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Eamonn Gearon, Race to the Stones, July 2023

20 questions for: Eamonn Gearon (#34)

He started with the infamous orange book about Arabic by Peter F. Abboud. Today, after years of living in Arab countries, Eamonn Gearon makes the Middle East understandable in his lectures. Learn more about him in episode #34 of the 9273-roots interview series.

Last updated: 2 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…

Eamonn Gearon

إيمون جيرون

The historian who makes the Middle East understandable

Eamonn Gearon, who specializes in the Near and Middle East
Eamonn Gearon, who specializes in the Near and Middle East
  • Date of birth: · 29th of June 1970
  • Place of birth: England
  • Place of residence: Somewhat peripatetic: currently
  • Website: eamonngearon.com

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

Hello, I'm Eamonn. I love discussing and writing about the history and cultures of the past 1,500 years or so from across the greater Middle East, from to Afghanistan.

Whether I'm speaking to general audiences, or working with western diplomats, my mission is always the same: to help dispel ignorance, and thus the fear this can create, and to promote empathy, and the greater understanding that follows.

And boring people silly with my passion for the Arabic language.


What was your first Arabic grammar book?

Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, by Peter F. Abboud and Ernest N. McCarus (eds.)

I couldn't stand it, with its dull, orange cover, poor print quality, and hard to read type-font. It was the course book at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). I'm surprised I kept going with my language studies!

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

al-Muqaddimah (المقدّمة) by Ibn Khaldun (ابن خلدون).

It astonished me when I discovered and first read it in English. I worked hard to conquer it in Arabic, but oh!, what joy that achievement brought me. A brilliant work of global importance.

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Ibn Khaldun was a highly respected scholar, born in Tunis on May 27, 1332. He is known for his important works in history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Living in the 14th century, a time of turmoil in the Islamic world, Ibn Khaldun took on various roles such as advisor to royal courts.

Ibn Khaldun's insightful observations on history, politics, and society earned him a place as one of the pioneers of modern sociology and the study of history. His important work on these subjects was remarkable, especially considering the time in which he lived.

He had a deep understanding of how history works and the complex ways in which people and their societies are interconnected. Ibn Khaldun was excellent at combining field research and stories from the past with analysis. His ideas about community solidarity, the recurring rise and fall of civilizations, and how economies work are still celebrated and studied by scholars today.

He died in Cairo on March 17, 1406.

Ibn Khaldun made an important contribution to the study of history with his famous book “Al-Muqaddimah” (lit. The Introduction). This book is considered his greatest work and gives us a new way of understanding how societies change over time. He went beyond simply recounting historical events to develop an idea that explains why civilizations rise and fall.

Ibn Khaldun looked closely at society, the workings of governments, and economic issues. He has often been neglected in the history of economic dogma, even though some of his ideas did not appear in Western economics until centuries later. His ideas were ahead of his time and touched on topics that are now part of modern subjects such as history and social sciences.


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

Does everyone respond by first asking, “What do you mean by ‘master'?”, and what aspect of Arabic is it that you hope to master?

Spoken street Arabic with neighbors, shopkeepers and others? In just two or three months of relaxed yet dedicated daily conversation and listening, plus some ‘formal' study, with or without a teacher, in an Arabic-speaking setting can see amazing progress.

Definitely learn the alphabet and word formation from day one. Make sure it remains a game, not a chore.


“Don't let anyone tell you Arabic is a difficult language. You can state all the rules of Arabic grammar on one sheet of A4 paper. Arabic is purely logical.”

Eamonn Gearon quoting the famous British interpreter Leslie McLoughlin

What is your favorite Arabic word?

The word سَلام which means peace.


Which Arabic word do you like least?

The verb يَكْرَهُ – to hate.


Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

Egyptian, my first love, and the one that travels most easily across the greater Middle East and around the world.

Poll: Which dialect do you prefer?


What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

العقل زينة

Wisdom is beautiful.
(lit.: The mind is an adornment.)


Eamonn Gearon in Jordan
Eamonn Gearon in Jordan

What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

مَا نَقَصَتْ صَدَقَةٌ مِنْ مَالٍ

Charity never decreases wealth.


DEEP DIVE

An analysis of مَا نَقَصَتْ صَدَقَةٌ مِنْ مَالٍ

This quote is a Hadith (حديث) of the Prophet Muhammad (found in Sahih Muslim 2588). A hadith is an account that documents the words, actions, and tacit approvals attributed to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. These accounts were transmitted through successive narrations by different individuals, forming chains of trustworthy narrators.

Let's take a quick look at the construction, grammar, and underlying subtleties of this short but inspiring sentence.

The negation with ما

The device ما is very powerful when it is used to convey a negation. It is stronger than لا (for the present tense) or لَمْ (for the -> verb in the jussive/مجزوم) because it can go beyond the scope of denying a certain action in a certain time frame.

