Learning Arabic can help diplomats forge deeper ties with the Muslim world
The Arab League has 22 members and Pakistan has diplomatic relations with all of them. Some Arab countries are located in the same region as Pakistan and are its neighbors. For instance, the Sultanate of Oman’s capital city, Muscat, is only 208 nautical miles from Pakistan’s Gwadar port. Pakistan’s relations with these countries are based on centuries-old religious, cultural and commercial ties. In fact, maintaining strong relations with Muslim countries is the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Moreover, close bilateral cooperation in various fields is facilitated by crossing the language barrier.
Like other nations with a rich cultural heritage, Arabs are proud of their language and literature. They may learn other languages but are at their best when speaking their mother tongue. They also respect people who put in an extra effort to learn Arabic – one reason why an Arabic-speaking foreigner feels at home when posted in an Arab country. Therefore, it is a win-win situation for a diplomat and his receiving country if he or she knows Arabic. Knowledge of a foreign language is a capacity multiplier for a diplomat and helps in establishing a personal rapport with senior people in a host country.
After Urdu and English, Arabic is the most read language in Pakistan as Muslims are taught from an early age to recite the Qu’ran. It is, however, a pity that several do not understand what they are reading as they are not taught the Qu’ran with meaning. Having said that, the number of Pakistanis who can comprehend Qu’ranic Arabic is not small either. Thousands know basic Arabic grammar and have reasonable word power of the language. It is however ironic that very few Pakistanis can speak classical Arabic fluently. Those who teach Arabic confine their students to grammatical rules and conjugations. They should instead impart knowledge of the language in a manner which would make them adept at speaking Arabic. They should also use modern interactive tools.
Knowledge of a foreign language is a capacity multiplier for a diplomat and helps in establishing a personal rapport with senior people in a host country.
I went to the American University of Cairo in 1974 to learn Arabic. The only other institution teaching Arabic to foreign diplomats back then was a British-managed institute in Lebanon. It would appear that Arab governments had not done much, until then, to promote the language amongst foreign professionals. Some Arab countries and universities did try to make amends later. However, they have not established institutions like the British Council or the Alliance France’ to promote their rich language and culture to the rest of the world.
For Pakistani diplomats, learning Arabic is not merely a professional tool. It also introduces them to a vast pool of cultural resources and history preserved in Arabic books. Knowledge of Arabic enables them to tap into several references, too. A Pakistani speaker of the Arabic language also develops a better understanding of his own language, Urdu, as the two languages are inter-related and share many words in common. Urdu can also draw upon Arabic to enrich itself. When Pakistan’s national poet Allama Iqbal’s work was translated in Arabic and sung by Umm Kulthum, it became instantly popular in the Arab world. The knowledge of languages helps us establish cultural bridges and promotes understanding between people.
For me personally, visiting important people in various ministries and private sector organizations in the Arab world was always a pleasant experience as I could speak their language. During my last posting, in the Sultanate of Oman, I delivered a lecture on Iqbal’s message to showcase a softer image of Pakistan. Post-retirement, I was invited by various Arabic TV channels when militancy was raging in some areas of Pakistan which gave me an opportunity to clarify several misunderstandings about Pakistan and project a better picture of my country.
Learning Arabic is easier for Pakistanis than, say, Europeans. This is also due to the fact that the Arabic and Urdu scripts are similar. At the American University in Cairo, I had a number of Japanese and Korean classmates who were very diligent students. They had been sent by private sector firms to learn the language as the Arab world offered many economic and commercial opportunities in the 1970s. The Japanese were very competitive but I had an edge over them, being a Pakistani and a Muslim.
As part of its language training program, the Pakistan Foreign Office has enrolled a large number of new diplomats to learn Arabic. However, some of them learn the language, pass the requisite test and then lose interest. Learning a rich language like Arabic is a labor of love. Languages, like houses, have to be maintained regularly. If you do not regularly speak a language, you are likely to lose grasp of it. Arabic-speaking Pakistani diplomats, even when they are posted in non-Arab capitals, can refresh their language skills by keeping in touch with Arab diplomats. I have done it all along, with good results. I believe my knowledge of Arabic has helped my country and myself, in equal measure.
– Saved Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed