You might ask what have fake flowers got to do with founding an Arabic Language School in London and how we became Arabic tutors in London? It was our ownership of a fake flower shop thousands of miles away in Syria’s capital, Damascus that began an incredibly challenging yet exciting journey for Khaled and I, to positions as joint managing directors of one of the leading Arabic Language Schools in the United Kingdom and pioneers of a methodology to teach Arabic Language dialects, the spoken forms used to communicate day to day.
From unorthodox beginnings our Arabic Language school www.londonarabictuition.com and the online Nassra Arabic Method provides students with Arabic Language lessons in the Egyptian, Gulf and Levantine Arabic dialects for communications purposes. Furthermore, Modern Standard Arabic, is taught to enable students to create and understand official documents and speeches; Also, lessons in cultural awareness are offered to understand the context of our language; as well as masterclasses in language teaching techniques for teachers of all languages.
All this attracts a broad spectrum of wonderful and talented students that wish to learn to speak Arabic. High level government officials, diplomats, members of royal families and all manner of inspirational people take lessons face to face with our Arabic tutors in London and via our online classroom and learning materials.
The miraculous thing of course about fake flowers is that no matter how long you leave them out in the sun or try to crush them they refuse to be beaten. They out live most things. Indeed, in our many quiet hours waiting for customers in our first business venture, we put this to the test, by stamping on them, bashing them with a hammer, soaking them and pulling at their petals. Their vibrant colours and perfect contours remain in tact no matter what adversity befalls them. Given their resilience, you could say that there was something practical, even reasonable about the decision to specialise in the sale of them when we found ourselves as owners of a little shop in the back streets of Damascus which had neither air-conditioning or running water. My twin Khaled and I were 18, and as teenage boys had little knowledge of fresh flowers let alone fake ones.
Which led to a tsunami of perfect flowers being dumped by a small and overladen Damascus pick up truck outside our newly acquired shop one day in August 15 years ago. We had decided not to follow in the footsteps of most other men in our mountain in the village of Al Tal to become farmers or builders and decided some might say on a whim to declare our intent to buy a shop in the big city of Damascus. Whilst, this may seem reasonable in isolation, we were penniless at the time, had no idea what we were going to sell from the shop and were known as the rooftop dreamers. We loved lying on the roof of our house to look up at the stars and to visualise our futures which were, of course destined to be intertwined as twins. Furthermore, it didn’t help that we broadcast throughout our mountain village that we were great fans of Tony Robbins, a leadership and psychology guru. Moreover, let it be known that we were planning to follow his mantra “ We all have the ability to make a positive impact on the world, and it’s up to us, as individuals, to overcome our fears and foibles to reach that potential.”
Some even thought unhinged coming from 2 inexperienced teenage members of a remote conservative Muslim village in Syria. We knew we wanted all of that, that Damascus was part of our journey and so forged ahead and often against the wishes of our close relatives to go all out for Damascus. If you don’t dream and on occasion act on those dreams you don’t go anywhere in life. We wanted to buy a shop in Damascus but no one believed that we were a safe investment. Maybe they had a point.
We had almost given up, when Umm Omar, the old lady who lived in the flat below our cramped family flat had heard about our campaign to escape and decided not to listen to our detractors and invested in us. Our friend’s father followed but had a stipulation that we set up a business to sell fake flowers. Our family were both embarrassed and frightened by our plans to leave the village and turn our backs on village culture which is a more extreme, more conservative version of mainstream Arabic culture. No wonder a number of Tony Robbins books went up in smoke, as we forged ahead to leave.
We were met by a furious crowd outside our new shop, a group of shop owners whose entrances had been blocked by the arrival of a rainbow. Ali owner of the fake flower factory had decided to drop off a double the order of luminescent flowers, he said to free up space in his shop. We could pay for the extra flowers when we’d sold the first lot but it was only later that we realised that this was a way for him to guarantee repeat custom and this was our first business mistake to believe him! Later he refused to take back the surplus, when we realised that actually despite their hardiness there was really very limited custom for neon plastic flowers among all the souvenirs, gifts and antiques that drew tourists to the old quarter of Damascus plus all the day to day goods that local women bought for their households. For the few that were fans of fake flowers, there was rarely any need to replace them. They seem to last longer than the rocks on the mountains around the city.
