Last updated: 4 months 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…
The man who traveled for 4 hours across mountains to attend Arabic classes.
- Year of birth: 1978
- Place of birth: Berlin, Germany
- Place of residence: Fribourg, Switzerland
Marco Rateitschak is an economist who has been liaising with institutional investors across the Middle East for over 15 years while also developing a keen interest in the region's languages, literatures, and cultures. In a well-appreciated guest article for Arabic for Nerds, Marco had described his Arabic journey.
His passion for the Arabic language is perhaps best described by the 4-hour drive (2 hours each way) across the Hajar Mountains that he took to reach his Arabic class in Buraimi, Oman. You can read more about that in this article.
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you?
It depends on the person and context, but to a language enthusiast I'd say that I'm Marco, a “Bani Adam” from Berlin with a passion for the languages and literatures in which these words mean “human”.
Remark: The term Bani Adam (بنیآدم) is a Persian expression, but it is also found in Hebrew (בן־אדם) and Arabic (ابن آدم). It denotes a human being.
It is also the title of a famous poem by Saadi Shirazi, a Persian poet (1210 – 1291/92), who is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the classical literary tradition, earning him the nickname “The Master of Speech”. His poem Bani Adam is inscribed on a large hand-made carpet on the wall of a meeting room in the United Nations building in New York1.
What was your first Arabic grammar book?
The 1998 edition of Krahl/Reuschel/Schulz's “Lehrbuch des modernen Arabisch”. I did not go far with it as it was tough for self-study and felt pretty dry at the time.”]
But, to be fair, the book has since been re-developed into a highly interactive and interesting format: https://modern-standard-arabic.net
What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?
I've only recently started to read novels in Arabic, so my selection is still small, but Nadia Kamel's Al-Mawlouda is a wonderful book written entirely in Egyptian Aamiya. And in Fusha (spiced with Omani Arabic dialogues), Jokha Al-Harthi's Sayidaat Al-Qamr (celestial bodies) has been a great read, too.,[object Object]”]
How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?
Great question! If “mastering” means near-native fluency across all registers I wouldn't dare to comment myself, but I've heard professional Arabists such as interpreters or translators use the formula “7 years for fluency plus a lifetime for mastery”, assuming an intensive full-time graduate-level Arabic program with local immersion.
My own target of practical proficiency is a more limited level of fluency: the ability to absorb Modern Standard Arabic literature, media, and everyday conversations in a major dialect, and to hold a conversation without having to switch to English.
It's perhaps close to what the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute defines as “using the language as a tool to get things done”2, for which they estimate 88 weeks of intensive training (“2200 class hours plus local immersion”).
Having followed a more autodidactic and eclectic approach, I'm way past that timeline myself – but I've found ways to enjoy the journey and keep going.
Marco wrote an interesting article about his Arabic journey – you can read it here:
What is your favorite Arabic word?
I like gardens so the double meaning of جنينة (junaina – garden) and the diminutive of جنّة (jannah – paradise) sounds beautiful: a garden as a little paradise.
Which Arabic word do you like least?
مسكين (miskiin – poor thing) is a word I used to hear more than once when sitting with a group of friends trying to follow their Arabic conversation and looking lost.
It was a friendly tease, but a bit embarrassing. Nowadays, I just always assume I sound like a مسكين when speaking Arabic, so the word has become my linguistic “memento mori”.
Remark: Memento mori is Latin for: “remember that you [have to] die”. It is a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death, of our mistakes, and that we are [only] just human beings. The concept has its roots in the philosophers of classical antiquity, and appeared in funeral art and architecture of the medieval period.
Which Arabic dialect do you like best?
Gulf Arabic because I've had the most opportunities to practice it with friends and I love the sound of it.
Hearing a ق as /g/ or, in coastal Golf Arabic, ج as ي (“maylis” instead of MSA “majlis”), or the Kuwaiti affrication of ك into “itch” (“aguul-itch” – I tell you; 2. fem. singular) – it's music to my ears. While each Gulf dialect has its charm, I find that Hejazi has a particularly light, elegant sound to it.