When is ما suitable to work as a negation particle (حَرْفُ نَفْيٍ) for a verb?

  • The negation device ما has to stand at the beginning of a sentence.
  • You may encounter ما as a negation device used for the past or, though rare, present tense of an Arabic verb.
  • You should be careful not to blindly translate the Arabic tense into English, but rather the meaning, as time may not be the main focus here.
  • If used to negate the past tense, ما denies the entire matter. So, the ما strengthens the meaning of the negation. Therefore, depending on the context, we may translate it into English with the present tense as it can be interpreted as universally true (see our example of the Hadith).
  • If used to negate the present tense, ما denies not only the action – but also its possibility. Therefore, in certain contexts, we may translate ما with ‘not at all'.

The verb نَقَصَ

The I-verb نَقَصَ – يَنْقُصُ means to reduce/decrease; to become less/be reduced (among other things). It is a transitive verb, so it can take a direct object. A direct object takes the accusative case (منصوب).

However, the I-verb is often used when there is NO direct object. For example, if you want to express that “his volume has decreased” = “he has lost weight”, you can say in Arabic نَقَصَ وَزْنُهُ. Notice that we have a subject and a verb, but no direct object. In English, we have one (Question: What has he lost? Answer = direct object: weight.)

The II-verb, on the other hand, نَقَّصَ – يُنَقِّصُ also means to reduce; to decrease but has a much stronger force and transitive effect, i.e., the action of the verb, performed out by the (verbal) subject, has the direct object as its “target”. The II-verb is usually used when a direct object is involved.

In the Hadith, the I-verb is used. We also see that there is a direct object: charity does not decrease WHAT? => money = direct object). So why do we use مِن instead of just putting the word money as the direct object?

The word مِنْ used as an amplifier

The prepositions ب and مِنْ can both be used to convey emphasis (تأكيد). In this type of application, they do not perform their original function, which is to direct or give direction.

Instead, they are extra, additional devices (حَرْفٌ زائِدٌ). However, they retain their governing power which means that the word following بِ or مِنْ must be in the genitive case (مَجْرُورٌ).

Interpretation of this construction in this Hadith

If you think about the construction, you will find that the sentence denies the decrease, but not only that. We could also understand that there was even an increase despite the taking of money.

The ما is a powerful device of negation, and the مِن here, although some people have translated it literally as ‘from money,' most likely works as an amplifier here in this hadith, expressing and underlying the following idea:

➤ Charity (sadaqah) has not decreased any money or even any part of the money that was taken from it for charity.

What is the difference between صَدَقةٌ and زَكاةٌ?

  • Zakah (زَكاة) refers to growth, blessing, and purification. In Islamic law, it means giving a certain amount of money to certain groups of people as an act of worship and following the rules set by Islam.
  • Sadaqah (صَدَقة) is based on the Arabic word sidq (صِدْقٌ) for honesty, sincerity. When someone gives Sadaqah, it shows that the believer is truly faithful. It is a voluntary act of giving charity for the sake of God, without being required by Islamic law. Although Sadaqah is usually voluntary, sometimes the word is sometimes used to refer to the obligatory charitable giving of Zakah.

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

“Don't let anyone tell you Arabic is a difficult language. You can state all the rules of Arabic grammar on one sheet of A4 paper. Arabic is purely logical … it's very easy if you understand how this logic works. It's far easier than German.”

Source: Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter: The Odyssey of an Arabist 1959-2009, by Leslie McLoughlin; 2011.

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

My late grandmother used to say, “The good Lord gave you two ears and one mouth, so that you might listen twice as much as you speak.”

Oh, that more of us bore this in mind more often. It turns out my grandmother borrowed it, I'm sure unknowingly, from the great Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c.50–c.135 CE).


Projects and expertise of Eamonn Gearon

Eamonn Gearon has taught at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in Washington, DC, and the University of Oxford. He holds an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

For the past 12 years, Eamonn has also been responsible for creating and running MENA area studies training, first for the U.S. State Department, and now for the British Foreign Office (FCDO).

He is currently writing-up a DPhil in Middle East History, looking at the Arabic-language propaganda created by Britain's secret intelligence unit, the Arab Bureau, in Cairo during the First World War.

As well as his book The Sahara: A Cultural History, Eamonn is the author of three, multi-million-selling lecture series about 1,400 years of Middle Eastern history, from the rise of Islam to the present day.

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Author Eamonn Gearon on the fascination of the Sahara desert

Eamonn Gearon's books are available at bookstores worldwide. His highly recommended video courses are available at Amazon or The Great Courses.

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Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

My late father, from whom I got my love of nature, and music; P.G. Wodehouse, who always makes me laugh; and Charles Darwin, to talk about birds and natural history in general.

