Julia and The Dictionary Called Hans

I became interested in Arabic a long time ago now when I read a particular book, when I was an undergraduate, that was originally written in Arabic. I read it in English and was somewhat enchanted and thought I need to read this by itself, for myself. So I set out to teach myself and learn Arabic.

I'd been in Saudi Arabia for six months teaching English and it was the summer vacation between semesters and I had two months off. I was supposed to go to Iran with a friend, but this was in 2009 and they'd just had their elections and there had been a lot of protests about the results and the authorities had blamed the protests on the British. This was about three weeks before I was supposed to go and it was in the middle of my visa application, so I was fairly certain I wasn't going to get a visa and should probably make other plans. And in any case, it probably wasn't the best time to go anyway. In the end, I did get a visa, but I'd already made other plans by then, so a twist of fate.

I was supposed to go to Damascus and start having some Arabic lessons there, but as luck would have it, I mentioned to a colleague of mine that I was looking into Arabic courses for the summer and she said, 'Ooh, I met somebody last weekend whose studying in Yemen, would you like to speak to him?' I said, Sure. So I sent him an email introducing myself and telling him what I was looking for and he couldn't have recommended his school highly enough, so I looked them up and contacted them. They responded immediately and professionally, which I subsequently discovered was not typical of any institution in the Middle East. And I thought, great, that all works, I'll do that instead. So I changed my flight from Tehran to Sana'a and off I went. And I spent four very fruitful weeks studying intensively with two teachers. I was doing four hours a day, six days a week and had a wonderful time in sorts of ways.

I was coming to the end of my month and realised that I should have booked another month really, but it was too late by then. And I mentioned to one of my teachers that I would like to invest in some reading materials to keep practising while I wasn't there. I had in mind to buy some children's books or comics or something like that, that would be sort of easy-going reading just to help me pick things up. And she said, 'What a wonderful idea, I'll take you to a bookshop. We can go, it can be like a class trip, it will be fun.' So a little group of us went with both of our teachers to a tiny room somewhere, on a back street somewhere, in the new city. I wouldn't be able to find it again. And in we went and started browsing, and of course I had no idea where to even start really. I managed to find the word for 'Children', oh good, pictures and things, and started browsing and found some things that I wanted to buy and showed them to my teacher. She said, 'Oh yes, wonderful. That will be funny and will be that be instructive, good!' And then her colleague, who was my other teacher came over with this, this mighty tome in her hands, and just said, 'This is the one!'

I then learnt that they had been discussing the best dictionary for students of Arabic. And they sort of waved it at me and said, 'You need to buy this'. And I was like really, you know it's pretty heavy and I've only got the one bag and I'm going back, I'm flying, you know, is it worth it? And they said, 'If you're serious about your Arabic you will need to buy this at some point'. And I went, mm, do I need to buy it now? I'm going to get on a plane, it's very heavy. And they said, 'Well, it's probably about a fifth of the price here than it will be anywhere else' Yes, that does sound quite sensible, ok. So along with five kilos of dates and a medieval sword, this made it back with me from Yemen. And as you can see, it used to have a dust jacket which has only recently disintegrated, but it's been very well loved. You can see my thumb prints all down the spine. And so it came with me. It came back to Saudi for another few months and then onto Cairo and then onto Damascus, where it had pride of place on every desk and every table I ever studied at. From there, it came back to Cairo and then to Beirut and to Tunis and then spent several months in Izmir last year. And it still has pride of place on every desk and every table that I study at.

I want to tell you that it was originally compiled by a German scholar in German, Arabic into German by a man called Hans Weir and so this is what we call it. Have you got your Hans with you? So he, he, has become something of a friend and companion through my travels and studies and provides enormous amounts of joy and epiphanies one after another. And yeah, I think he is my best-travelled and definitely most used book that I have ever owned.

Julia Ihnatowicz is a freelance Arabic translator.