On not knowing Arabic
I can’t understand why people make such a fuss about not keeping New Year Resolutions. It’s always seemed to me that the whole point about them was precisely NOT to keep them. That is to say, broken resolutions are one of the ways we have for coming to terms with what we would like to do, but know that we never will. It’s a way of looking our own human frailty in the eye; of publicly acknowledging hopeless ambitions.
Giving up smoking? Losing weight? No. In my case the resolution in question is learning Arabic.
Why Arabic? Part of the reason is my own academic work. Some of the best, and least exploited, Roman materials and sites are in North Africa. And I am fed up, when I go there, with not being able to read the street signs, let alone be able to engage in the most limited local conversation (“restaurant Arabic” even).
I’d also like to be able to read Ottoman Turkish (which Arabic would, at least, help with – I know it’s not the same). The key eye-witness account of the Parthenon before it blew up in the middle of the seventeenth century is by a wonderful Ottoman Turkish traveller (Evliya Celebi); and I’ve only been able to read it in a modern Greek translation (or rather two modern Greek translations, each one significantly, and worryingly, different from the other). And I’m sure there’s more stuff where that came from.
But it’s also about understanding the modern, as well as the ancient, world. I don’t know if you noticed, but the taunts shouted at the hanging of Saddam, and the responses to them, were translated in subtly different ways by different reports. You got a strikingly different idea of the tone, and the formality (or lack of it) depending on which you listened to.
Even more to the point, though, I’d like to be able to read the Koran. It is even clearer here that you cannot rely on translations (just try comparing them – you sometime wouldn’t think you were reading the same book). And I would dearly like to be able to decide for myself. Take the often repeated claim that Islamist suicide bombers are acting in the hope (following the Koran) of getting to deflower 72 virgins on the other side. Really? Surely this must be a religious metaphor, not a literal prediction – as it’s usually taken -- about what life will be like after death (no more or less metaphorical than Christian claims about blood and flesh, which Roman pagans also mis-read by taking literally, so painting the Christians as a load of nasty cannibals). But without being able to read the Koran myself, how will I know?
All very admirable. But I suspect it’s another failed ambition. For a start, from a quick peek at “Teach Yourself” lesson one, it’s very hard indeed. Not so hard if you learn it in Roman script, but that rather defeats the street sign objective. Second, there are so many different varieties. I’m told to begin with modern Egyptian Arabic. But that’s not going to get me very far towards the classical Arabic of the Koran. That looks as if it will take years more.
Besides, I have a nasty suspicion that I am too old. Does anyone learn a completely new language well after they get to be fifty? Or rather, do they have enough free hours in the day to do it properly? And frankly, wouldn’t I be more sensible to learn those languages that I am supposed to know – on the face of it, a reasonably impressive range of European tongues, ancient and modern – better? A fluent conversation in German might actually be more useful than the capacity to order a basic meal in downtown Cairo.
I don’t need a Resolution for that.
(And, by the way, someone might be good enough to tell me what the Arabic ayt the top of this post actually says. I hope a nasty surprise isn't in store!)