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 Western diplomat and ambassador who enjoys giving interviews in Arabic
- Date of birth: 1974
- Place of birth: Montreal, Quebec
- Place of residence: Baghdad, Iraq
1. How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
I’m a Canadian diplomat with years of experience in the Middle East and broader region, with postings in Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, and currently Turkey where I serve as Canada’s Consul General in Istanbul.
[Remark: Later, Ulric became the Canadian ambassador in Iraq]
I learned Arabic 15 years ago prior to my posting in Cairo and I have kept it up, including through a full year of additional study in 2012-2013 which featured a stay at the intensive summer program at Middlebury College in the US.
I continue to devote many hours a week to self-study including reading Arabic literature. I expect that I will have future opportunities to serve in the Arab world so this feels like a wise investment of my time.
Remark: Since November 2019, Ulric Shannon serves as the Ambassador of Canada to Iraq in Baghdad.
2. What was your first Arabic grammar book?
I suppose my first textbook, period, was Mastering Arabic by Wightwick/Gaafar. That was the standard introductory textbook used then at the Canadian Foreign Service language school. I’ve since acquired grammar reference books by Kristen Brustad/Abbas al Tonsi, by Karin Ryding, and by John Haywood, and mostly use those.
3. What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?
Tough question. I’m two-thirds of the way through the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz and it’s pretty special.
But I think the one that left the deepest impression was الايام (al-Ayyam – The Days) by Taha Hussein, which is his autobiography. I wasn’t sure I was ready for it when I tackled it a few years ago and indeed it was very tough – it’s extremely classical, with very convoluted syntax and a lot of obscure vocabulary. But i’s one of the richest examples of written Arabic that I’ve encountered.
4. How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?
I don’t know. I’ve been studying it for 15 years (including a cumulative total of three years of full-time instruction plus many hours a week of self-study) and I would never claim to have mastered it. It’s a lifetime project.
5. What is your favorite Arabic word?
I can’t think of just one. My favourite type of word is probably the form-II-masdars (تَبْرِير، تَوْطِين), which are just so musical.
6. Which Arabic word do you like least?
اشمئزاز is a funny little word because of the hamza and the quadrilateral root which suggests a foreign origin (I think it’s from Farsi), but it also means disgust or nausea which is somehow fitting as an onomatopoeia!
7. Which Arabic dialect do you like best?
Lebanese. It’s so mellifluous. And the omnipresence of French and English mixed in, while not ideal from a purity-of-the-language perspective, adds a certain cosmopolitanism and swagger to it, which is exactly the point, if you know the Lebanese.
8. What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?
I’m always tempted to use the Lebanese ولو؟ in everyday conversation. Useful in many contexts. But one that I learned early on from my first teacher (Iraqi) was !يا خبر ابيض to express astonishment, which I say whenever I run into an old friend.
9. What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?
There are too, too many.
One that sticks with me is ِقَتَلَ الْقَتِيلَ وَمَشَى فِي جِنازَتِه , or: he killed the victim and then walked in his funeral procession. Hypocrisy is a recurring theme in Arabic discourse and literature, not to mention the daily news.
10. What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?
Here is a lengthy quote from Hume Horan, the legendary Arabic-speaking US diplomat, from Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists (which I highly recommend):
“Here is the dilemma: God spoke Arabic. Oh, he may have delivered an earlier, flawed message in Hebrew, in the Old Testament, or in Greek, in the New. But he sure got it right the third time. The Koran is not history or biography, like the Bible. It is pure revelation. Arabic is coterminous with God. So, unlike English, which is a compost, a welcoming cathedral, the most catholic of languages, Arabic is a completely closed system, resistant to loanwords, a terrifyingly logical, well-oiled piece of machinery that just clicks, clicks away.
Once you’ve got the infixes and the prefixes in your head, and the three-consonant root verbs you can construct any word you want. It’s like gene-splicing. And the religious etymology is so intense, unlike English, where unless you’ve studied Greek or Latin, you can’t really feel the original meaning of the word. Another problem is that Arabic is so beautiful to listen to.
So you find yourself putting up with all kinds of crap from these people because of the crystalline way their language lays itself out in space. Just look at the Koran. The English translations are incompetent, I know. The first chapters should really be footnotes at the end: nothing but laundry lists, supplemental legislation–Leviticus. ‘The Chapter of the Cow’–bah how dull! But later on, bang, the revelations come at you with a muzzle velocity of three thousand feet per second that just knocks you flat on your can.”
11. What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
You can get a lot done once you stop worrying who will get the credit.
12. Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?
I suppose I should name people like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. But I’ll adapt the question for purposes of Arabic studies and say: T.E. Lawrence, Edward Lane, and Edward Said. I think we could have a very spirited debate about Orientalism.
- T.E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935) was a British army officer, diplomat, and writer – who was involved in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Reality or fiction – his account on these events earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia.
- Edward William Lane (1801 – 1876) was a British Orientalist, translator and lexicographer. He is known for his Arabic-English Lexicon.
- Edward Said (1935 – 2003) was a professor of literature at Columbia University. He is known for the book Orientalism (1978), a critique of the cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism—how the Western world perceives the Orient
13. What was the last great meal you had?
I may as well use the opportunity to promote the culinary excellence of Ottawa where I’m based when not posted overseas, and name Atelier restaurant, which delivers ‘molecular gastronomy’.
I had a phenomenal dinner there over the holidays. But there are lots of other great options in Ottawa which is becoming a real culinary destination.
14.What is your favorite city?
Istanbul, with Beirut a close second.
15. Which book would you give to a dear friend?
The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss.
What is the story? Tom Reiss (born May 5, 1964) is an American author, historian, and journalist. In The Orientalist, he tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany.
Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret.
16. What is your all-time favorite movie?
No Country for Old Men.
17. What music do you listen to?
A variety of rock and folk from the 60s to probably the 90s.
18. When were you happiest?
Long before I ever lived in Turkey my wife and I visited it as tourists in 2010 I believe.
We had a chance to do a sailboat cruise of the Turkish Mediterranean and I found myself lying in a hammock on the deck, reading a novel (I believe it was عمارة يعقوبيان by Alaa al Aswany) and just swaying in the sun and the breeze. It was all a person could ever ask for.
19. What is your greatest fear?
Being asked personal questions.
20. What is your life motto?
I’ve avoided being someone who has a life motto, and so far it’s working for me.
Ulric Shannon, thank you for your time.
Other Arabic nerds and experts who were interviewed in this series: