Last updated: June 2, 2021
Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…
The man who likes over-complicated board games and is passionate about Arabic.
- Date of birth: 24th of May 1988
- Place of birth: Missoula, MT (USA)
- Place of residence: Washington, DC (USA)
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
If I had to give an elevator pitch and sum up my general life trajectory really fast:
I was born and grew up in Missoula, Montana. I started learning Arabic in undergrad there, started studying linguistics, and became just knowledgeable enough about it to be really annoying at parties.
Since then, I continued studying Arabic, then got a masters in Arab Studies which roundaboutly led me to a position at QFI (Qatar Foundation International), where I worked on a variety of programs promoting Arabic language and Arab culture education. Now, I work as a research partner at Gartner.
I like to box, practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, play over-complicated board games, go hiking, and talk about history.
What was your first Arabic grammar book?
I don’t know if I would recommend it as the best book out there for grammar, but I had a really enjoyable time with Arabic Verbs in particular, and that’s where I learned how to conjugate all of the different forms.
What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?
I am not really well-read in Arabic literature, but I do like أحلام فترة النقاهة by Nagib Mahfuz (نجيب محفوظ).
Remark: The English title of the book is either Dreams of the Rehabilitation Period or Dreams of the Period of Recovery. Remark: The book is actually a collection of writings and have been dubbed short stories, dreams.
How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?
I’m going to be really annoying here and pick apart “master”. Does mastering Arabic mean you recognize any word in any context and you can fully vowel your spoken sentences with perfect إعراب?
I think a better goal, that you might not define as “mastery” per se, is that you can comfortably operate most of the time, in most conversations, and use the language to navigate through situations where maybe you don’t fully understand what you want to say or what’s being said.
So to answer the original question — it depends? If you have experience with other languages you’ll probably learn faster. If you’re immersed completely, focused, and studying continuously, I bet you could reach that goal in about two years.
That’s on the more extreme end though, and I think learning a language is really a life-long pursuit.
You don’t just acquire it as a skill like learning to ride a bike, then that’s it you’re done. Everyone will have a different path, and it might meander back and forth, and that’s okay. My actual answer would be to not worry about ‘mastering’ Arabic, and decide what you want to do with the language, why, and go at your pace.
What is your favorite Arabic word?
It is such a cool verb form, and the meaning is so pleasant. (to be grass-covered/be grassy).
Which Arabic word do you like least?
Probably غرق, because I feel like I’m drowning while I pronounce it (personal shortcoming), and it actually means to drown. I guess that’s also why I like it though, so…
Which Arabic dialect do you like best?
In general, Levantine, since I have spent the most time working with it, so I am the least terrible at it.
I do love Egyptian as well! I have nothing against the other dialects though, it’s just a matter of my own familiarity.
What is your favorite Arabic colloquial or expression?
Probably this fun one from Egyptian I was taught:
“Don’t act like a sheikh to us”.
I like it in particular because of how absurdly long it is, it’s an awesome form X-verb (استفعل), it’s an awesome example of an Egyptian negation circumfix, and it was fun when I tried to learn how to pronounce it (near) correctly.
What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?
I guess this is more of an expression, and excuse my loose interpretive translation, but I really like:
ضربني وبكى سبقني واشتكى
“He hit me, cried, then went and complained about it.”
It relates an unjust situation, in which not only are you wronged by someone, but they were the one to go complain about you after the fact.
What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?
“Arabic is like an ocean. You can go with the flow, or drown.”
Attributed to my old Arabic teacher Belkacem Baccouche, probably after someone asked him a question about why some grammatical aspect of Arabic is the way it is.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
A professor told our class a story about a little kid that is overwhelmed with a large report he has to write on birds. Their parent sits down next to them as the child laments how they should even start in the first place, and says to them: “Bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.”
So essentially it was advice on how to tackle large projects that I really enjoyed, and still remember.
Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?
This question is killing me. I’m going to cheat and not pick three, but say that any combination of people from ancient kingdoms/empires/etc. would be amazing, given the condition we were all also able to speak with and understand each other.
What was the last great meal you had?
An incredible sushi course where the chef picked all our dishes and sent them out one by one as more of a dinner “experience”.
What is your favorite city?
Which book would you give to a dear friend?
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or
- Wizard and Glass by Stephen King. (The last is actually the 4th in the Dark Tower series, but kind of works as a stand-alone. Don’t hate me, purists.)
What is your all-time favorite movie?
The Shawshank Redemption.
Remark: The Shawshank Redemption is a 1994 US-drama based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It is a masterpiece (around 2.5 hours) and IMDb’s top-rated movie of all time (9.3/10).
What music do you listen to?
Lots of different stuff. Bluegrass/Folk, Metal, Indie, 80s rock, etc. Really depends, but I’ll default to the Smiths radio on Spotify a lot.
When were you happiest?
Probably right now! I’m happy where I am personally and professionally, and have a pretty optimistic outlook! There may have been other times when I’ve been more stress-free in life, but overall I am most happy now.
What is your greatest fear?
Being eaten alive by something like a bear, or trapped underground.
What is your life motto?
I really don’t have one. Maybe, be understanding?
Connor Seidenschwarz, thank you for your time.
Arabic experts who were previously interviewed:
- 20 questions for: Antoine-Robert El Dahdah (#1)
- 20 questions for: Badrul Aini Sha’ari (#2)
- 20 questions for: Hossam Abouzahr (#3)
- 20 questions for: Dr. Hanada Taha Thomure (#4)
- 20 questions for: Omar Safa (#5)