It also helps that there is now a vibrant movie and comedy scene in Jeddah that produces great Hejazi Arabic content (e.g., recently on Netflix).
“No one can know all the possibilities of Arabic, but He who knows the number of droplets in the rainclouds and of the particles of dust, and that is Allah who knows what was and what shall be.”al-Jahiz
What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?
The word ديوانية (“diwaniya”)3, the Kuwaiti term for مجلس (“majlis”), as I've spent happy evenings gathering with friends in their diwaniyas or majlises.
What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?
كُلّ لِسان بإنسان
“Every tongue is a person.” Each new language acquired greatly increases a person's character and potential.
What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?
There are two great quotations in Tim Mackintosh-Smith's book “Arabs”4:
‘The Arab tongue,' wrote the great eight- and ninth-century scholar al-Shafi', ‘is the widest-ranging of tongues, and the most copious in vocabulary. We are aware of no person who can encompass a complete knowledge of it, unless that person be a prophet.'
The contemporary of al-Shafi', al-Jahiz, went further: “No one can know all the possibilities of Arabic, but He who knows the number of droplets in the rainclouds and of the particles of dust, and that is Allah who knows what was and what shall be.”
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
If advice received from books counts: “In life action is everything; joy and sorrow come of themselves.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Dichtung Wahrheit”/”Truth and Poetry”;2nd part, book 6).
It sounds perhaps more catchy in the original (German): “Es kommt im Leben bloß aufs Tun an; das Genießen und Leiden findet sich von selbst.”
Remark: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) is considered to be the greatest German literary figure of the modern era.
Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?
What was the last great meal you had?
Every day I eat at home is a treat. Other than that, my last Ramadan Iftars in the Gulf, pre-Covid in 2019, had all my local favorites: lamb ghouzi (قوزي خروف), harees (هريس), lugaimaat (لقيمات), khanfaroush (خانفروش), and rangina (رنقينة).
Remark: For those interested in making lugaimaat, here is a recipe in Qatari Arabic:
What is your favorite city?
Apart from my hometown, Berlin, probably Madrid or Tokyo.
Which book would you give to a dear friend?
Robert Musil's “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften” (“The Man Without Qualities”)5. Like learning Arabic, it might take a few tries or even become a lifetime project, but patience will be rewarded.”]
What is your all-time favorite movie?
Tricky to pick one, but “Manhattan” would be on the shortlist.
Remark: Manhattan is a 1979 American romantic comedy film directed by Woody Allen and his first movie filmed in black-and-white.
What music do you listen to?
Different genres, from seventies' Ethio-Jazz to Schubert's Lieder sung by Jonas Kaufman.
When were you happiest?
Many moments, but family time, both then and now, stands out.
What is your greatest fear?
Any fear that overwhelms hope.
What is your life motto?
“Jeder neue Morgen ist ein neuer Anfang.” – “Each morning is a new beginning.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). A useful motto for language learning, too.
Marco Rateitschak, thank you for your time.
People who were also interviewed:
- 20 questions for: Dominic Herbert (#32)
- 20 questions for: Jan Hoogland (#31)
- 20 questions for: Betül Aslan (#30)
- 20 questions for: Georg Binder (#29)
- 20 questions for: Uchechi Kalu (#28)
Picture credit: Marco Rateitschak
- The poem Bani Adam can be read here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bani_Adam ↩︎
- Definition fluency US State Department: https://www.govtilr.org/Publications/TESOL03ReadingFull.htm#_ftn1 ↩︎
- About Diwaniya: https://mussaad.medium.com/the-diwaniya-a-uniquely-kuwaiti-institution-70c080cd2a68 ↩︎
- Tim Mackintosh-Smith “Arabs”; page 44 ↩︎
- More about Robert Musil's book: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/review-the-manwithout-qualities-by-robert-musil-lmtm9fwtv ↩︎