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Dominic Herbert

20 questions for: Dominic Herbert (#32)

Long-distance athletes may find their stamina helps them persevere in the study of Arabic. Dominic Herbert is one of them. Learn more about him in this 9273 roots interview (#32).

LAST UPDATED: 3 weeks ago

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…

Dominic Herbert

دومينيك هربرت

The triathlete who treats Arabic like an exercise in endurance.

Dominic Herbert, portrait
Dominic Herbert
  • Date of birth: 1971
  • Place of birth: , England
  • Place of residence: London

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you?

My name is Dominic Herbert and my relationship with the Arabic language began 30 years ago.

I spend most of my time outside work engrossed in language learning and endurance sports, so you could say it makes sense that my favourite language is the “long-distance, endurance sport” of the world's languages: Arabic.

I first discovered the “east” in the summer of 1988 when I worked as a volunteer at Dar ul Sukun in Karachi, Pakistan, a home for abandoned children with disabilities (darulsukun.com). You might argue that the powerful influence working with vulnerable people had on my life was to be expected, but a more subtle awakening occurred that summer: I fell for the beauty of the Arabic script. On my way to and from work in a rickshaw I'd stare at the road signs, the majority of which showed place names written in both English and Urdu. In this way I pieced together the “Arabic” alphabet.

An Iranian colleague at Dar ul Sukun waxed lyrical about all things Iranian, so on my return to London I set out to learn Persian from a teach-yourself book. After Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie put paid to my plans to visit Iran (UK citizens were no longer granted visas) I spent a summer learning Arabic at the British Council in Cairo: Modern Standard Arabic in the mornings, Egyptian Colloquial in the afternoons.

After completing a degree in Economics at Trinity College, Cambridge University, I returned to Cairo where I lived for almost three years. Although I attended the excellent Arabic Department at the British Council for another term or two in 1993/94, the turning point for my Arabic was meeting an exceptional freelance teacher by the name of Magdi Donia, from whom I am still learning to this day (though not through formal lessons).

After a year in Cairo, I joined a start-up company (Hermes Financial) with a seat on what was known then as the Cairo & Stock Exchange (now The Egyptian Exchange). In the job interview my future employer tested my Arabic, both spoken and written, and before signing the contract I made it clear that I would only respond if spoken to in Arabic – native English speakers have to fight hard to seal themselves off from English in their attempt to create a fully immersive experience in a foreign language.

In 1996 I joined a family-owned and managed investment bank in London (Flemings) and that same year I was posted to its Beirut representative office, opened on the spur of the moment after our chairman had lunch with Lebanon's highly persuasive prime minister at the time, Rafiq Al Hariri (رفيق بهاء الدين الحريري). As you can imagine, the Lebanese were somewhat bemused by this 25-year-old Brit in a pin-stripe suit speaking العامية المصرية, but those years in Beirut were some of the most exciting in my life (1996-98).

Following three years in Cairo and two in Beirut, I returned to London to work for an asset management company. I was in the habit of swimming early in the morning before work and one morning I answered my boss' telephone before he got in. It was a call from a large financial institution in Saudi Arabia. At some point in the call we switched into Arabic and after a long and wide-ranging conversation this senior individual invited me to their offices in to present to him and his colleagues on a topic of my choice. This was a turning point in my career, and I remain grateful to Arabic for the hugely positive influence it has had on many areas of my life.

But the journey had started with a fascination for the Persian language, so before I turned 40 I took a year off work to travel to Iran to learn Persian. And soon afterwards I married an Iranian, so these days I am surrounded by Persian rather than Arabic!

Did you know? The Egyptian Stock Exchange (ESE) is one of the oldest in the world

What we know today as the “Egyptian Stock Exchange” started with a rivalry of two competing stock exchanges: in 1883 the stock exchange in Alexandria was founded[1]https://www.egx.com.eg/en/History.aspx; 15 years later, in 1903, Cairo followed. Together, they later became the fifth most active stock exchange in the world[2]IMF working paper: “The Egyptian Stock Market: Efficiency Tests and Volatility Effects”, April 1999. See https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/1999/wp9948.pdf before the economy was nationalized under Gamal Abdel Nasser (جمال عبد الناصر) who had introduced a central planning regime. The Egyptian stock market remained largely dormant for the next three decades.

In the 1990s, the regime of Hosni Mubarak (محمد حسني مبارك), who took power in 1981 after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat (محمد أنور السادات), started to privatize and deregulate the Egyptian economy, including the financial markets. During these years, the Alexandria and Cairo stock exchanges were merged to form the Egyptian Stock Exchange (ESE).[3]Law No.(123) for Year 2008 amending Law No. (95) for Year 1992. Accordingly, Cairo & Alexandria Stock Exchanges became under one name, The Egyptian Exchange.

What was your first Arabic grammar book?

The first edition (1995) of Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallum al-ʿArabiyya الكِتَابُ فِي تَعَلُّمِ العَرَبِيَّة (a later edition of which I use to this day).

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What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

My “favourite” is the only novel I've ever read in Arabic: الاعترافات (confessions; 2008) by Rabee Jaber (ربيع جابر).

Cover Confessions
Cover Confessions

Rabee Jaber (ربيع جابر), born 1972, is a Lebanese novelist and journalist. He studied Physics at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The author grew up during the Lebanese civil war and tells one of its many nightmarish stories. A young man learns that he is not the real son of those he used to consider his parents. Rather, he was kidnapped as a little boy by his alleged father and brought up as a substitute for the son of the family, kidnapped and murdered before.

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How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

At what point can one say one has mastered Arabic? When people think you are Egyptian on the telephone? When you are asked for your passport to prove you are a Khawaga? One has never finished ‘mastering' Arabic in my opinion.