P.G. Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English author and humorist best known for creating the iconic characters Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

His writing is celebrated for its wit, light-hearted satire, and quintessentially British sense of humor. Wodehouse's expansive career spanned more than seventy years, producing an impressive oeuvre that included novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and song lyrics.

Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was a naturalist and geologist, best known for his groundbreaking work in evolutionary biology, articulated in his famous book, “On the Origin of Species“. His theory of natural selection revolutionized the way scientists understand the process of evolution and the diversity of life on Earth.


What was the last great meal you had?

Simple salads, white cheese, baladi bread, and fruit, eaten this past Christmas Day for lunch, in the shadow of a sand dune in the Egyptian Sahara miles from anywhere. Bliss.


What is your favorite city?

(! مش ممكن واحد فقط؟) London; Cairo; New York. Each of them is beloved to me, and recall different periods of my life.

the mosque madrasa of sultan hassan
Cairo, Egypt: photo by Simon Berger on Pexels.com

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

Easy: absolutely anything by P.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), either one of his 90-plus novels, or a collection of short stories. If you're new to the master's oeuvre – lucky you! – start with The Code of the Woosters (1938), without delay.

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“The Code of the Woosters” is part of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves series and follows the misadventures of the good-natured but dim-witted Bertie Wooster, under the guidance of his sharp and resourceful valet, Jeeves.

The plot revolves around a silver cow creamer that Bertie's Aunt Dahlia insists he must stealthily acquire for her. A series of comedic events unfolds as Bertie navigates the tricky social landscape involving his overbearing Aunt Agatha, his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, the formidable Sir Watkyn Bassett, and Bassett's sly daughter Madeline.

Throughout the novel, Bertie finds himself entangled in misunderstandings, romantic entanglements, and the absurdities of the British upper classes, all while trying to adhere to the gentlemanly ‘code' of the Woosters. With Jeeves' inimitable cunning, the duo works together to untangle the mess and restore equilibrium to Bertie's life.


What is your all-time favorite movie?

(See #14 – Just one? It's not possible.)

As film – not history – Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It has followed me around most of my life, so much so that I'm currently writing a memoir (see #17 below) with the working title Lawrence of Arabia and ME., about David Lean's film, the Middle East … and me.

For (im-)pure youthful, anarchic pleasure, and the love of two friends that drives it, Withnail and I (1987). N.B. Contains a lot of swearing.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is a movie about T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier who was known for helping Arab tribes fight against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The movie is famous for its great storytelling, beautiful scenes of the desert, and wonderful music.

The story takes place in the Arabian desert and follows Lawrence as he goes from working as an intelligence officer in Cairo to leading guerrilla attacks with the Arabs. Lawrence is a charming and mysterious person who creates strong ties with Arab leaders and plans daring attacks against the enemy, resulting in important wins at Aqaba and Damascus. As the movie goes on, it shows Lawrence dealing with the terrible side of war, confusion over who the Arabs and British really support, and his own personal struggles.

With its impressive desert scenes and the excellent acting of Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, along with the remarkable musical background by Maurice Jarre, “Lawrence of Arabia” is considered a classic film.

The movie Withnail and I is a dark comedy from the UK about two friends in the late 1960s. Both friends are actors without jobs living in a messy apartment in London. They are bored and unhappy, so they decide to go on a trip to the countryside, staying in a cottage owned by Withnail's flashy Uncle Monty.

Their holiday doesn't go as planned. The weather is terrible, they don't know how to take care of themselves in nature, and they meet some odd local people. All of this leads to funny but uncomfortable situations. The trip also shows some problems between the friends, especially after Uncle Monty shows up and starts showing romantic interest in ‘I,' the unnamed narrator.

The film looks at themes like friendship, dealing with addiction, and the fear of moving from youth to grown-up life. It's well-known for its sharp writing, interesting characters, and the way it touches on what success really means and the struggles of growing up.


What music do you listen to?

For the past few years, lots of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). For real awe, listen to his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

A fascinating man, whose skill as a composer developed relatively late, but then he lived a long time, and wrote an astonishing array of gorgeous music. I am currently writing (see #16 above) my first screenplay, a story about Vaughan Williams and national – as opposed to nationalistic – music.

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When were you happiest?

When I understood that happiness is a choice; that I can make this choice at any given moment; and then choose to be happy rather than not.


What is your greatest fear?

Forgetting about those most in need, or remembering but failing to help.


What is your life motto?

“You're not better than anyone else. And no one's better than you.”


Eamonn Gearon, thank you for your time.


CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS: Who should we interview soon?

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Sirine Demachkie
Sirine Demachkie
2 months ago

It’s always refreshing to come across people passionate about the Arabic language. It’s also motivating to read about their language learning journey. Thank you for sharing this.

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