Warsaw, July 21, 2022
“The English language is damned difficult, but it’s also damned rich, and so clear and bright that you can search out the darkest places with it.”
- Katherine Mansfield
(Before you start reading this letter, please check this infographic letter. It’s a timeline showing the order and duration of my stay in each country I’ve lived in. It will make this letter easier to follow)
My Life in a Nutshell
If I had a penny for every time I was asked “How come your English is so good?”, I would’ve been able to afford my own Ferrari!
Jokes aside, I get that question a lot. I just give generic answers: “I was born in the Uk” or “I was an English teacher for 20 years”. People usually nod and drop the subject.
What these people don’t know is that, yes, I was born in the Uk but I left when I was a baby. And when I started as an English teacher at Berlitz, I was hired on the basis of my British passport but aside from my GCSE in English, I had no formal language or teaching qualifications.
And then there’s the question of what language you and I speak at home, and when people find out it’s English (not Arabic), it’s always followed by an incredulous “why?!”
So I guess the real question here is: how did English become the lingua franca of an Arab family long before it went into exile in Europe?
For my grandparents’ generation, English was not a language of interest. The foreign languages they spoke were a reflection of the political realities of the time. Syria was under the French mandate so my paternal grandparents knew French. My grandfather also spoke Turkish since Syria was still under Ottoman rule until 1917.
On the other hand, Libya, my mother’s homeland, had been occupied by the Italians for 109 years. My grandmother’s family wouldn’t send her to school as a form of protest against the occupation so she didn’t speak any foreign languages. My maternal grandfather, however, spoke Sicilian. I have no idea how he came to learn this language or why but my uncle, who relayed this information to me, studied at the Fine Art academy in Rome and is fluent in Italian. He was adamant that my grandfather did, in fact, speak the little-known Romance language.
My parents grew up under completely different circumstances. The French and Italian rule had ended by the time they started school and English, which had little cultural baggage in these two countries (neither of them was a British colony), was gaining ground as a second language among the post WW2 generation.
Libya’s oil boom attracted western investments, the US had its largest airbase at the time (Wheelus Air Base) just outside Tripoli and UNESCO established the engineering faculty that your grandmother graduated from as the first female engineer in her country. English became the de facto second language which made UK and US universities the preferred choice for Libyans as there was no need to learn another foreign language. Mum got a government scholarship for postgraduate studies in London. It must’ve been love at first sight as she kept circling back to the UK at ever possible opportunity.
Your grandpa had a very different life path. His hometown of Latakia was too small at the time, it didn’t have a university when he was growing up but it did have an American Presbyterian School.
Your grandfather attended 4 years of middle school there studying the American curriculum in tandem with the Syrian one. He was forced to make the leap when he didn’t know a single word of English and he had to go from zero to 7th grade level in one summer. Nonetheless, he still had fond memories of his time there describing it as “a piece of Americana transplanted into the middle of our town” complete with a baseball field and its own church.
After graduating from Cairo University as a civil engineer, he started his career in Libya (where he met your grandma for the first time) and then moved on to projects around the region. He travelled around Europe for work and pleasure and his knowledge of English opened all kinds of doors for him especially in the UK where he had an LLC with a Scottish business partner.
It was this business partner who found my parents a local girl (he was based in Lincolnshire) to be my nanny. My mum was planning to go back to work when she returned to Libya and she also wanted to make sure I learned English from the get-go.
We left the UK when I was a few months old and I celebrated my first birthday in Libya. We left to Syria several months later but Jane, my nanny, stayed behind. She had fallen in love with my uncle and decided to remain in Libya and marry him. Remember that cousin of mine we met when we were in London in 2017? That’s their eldest daughter, Farah.
So we landed in Syria with no nanny and we settled in my dad’s hometown of Latakia which had barely any expat community apart from a few Eastern European women married to Syrians.
But my parents were determined to make me bilingual. They mainly spoke English at home, put together a substantial collection of English books from bedtimes stories to Encyclopaedia Britannica and adopted a more European way of life in a clear break with the local expectations of family and friends.
I was soon speaking a funny hybrid of Arabic and English. It wasn’t just mixing words from both languages in one sentence, I’d create portmanteaus like Applefaha (apple+Tuffaha), effectively jamming Arabic and English into one. It got worse when I started school. I was not yet 3 years old and very confused by the fact that Arabic writing started from where English ended! For a while, I kept writing Arabic from left to right before my mum got me to write it properly.
Shortly after that, my brother was born. He too was born in the UK and then brought back to our home in Syria. There was no nanny hired for him since my parents thought they had this bilingual business figured out.
Leo, as we called him - which happened to have the same meaning as his Arab name “Laith”, would defy everyone’s expectations and not in a good way.
While I started to talk early and was in first grade just after I turned 3, Leo at that same age was still not talking. Nothing! My parents were worried but what concerned them the most was that he was allergic to English. I’m serious. I still remember how he’d barricade himself under the dining table anytime Mum started talking to him in English, and if she tried to reason with him, he responded with wild shrieks until the English stopped.
Mum couldn’t understand why the strategies that worked on me were useless with Leo. While Dad was understandably frustrated. He’d go blue in the face whenever the topic came up.
That scene would repeat itself over and over for the next 15 years. Dad would try every approach, threat and reward he could think of and when all else failed, he utilised brute force with draconian study plans to get Leo to come to grips with the language. Dad’s thinking was that if it worked with him when he had to catch up to 7th graders from the American school in 3 months, then he can make his son do the same.
They even tried sending the two of us to summer camps in the Uk but the camp mentors had exactly the same problems as my parents. I’d get dragged from the dorm or the activities to act as an intermediary with him since he would only speak Arabic and he refused to cooperate even when he had understood what he was supposed to do.
Leo’s battle with English ended abruptly when he decided he wanted to get his bachelor of electronic engineering in the Uk. Once he had a reason to master the language, he managed to pass his IELTS test and got not only a bachelor but also 2 master degrees from British universities.
Despite his academic achievements, not to mention living and working in the Uk for almost a decade, Leo never warmed up to English. He only spoke it if he had to and I don’t recall ever seeing him reading an English book or periodical unless it was something related to his studies.
By contrast, he’s very eloquent and witty in Arabic, especially when writing in the classic form, which goes to show that being born in the Uk has no bearing on a person’s command of the English language and that two siblings with the same set of parents and upbringing could lean towards two different languages.
But enough of Leo. Let’s pick up where we left off.
As I told you before, I started primary school at age 3. My parents enrolled me at a new private school that could be described as an Islamic missionary school. It was very clean and well organised with only 12 children per class but the principle was more interested in indoctrination than education and the teachers (all female) were chosen with focus on piety not competence.
I do not remember learning anything from that time and I basically sleepwalked through grades 1-4. But the one thing that I do remember from that school was coming home with a 10/10 on my English homework and showing it to Mum only to have her explode in laughter. I’d never seen her laugh that hard, literally gripping her ribs so as not to explode. I was baffled but then she showed me what the teacher had written. Scribbled in red were the words “Piss on you!”
I still didn’t get it! Mum explained that, considering I got a perfect mark, the teacher must’ve intended to write “Peace on you” but she misspelled it.
I didn’t give that gaffe much thought but I was about to get a rude awakening when I started 5th grade.
My first primary school had classes up to 4th grade only so my parents had to find a new school for me. After a very short stint in a public school, they opted for what was the polar opposite of my previous school: The Carmel Private School.
Al-Carmeilte as it’s often called, was established by Roman Catholic nuns who still had their convent on the top floor of the school. It had been privatised but its history could be seen everywhere: From the statue of Jesus in the school yard to having Sunday as day off in addition to the standard Friday. The nuns in their brown robes often crossed the yard on their way out to run errands.
It was a massive shock on every level for me. While my old school had 5 grades (all schools have prep class or „Zerówka” as they call it in Poland), Al-Carmelite had 13 grades in total as it was also a middle and secondary school. Worse still it was overcrowded. I went from a class of 12 to a class of 60! Despite it being private and the most expensive school at that time, it was old and poorly maintained.
Needless to say, I hated the move. Worse still, I was suddenly at a disadvantage even in English.
I remember my first lesson when a petite elderly woman with a pixie cut walked into the class. Her name was: Ms. Widad Toumeh.
She told us to open our books and she proceeded to write on the black board. When I looked up, my jaw dropped. The black road was covered in what, to my eyes, looked like gibberish! I couldn’t make out a single letter - let alone a word. That was the first time I had seen cursive.
I had to sheepishly ask Ms. Toumeh to explain to me what she had written. She obliged me but she didn’t seem to be sympathetic at all.
