It can be very difficult to judge someone else’s competence in a language, especially if a) you yourself do not know the language in question; and b) the person is long dead. The matter is still more complicated in the case of Europeans learning Middle Eastern languages. Orientalist scholarship, and the learning of ‘Oriental’ languages, has historically been bound up with power relationships between cultures and empires (if you haven’t already read Edward Said, now would be a good time). In this tradition, a scholar’s knowledge of an Oriental language qualifies them to know (and control) the Orient, and to interpret it to the less linguistically-gifted. But what if their Arabic isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is?
This is where Arab perspectives on European Orientalists are so valuable. The Jordanian historian Suleiman Mousa’s T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View (لورنس والعرب: وجهة نظر عربية), published in English translation in 1966, is a landmark work of social history, which gathers first-hand testimony from those who lived and fought with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. One of the many things Lawrence’s Arab colleagues comment on is his ability in the language. His Arabic was excellent, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive to a native speaker as it was to an armchair adventurer in Britain.
Lately I’ve been reading Daniel Newman’s translation of the Egyptian scholar Rifa’a al-Tahtawi‘s (1801-1873) highly entertaining and enlightening account of his stay in Paris among the ‘Franks’, in 1826-1831. (Here’s al-Tahtawi sitting comfortably, on a Frankish chair, outside Sohag University.)
In Paris, al-Tahtawi got to know the great French Orientalist Antoine Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838). The two men evidently had a great deal of respect for one another. De Sacy had studied and published authoritative works on a range of ancient and modern ‘Oriental’ languages. He had been a professor of Arabic since before al-Tahtawi was born. Here is al-Tahtawi’s respectful, but frank, evaluation of the Frank’s Arabic:
“Among his other works, which bear out his great ability, there is a grammar book, which he called al-Tuḥfa al-saniyya fi ‘ilm al-‘Arabiyya (‘The Splendid Gift in the Science of Arabic’). In this book he discussed the science of grammar through a strange arrangement, which nobody had done before him. … He collected the texts [in an anthology] and translated them from Arabic into French. He also wrote other works and translations, especially in the field of Persian, in which he is highly proficient. His fame as an eminent scholar throughout Europe cannot be denied, and numerous honours and distinctions have been bestowed upon him by the great kings of the continent. … ”
“His proficiency at Arabic is such that he summarized a commentary of the maqāmāt by al-Ḥarīrī … He learned Arabic, so it is said, by his powers of understanding, his keen intelligence and wide erudition – and without the help of a teacher, except at the beginning. He did not have instruction on, for instance, Shaykh Khālid – not to mention al-Mughnī, which he can read. Indeed he several times taught classes on al-Bayḍāwi. However, when he reads, he has a foreign accent and he cannot speak Arabic unless he has a book in his hands. If he wants to explain an expression, he uses strange words, which he is unable to pronounce properly. But let us here include the preface to his commentary of al-Ḥarīrī’s maqāmāt in order to give an idea of his writing and his style, which is eloquent, even though it has slight weaknesses owing to his familiarity with the rules of European languages, as a result of which he tends to use expressions [from those languages] in Arabic.”
al-Tahtawi, who had recently been through a French immersion course, and later established a prestigious school for translators in Cairo, is a canny observer of linguistic foibles. There is a big difference between having a good grammatical command of a language and speaking it. De Sacy, the renowned Orientalist, was in fact imperfectly placed to act as a mediator between the Franks and the Arabs. We can only assume that he remained unaware of al-Tahtawi’s assessment of his Arabic, and was unaware of the irony in a letter of recommendation he later wrote for the Egyptian scholar, praising a work which “does not always comply with the rules of Arabic grammar.” Sylvestre de Sacy: Reviewer No. 2.
Mousa, Suleiman (1966) T. E. Lawrence: An Arab View. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
al-Ṭahṭāwi, Rifā‛a Rāfi‛ (1834) Takhlīṣ al-Ibrīz fī Talkhīṣ Bārīz aw al-Dīwān al-Nafīs bi-Īwān Bārīs تخليص الإبريز في تلخيص باريز (trans. Daniel L. Newman, London: Saqi 2004 as An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric 1826-1831). Būlāq: Dār aṭ-Ṭibāʻa al-Hidīwīya.