Leslie of Arabia
ARABIST and interpreter Leslie McLoughlin made a wonderful presentation on his specialisation at Magrudy’s, Jumeirah Beach Road, Dubai on Jan.23. He was in the bookstore to discuss and sign his autobiography Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter: The Odyssey of an Arabist 1959 – 2009, in the course of which he put an astounded audience through their paces with a half-hour smorgasbord of touching memories, hairbreadth escapes in conference rooms and battlefields, resounding humour and practical tips on learning Arabic. He was ably supported in his task by host Isobel Abulhoul of Magrudy’s and master of ceremonies Anthony D. Harris, former British Ambassador to the UAE.
“Leslie has led a fascinating life, and we are delighted to host this important event which represents an unmissable opportunity for anyone interested in British-Arab relations and the nuances of Arabic language and culture,” said Abulhoul.
Said Harris: “When I joined Foreign Office and was posted to Beirut, one of the first people I met was Lelsie.”
He said that he was McLoughlin’s student at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS) in Beirut, which was commonly thought of by the Lebanese as “the spy school in the mountains.” Calling himself a “dyed-in-the-wool Arabist” since he had held eight jobs in the Arab world, Harris said that “something Leslie did must have worked!”
McLoughlin opened his innings by saying that MECAS led a charmed life. “Lebanon is a wonderful country with endless problems,” he said. “No other people could have endured what the Lebanese have and bounced back.” He then went into the nuts, bolts and nuttish and doltish moments of life as seen through the eyes of an interpreter.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s premier Arabists, McLoughlin has been an interpreter at Buckingham Palace and Downing Street and has served as a language consultant during the Lockerbie trial. He has also taught Arabic in British and American universities, lectured in Arab universities and is at present a fellow at Exeter University, UK.
“Foreign Office has many Arabists,” he said, “but all are not obliged to interpret.” He called himself “part of the second team” of the department. According to him, the British system is practical and pragmatic and it calls people with expertise in languages and security clearance to serve in the Foreign Office.
Wading into his subject, he asked expats not to be afraid of Arabic. “Arabic is very easy,” he said, “it is not uniquely difficult, but terribly easy. In fact, it is easier to learn than German, or other ‘easy’ languages.” He said that it took MECAS only sixteen months to turn people who knew absolutely nothing of Arabic and make them fluent speakers of the language. French or Spanish would have taken eighteen months.
“The easiest thing about Arabic is its grammar,” he insisted, much to the pleasant astonishment of listeners. “It is not uniquely difficult. In fact, all its rules can be put on an A4 paper.” Praising the language, he said that it was extremely logical, since it was developed on how to make it easy for new Muslims to learn.
This was because the Arab conquest brought hundreds of thousands of non-Arabs into the Arabic fold. “The grammar is not terrifying!” he said, to those who still thought that learning Arabic was the linguistic version of a nightmare on Elm Street.
He pointed out that any speaker of the English language, whether in Europe, Americas, Asia or Africa, of necessity knew many Arabic words. For example, the word “arsenal” has Arabic roots (Dar-Es-Salaam, Home of Peace) and “admiral” came from “amir al-bahr.” “The Oxford Dictionary has hundreds of words in English which are originally Arabic,” he said.
Then he dealt with the Arabic script. “It is much easier than the English script!” he said. “English has four scripts, but Arabic has only one.” For example, there is no upper and lower case in Arabic, unlike English. There is also no difference between the written and handwritten styles. “You can teach the Arabic alphabet in forty-five minutes!” he said, lamenting that he did not have that kind of time for the moment. However, he noted that in 2012, the European Union was developing an online Arabic course equipped with the latest software, which would make learning the language very easy.
He recalled how he was sent out to Arabia. He was in the armed forces then. “I received a call from a Major whether I would go to Liberia. It turned out that it was Libya!” he said to laughs. His wife was supportive and they first set foot in the then Trucial States (later to become the UAE) in 1964. “We have lived happily ever after.”
“It is most suitable occasion to hold this event now,” he said of the lecture. “Since it is not only the fortieth anniversary of the UAE, but also the sixtieth anniversary of the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS), which later became the kernel around which the UAE Armed Forces and police was built.” McLoughlin was part of TOS.
He had a near brush with death, when, along with his family, he was fleeing Lebanon during the civil war. The irregulars who were manning the checkposts waved him through, since they thought him a non-Arabic speaker who did not know what was going on.
But he was full of sweet words for the UAE. “I remember 1964 as if it was yesterday!” he said. “Umm Suqeim was a fishing village then!” He had a fund of astounding reminiscences to keep the audience round-eyed. Once, he got a taciturn Saudi general and a British army officer talking by pointing out their (non-existent) commonalities as parachutists. Another time, he had to get an Omani flag replaced with an Iraqi one, without a visiting Iraqi delegation knowing about the switch. He also had to suffer bouts of severe sweating interpreting for Margaret Thatcher who always “spoke in paragraphs.” He stopped her once “in the third paragraph” to interpret. He went on to relate other howlers that are part and parcel of an interpreter’s life.
Harris, who took the microphone last, summed up: “McLoughlin’s life and work is a wonderful example of how to improve relations between the West and the Arab world.” Here’s looking at him!