I spent the next two years under her tutelage jumping through flaming hoops. She made us form sentences around a selected word and write them on the blackboard then she’d go on to dissect it in terms of grammar and spelling in front of the whole class.
As much as I resented her strict non-nonsense style, she did keep me on my toes. I no longer took my English for granted, and she made me work hard to earn the full mark.
7th grade marked the start of middle school. Thankfully, I didn’t have to change schools but we got a new set of teachers. Mr Saeed Qmeira would teach us for most of the last stretch of my schooling.
He was a sweet soul, the opposite of Ms. Toumeh. I liked his lessons but I wasn’t feeling challenged as I did in the previous two years. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault, it was a quirk of the system that effectively set our curriculum back 7 years.
Let me explain how. At that time, according to the Ministry of Education’s guidelines, foreign languages were only taught from 7th grade onwards. Private schools could start from 1st grade using whatever materials they wanted but they were obliged to teach the public curriculum in English alongside their own.
That created a schizophrenic divide in our English classes as the official books were starting from the very basics, introducing the alphabet and elementary words, when we were doing past and present perfect and conjugating irregular verbs!
It was crazy for a couple of years but then the public materials got more interesting and challenging and we even had an abridged version of Dickens’ “Tale of two Cities” as compulsory reading in the last year of high school.
These were the years that I made the most progress in English but that had nothing to do with what I was learning in school, it was, inadvertently, Dad’s doing.
As I told you at the start, both of your grandparents spoke English fairly well and they continued to work on their language after the move to Latakia in the absence of any real opportunities to practice it.
They just went about it in different ways that reflected their divergent learning styles. Mum relied on the BBC’s World Service. She loved to listen to that particular station both in Arabic and English and it was her daily ritual to sit in bed alone with the sleek chrome radio next to her and take notes of all the new expressions and idioms she could catch. Her nightstand was always covered in snippets of paper but sometimes, she would be caught unprepared and she’d grab the nearest tissue box or clothes tag and squeeze a few words in whatever space was available.
I never warmed up the radio. Sure, it had the advantage of teaching you the correct pronunciation but I was more of a visual person and that’s why I was more interested in how Dad was staying in the loop.
He had his own office at the time and at the end of the workweek on Thursday (Syria at that time had only one day off a week, Friday), he’d stop on the way home at a small bookshop on a backstreet called “Al Beetar”. That tiny shop had a dazzling array of books, magazines and newspapers in several languages but your grandpa was only interested in two specific weeklies: Newsweek and Time.
In those days, Syria resembled Cuba as it had a very restricted socialist economy. It wasn’t exactly impoverished since it grew and manufactured lots of items but, for some reason, things like paper tissues (Kleenex), foreign cigarettes and even certain types of food had to be smuggled from neighbouring Lebanon. Bananas, in particular, were a status symbol at that time. Sending your kid to school with a banana in their lunch box was akin to them flashing a Visa Gold in class.
So considering the restrictions on imports, it’s truly remarkable that American periodicals would make it to our small town without being redacted or censored, and in the same week they were published.
Dad would get home and toss the magazines on the coffee table and he’d give me a warning look: Don’t touch them until I’m done with them!
How I loved leafing through those pages! At first, I was just looking at the pictures. I loved their coverage of gymnastics and ice skating in particular as the images looked like they were about to burst out of the page.
With time, I grew curious and wanted not just to look but to read. I started trying to decipher the photo captions then I wanted to know more.
These articles were not meant for a preteen with rudimentary English, but I was hooked. I’d pull out the English-Arabic dictionary and work my way sentence by sentence. To my frustration, even when I had translated every new word, I still couldn’t understand the overall meaning. It reminded me of the time you and I attempted to tackle Cicero’s speeches when you were doing Latin.
The sentences rarely followed the simple structure of “The dog ate my homework”. No, they seemed to have the craziest construction with not a single verb in sight.
Frustrated, I’d take those Gordian knots to Dad and ask for his help deciphering them and like Alexander, he’d slice through the tangle of words and tell me: “it just means so and so, don’t sweat the small stuff”. Let’s face it: Dad may’ve been a voracious reader but he didn’t have the patience for details. If he got the gist of the text, then he considered it read.
I was the polar opposite. I didn’t want to guess the meaning. I wanted to be sure of it but even more importantly, I was hooked on how those articles were constructed. I became a language grease monkey, looking under the hood of every sentence and paragraph, dissecting the structure, the flow and the nuances that were woven into the text.