Dominic Herbert competing in an Iron distance triathlon in Nova Scotia, Canada
Dominic Herbert competing in an Iron distance triathlon in Nova Scotia, Canada

What is your favorite Arabic word?

If I might appeal to the theme of this interview series and instead offer my favourite root, which is رَوَى – يَرْوي with its derivatives covering meanings from quenching one's thirst, to irrigate (روّى), to tell a story, or recount what happened, to ponder and reflect (تروية تروّى), pleasant smell (ريّاً), novel (رِواية), novelist (رِوائي), lush and verdant (ريّان), storyteller (راوٍ – رُواةٌ) not forgetting prettiness (رُواء) from which I presume we get the name أروى, and last but not least fresh water (رَواء).

For me, beyond the images and emotions of its meanings, this root is a beautiful combination of Arabic's soft consonants and the fascinating complexity of a trilateral root with two weak letters.

Which Arabic word do you like least?

I can't bring myself to be rude about even a single word in the Arabic language, but I will admit to being intimidated by (the pronunciation of) any word that starts with an “alef” immediately followed by an ع!

“My favourite language is the ‘long-distance, endurance sport of the world's languages: Arabic”

Dominic Herbert

Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

I owe too much to the Egyptian dialect to turn my back on it. Ever. But I have a weakness for Maghrebi dialects, despite not being able to understand them.

What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

ليه بتزعل نفسك؟

Why are you getting yourself upset?

I love it because implicit within it is the truth that one has the choice as to whether to be annoyed by something or someone.

What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

Although I notice Nesrin Amin (9273 roots, #22) has already nominated it as her favourite, I have to choose the same Egyptian proverb:

.اللي يتلسع من الشوربة ينفخ في الزبادي

If you've burned your tongue on hot soup, you even blow on yogurt before daring to put it in your mouth.

It is my favourite and I find myself using it often.

What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

Until I discovered Arabic for Nerds I was not hearing much about what people were saying about the Arabic language beyond the usual tropes such as it being difficult to learn.

But what I personally would like to say is that, for me, learning the Arabic language is like swimming in the ocean. You will never know it or cover it all, but once you have learned how to swim, you can swim for miles, and it will never cease to amaze you.

Returning to the theme of this interview series, one's knowledge of the roots is like a fisherman's net: you don't need to know a word to understand it, so long as you know the flavour of its root – you have caught the word in your net. As one builds one's knowledge of the 9273 roots, one's net grows bigger.

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

Who are the three people?

Saddam Hussein (صدام حسين); born 1937 – died 2006. He was an Iraqi politician and dictator who served as the fifth president of Iraq from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003. Saddam Hussein suppressed mainly Shi'a and Kurdish movements, which sought to overthrow the government and/or gain independence. Saddam managed to maintain power during the Iran–Iraq War and the Gulf War (1990-1991; in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait).

Hafez al-Assad (حافظ الأسد); born 1930 – died 2000: The military pilot was the President of Syria from 1971 (99,2 % “voted” for him) until his death in 2000 when his son Bashar al-Assad took over power. Assad's main force was the army, which he had massively built up. The Soviet Union supplied weapons, the German Democratic Republic (= East Germany) the know-how for setting up a Secret Service. In 1976, Syrian troops invaded Lebanon, which had been shaken by the civil war. Assad coordinated the action with other Arab states and the USA. The military presence in Lebanon was extremely dangerous. With tactical adeptness, he played off the various Christian and Islamic militias against each other and gained influence beyond Syria's borders. When Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990, the Syrian President Hafez al-Asad sided with the United States.

Musa al-Sadr (موسى صدر الدين الصدر); born 1928 – disappeared 1978: He was an Iranian-born Lebanese scholar and political leader who founded the Amal Movement (حركة أمل). The movement is a Lebanese political party and former militia affiliated with the community. On 25 August 1978, Sadr and two other men went to Libya to meet with government officials at the invitation of Muammar Gaddafi (مُعمّر محمد أبو منيار القذّافي), the Libyan leader. The three were last seen on 31st August. They were never heard from again. Until today, it is unclear what happened to them.

What was the last great meal you had?

Although I'm tempted to mention some great Lebanese meals washed down with Arak, my favourite cuisine is Peruvian, which my wife and I discovered on honeymoon there.

What is your favorite city?


Beirut, December 2019
Beirut, Lebanon

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Remark: Shantaram (2003) tells the story of a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from Pentridge Prison and flees to India.

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What is your all-time favorite movie?

La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz)

Trailer La Haine

What music do you listen to?

Electronic dance music, funk, soul, ragtime through to Classical music, having been brought up in a musical family playing the violin. My musical background helped me when I turned my attention to Arabic.

When were you happiest?

As a child, spending the summers in Nova Scotia, Canada, visiting my maternal grandparents, swimming in the lakes, paddling on the lakes, war canoe.

As an adult, competing in endurance sports events (long-distance triathlons, ski touring, marathons and trail races).

Dominic Herbert, Mont Ventoux
Dominic Herbert, Mont Ventoux

What is your greatest fear?

Loss of loved ones.

What is your life motto?

All or nothing

Dominic Herbert, thank you for your time.

People who were also interviewed:


1 https://www.egx.com.eg/en/History.aspx
2 IMF working paper: “The Egyptian Stock Market: Efficiency Tests and Volatility Effects”, April 1999. See https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/1999/wp9948.pdf
3 Law No.(123) for Year 2008 amending Law No. (95) for Year 1992. Accordingly, Cairo & Alexandria Stock Exchanges became under one name, The Egyptian Exchange.
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