporting scientific research. The event will also accentuate the major role played by the Sultanate in bridging the gap between Arab and Western cultures through a much-needed constructive dialogue of civilisations, while another aim will be the introduction of various Omani researchers and research institutions to the holders of the Chairs, as well as to promote communication and collaboration among the Chair Holders.

In July 2005, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos endowed the Professorship of Modern Arabic at the University of Cambridge, one of the world’s oldest, most renowned universities and leading academic centres. At Cambridge, Professor Yasir Suleiman is His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Modern Arabic Studies, as well as Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Director of the Prince Alwaleed Centre of Islamic Studies. In addition, he is a Professorial Fellow of the renowned King’s College.
Professor Suleiman’s research covers the cultural politics of the Middle East with special focus on identity, conflict, diaspora studies and modernisation in so far as these issues relate to language, modern Arabic literature, translation and memory. He also conducts research in Arabic grammatical theory and the Arabic intellectual tradition in the pre-modern period.

Professor Suleiman, what is your background and how did you become interested in your field of study and how did this lead to your current positions?

I define myself as an Arab in the cultural sense of the term. I am of Palestinian origin, with both Jordanian and British nationality. My work is interdisciplinary as I am interested in a range of topics: Linguistic Theory, Arabic Linguistic Thinking, The Politics of Culture through the Study of Language, Translation and Literature, as well as Diaspora Studies. I was the Iraq Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh (1990-2007) before moving to the University of Cambridge in 2007.

I was elected to the post of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Modern Arabic Studies at the University of Cambridge through an international competition that attracted top ranked scholars in the field from Europe, the USA and the Middle East. I am very proud to be the first holder of His Majesty’s Chair at one of the world’s leading universities with its rich heritage and great accomplishments in Science, Social Science, Arts and Humanities. My appointment has been important for strengthening the study of the Modern Middle East at Cambridge. Since my appointment, we have had two new appointments and a number of postdoctoral fellowships under my supervision. Prince Alwaleed Centre of Islamic Studies, of which I am the Founding Director, is a significant addition to this profile of activities which I have been leading as the Sultan Qaboos Professor of Modern Arabic Studies.

Could you share with us any remarkable experiences that added value to your research?

Visits to my native Jerusalem and Palestine with my family in the 1990s (after almost thirty years of absence) and the reactions of my two sons to these visits, ignited my interest in the role of language — not just as a marker of identity, but also as the vehicle through which conflicts are expressed instrumentally; and, more significantly, symbolically. To my research on linguistic theory and the Arabic grammatical traditions, this experience has added a lasting interest in issues of identity and Diaspora and how these are expressed through culture. As the carrier of values, culture is imprinted with narratives that are quintessentially political. My research focuses on the political in the cultural and the cultural in the political. Language and translation are excellent arenas for studying this nexus.

What are the courses you teach?

At the undergraduate level, I teach courses on Language and National Identity and Advanced Translation Theory and Practice. This is research-led teaching. I also offer a small number of lectures to first year students on the socio-linguistics of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages.

I have six graduate students working under my supervision. Five of these are preparing their doctorates and one has started her Masters in Philosophy this October. In terms of nationality, two of my students are American; one is a Chinese student previously taught at the undergraduate level by the Sultan of Oman Chair Professor at Beijing University; one is a Saudi-British student; one an Israeli Jew; and one an Israeli Palestinian.

Would you say there is a growing interest in the Arabic language in the ‘Western’ world?

Yes, there is in the West. First, growing numbers of Muslims and Arabs in the Diaspora are studying Arabic for religious reasons and as a heritage language. Second, there is strong interest in Arabic as a language of commerce and as a flourishing literature. However, following 9/11 there is also a growing interest in Arabic for security reasons. I would say this is the strongest reason for learning Arabic at the policy level, though it may not be reflected in student choice of University subjects in the same way. Of all non-European languages Western interest is strongest in Arabic and in Chinese.

In this context, I do hope that policy makers in the Arab world will start to orient their language polices towards Chinese and Japanese, in addition to English and other European languages. It is not wise to put all our linguistic eggs in the English or European baskets of language. Regionally in the Arab world, policy making must encourage the study of Hebrew, Turkish and Persian for a complex set of reasons. Again, it is ‘dangerous’ to rely only on mediation through English in our contact with other countries regionally. Russian is rising again as the language of an assertive new Russia. Can we afford to continue to ignore this at our universities? The Arab world cannot afford to rely on filtered information in dealing with the non-English speaking world. The teaching and learning of languages should be considered a national priority and as a great cultural and political asset.

Will your students be able to communicate with people from different Arab countries where different dialects are spoken — and are they able to read the Holy Quran as well?

Yes, up to a point. A four-year undergraduate degree cannot and should not be overloaded with too many objectives. We are not just teaching languages; we teach the literature, politics and anthropology of the Arabic speaking world and the Middle East. So, in teaching Arabic we tend to concentrate on the fusHaa [Modern Standard Arabic] and one or two dialects or dialect groups. In our experience this is enough for our students to gain linguistic mobility across the dialectal landscape in the Arab world. Students must be armed with the right attitudes. We tell them: “Don’t give up if an Egyptian taxi-driver mocks your Arabic for being fusHaa or, as they usually quip, naHwi. Persevere and use rules of conversion between fusHaa and the dialects in speaking and listening as well as between the dialects. After all these are related codes: in fact the similarities between them are much greater than the differences, so don’t exaggerate the latter or allow Arabic speakers to do so on your behalf ”. This is what we drill into our students and this is how we train them attitudinally to navigate the linguistic landscape of the Arab world.

Aside from giving lectures to your students, are you often approached to inform ‘third parties’ about your area of research; e.g. you have given a lecture about ‘Contextualising Islam in Britain: Preliminary Perspectives’ at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies. Please elaborate about the objectives of these activities.

I have given briefings to the Foreign Office in London, to British Council personnel, to the Ministry of Communities and Local Government and to visiting dignitaries from the Arab World. As the Sultan Qaboos Professor I have been commissioned to work on Arabic language teaching reforms in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Egypt. I have also led several accreditation visits to the United Arab Emirates and one to Sultan Qaboos University.

In 2008/09 I led a group of 24 British Muslim scholars, activists, social scientists and Imams on a UK government-funded project to answer the question of what it means to be a British Muslim (not a Muslim in Britain or Muslim and British). The project and the report were called Contextualising Islam in Britain. The report was very well received by policy makers. Out of all the government sponsored projects in the UK on Islam and Muslims, Contextualising Islam in Britain was singled out for praise by a Cross Party Committee at the House of Commons in March 2010. The Government has decided to fund a second phase of this project which is under way.

In 2009/10 we received funding for a collaborative project with Azhar to train Muslim students from Darul Ulooms in the UK. The project has been a great success. As a result, the UK government has decided to fund a second phase of the project. The continuation of funding for this project and for Contextualising Islam in Britain at a time of massive financial stringency in the UK is a vote of confidence in what we have done.
These are examples of some of the work I have done outside the academy. This profile of works adds value to the contribution that His Majesty’s Chair has inside Cambridge.

Do you co-operate with any University or College in Oman; and if so, in what way?

I have visited Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) a few times. As a visiting Professor I gave lectures and quality-assured the MA in Translation at SQU. While at Edinburgh, I supervised a number of Omani students for their doctoral degrees and would be happy to do the same in Cambridge. This year Sabah al Balushi from the Language Centre at SQU was seconded to help us teach Arabic at Cambridge. Sabah was a great success with the students and staff. She was an inspirational teacher and a most discrete colleague, and a great ambassador for SQU and Oman. We would be very happy to continue this kind of co-operation which is beneficial to Cambridge; and to SQU.

Cambridge has strong links with SQU in other programmes. The Minister of Higher Education and the President of SQU visited Cambridge, accompanied by a high level delegation, in 2009. The visit was a huge success. And I know that our Vice Chancellor visited Oman twice. So the scene is set to strengthen the existing collaboration and to forge new ties.

Abdul Aziz al Rowas has visited the University of Cambridge a few times. His support for, and continued interest in, His Majesty’s Chair at Cambridge is crucial to its success. As Chair holder, I am very grateful for this.

The endowment of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professorship of Modern Arabic at your prestigious university is, together with the establishment of the other Chairs, part of Oman’s wider mission to play a constructive role in the dialogue among civilisations, to enrich cultural exchange and to develop enduring ties of friendship and collaboration around the globe. How do you feel your Chair contributes to all of the above?
His Majesty’s Academic Chairs reflect Oman’s great cultural values of openness to the world, of Oman’s commitment to promoting Arab and Islamic cultures internationally and of its deep interest in knowledge and learning as the best bridges between communities and civilisations. The Chairs are an essential component of an enlightened strategy of co-operation and mutual respect between nations. They fly the flag for Oman internationally, speak to its great generosity and act as beacons of light in a world that is sometimes marred by the forces of darkness. The University of Cambridge is proud to partake in this project; and, indeed, I am very proud to contribute to the world impact of His Majesty’s Chairs in a top world-class university.

How do you feel about communicating with the other His Majesty Academic Chair Holders during the symposium and what do you consider to be the benefits?

I am looking forward to meeting the holders of His Majesty’s Academic Chairs on the auspicious anniversary that we all are celebrating. I am also looking forward to learning about the activities of the Chairs and to discussing future co-operation. Together we can multiply our impact to implement the vision and the philosophy that has animated the Chairs. I hope we can turn these meetings into an annual or biennial events to draw multiple constituencies to the work of the Chairs in the countries where they exist.