Little did I know, that obsession would shape my own writing style later on, as I’d spend hours tinkering with synonyms, punctuation and word order until I was happy with the final result.
And one final FYI before we move on: your grandpa’s weekly binging of Newsweek and Time continued after he left Syria and moved to Poland. He had subscriptions to at least one of these publications for years. He only unsubscribed when the internet made it possible to access the same articles online which he felt was a more environmentally friendly option.
In 1991, I left Syria to continue my studies in the Uk. The Syrian Baccalaureate was not recognised by British universities so I had to get 3 A-levels and a GCSE in English to go into higher education.
Like my dad, I made the transition between two educational systems in 3 months and was accepted in Leeds University to study Architectural Engineering.
Oddly enough, those two and half years of full immersion did little to move the needle when it came to my English. I picked a few idioms and colloquial expressions but that was it!
Even worse, I didn’t fit in either in my uni nor in society as a whole. I was lonely and miserable and in 1993, I threw in the towel and joined my mum and brother in Libya and decided to study art instead.
The Libya years were extraordinary because I moved there just as Colonel Gaddafi’s rule had reached new lows. He had outlawed the teaching of foreign languages in schools, ordered the burning of western musical instruments and did live broadcasts of executions in Ramadan just as people were sitting down to break their fast.
On top of all this, he had brought a harsh embargo and sanctions upon the country for his involvement in the Lockerbie bombing.
I will tell you more about Libya and how we survived those crazy years in other letters. The reason I’m talking about that era in a letter dedicated to my connection to the English language, is because it was the first time I could see the full scale of my privilege.
The decision to ban foreign language applied to schools but not to universities. The majority of the Libyan heads of faculties and teaching staff were educated abroad and they insisted on teaching in English especially in medicine and engineering.
Most students starting university could not speak a word of English, and the professors adopted a “sink or swim” approach that placed the burden on the students’ shoulders.
In our faculty, it was a little less challenging since most subjects were taught in Arabic and only History of Art required knowledge of English terms and expressions.
My class had some of the most talented students in the whole country. But most of them struggled with the theoretical subjects as they were more of the creative type. I, on the other hand, had mediocre talent and little practical skill, but I had an advantage in theoretical subjects and more importantly, I knew English.
The faculty had a decent library that the staff had stocked with books in both Arabic and English. The foreign books were off-limit to most students who resigned themselves to simply looking at the pictures and reproductions of art works.
But for me, these books were a treasure trove of information, not just on art history, but also on techniques and aesthetics.
I found answers, tips and tricks that allowed me to improve the quality of my portfolio and I ended up being the top of my class for every year of the BA course. My final overall grade was “Excellent” which had not been achieved for God knows how long!
My point is: the only reason I excelled despite starting off as an underdog is because I had access to knowledge that others could not tap into and English was the key to that knowledge.
Emboldened by my top score in uni, I decided to come to Poland and get a masters degree in art. Your grandpa was not enthusiastic about this career choice but he was happy to have me join him for a few years.
When my plan was thwarted by a poorly worded admission policy (they failed to mention there was a deadline for the application), I decided to go back to Syria after one year.
My dad was gracious enough to give me his blessing but told me to get a job while I was in Poland. I agreed and thought that I had a few days to find something suitable.
I was away shopping and when I got home, your grandpa was beaming. He told me that he had found 4 ads in the newspaper for English teachers and he faxed them my CV.
The ads were placed by the various branches of Berlitz in Warsaw and shortly, they all replied that they were interested. The first school to reply was the closest on Elektoralna street, so I went for an interview there.
I won’t go into the details. The school was happy to employ me for a year. Since I had a British passport, they considered me qualified but I had to undergo their training and pass a trial lesson.
The training was brutal and the trial lesson was scary but I passed. I would teach at Berlitz on and off from 2000 until 2019 when I finally hung up my teaching hat.
During that span of time, I also taught English in Latakia at the British Consulate and, additionally, had many private students.
In a way that was the end of my English as I focused on helping others improve their language and pass their certification exams. English became my bread and butter and although I enjoyed teaching immensely and was grateful that it allowed me to provide for you, the magic was gone.
It wasn’t until you came along that the spark was ignited but that’s a story for another letter.
With all my love,
© 2022 By Landa Ruweha
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