So we were trapped by the double delivery, the durability of our product and the business deal we’d made which had led us to optimistically agree to sell fake flowers in the first place. Our business partner pulled out in disgust as he realised that his plan to push us into selling plastic flowers was doomed. Freeing ourselves from our business partner was at once good and bad.
After a few weeks we’d managed to at least persuade Ali to pick up his colourful creations when he realised that the money was just not there to pay for the first order let alone the second one. So, thankfully we were now free of the fake flowers, yet had the challenge of feeding ourselves and of course finding a way to pay back our investors remained!
Khaled had a simple solution. We and many of our friends had been regular customers of street traders selling CD’s, so knowing there was a huge market for this commodity, decided to turn our hands to selling CD’s and so the flower shop evolved into a music shop. We played music day and night in our shop. Some of our neighbours said they preferred the days when we just blocked their entrances with fake flowers.
One late Sunday afternoon he hung around outside, we thought initially to listen to our music, then plucked up courage to enter. He was nervous and so were we. What did he want? Why had he hesitated so long before entering our shop? He stood in front of us, a menacing 6ft 5 inches with a blond ponytail and took a deep breath and we wondered what is going to happen now? When it happened, it took all our will power not to run.
Imagine Shakespearean English spoken with a South German accent and you would be close to the sound he produced. It was Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), classical Arabic, with a heavy Bavarian accent. Although, we tried our utmost to persuade him to buy one of my music CD’s and kept straight faces whilst he produced his sound we gave up after half an hour and sat down with him to smoke shisha and let him talk at us. We managed with great difficulty to ascertain that he’d visited London, a place we had longed to visit maybe even live one day and be Arabic tutors in London ourselves. It was exhausting, despite being in his 3rd year of an Arabic MA degree, to listen to our German friend speak Arabic.
Through gritted teeth, two hours dragged on, we made our excuses and closed the shop for the day. Yet in spite of our challenges in communicating with him, we liked our new German friend and so, let him know that he was welcome to come back any time to practice speaking Arabic. He was outside our shop the very next day, at the the same time, to challenge us all over again! Word spread and more Arabic language students followed.
Soon, it seemed that all foreign Arabic language students had learnt that there were 2 young brothers waiting to listen and talk to them within the walls of a tiny dusty music shop in the backstreets of Damascus. Although, we were happy to do this, we just couldn’t go on letting these students speak Arabic in a way, which is not the language of day-to-day communication in the Arabic world.
We created a place where people wanted to hang out, spread out on colourful cushions and Arabic carpets, drink tea, smoke shisha and talk and get close to a different kind of music – the language of Arabic. So, the shop was transformed once more. This time into a place for students to talk Arabic. It became an Arabic Language teaching centre and later also a bookshop.
Many students arrived in Damascus laden with Arabic Language textbooks, wonderful history books and great classics and rather than haul them back to their countries or onto remaining countries on their travels around the world they left them with us to do what we liked with them.
Its amazing to think that within a matter of 8 months we had been left with over 2000 books! These books were then either borrowed or bought by students that followed. We became well known for offering often high brow books appealing to intellectuals, you might say a cross between Waterstone’s and Heywood Hill.
Not only did that German tourist open a pathway for other students, he gave us a map, for our lives, the way sometimes strangers do by a chance encounter. Our reputation grew, we learnt English through our contact with all of the students and we found ourselves at the centre of a teaching movement. I began an Arabic Translation degree at Damascus University, wrote the first Arabic Dialect Grammar book and then moved to London for my Masters degree in translation and teaching at SOAS.
Whilst, I was at SOAS my brother Khaled took the same translation degree in Damascus whilst simultaneously running our book shop and setting up an Arabic Language school in a traditional Arabic house in Damascus in which our parents now live.
We then joined forces, created an Arabic school website and found ourselves teaching a vast array of people to speak Arabic, within the highest levels of the diplomatic service, business as well as to people who just had a curiosity and later love of the language. If I look back on the last 15 years, our early beginnings with fake flowers, a chance encounter with a German Arabic Language student and further encounters with remarkable and talented people; We have learnt just as much from other people, as they have they have learnt from us.
Athena Stevens, my first student in London who has cerebral palsy and is one of the cleverest people I know. Teaching her so speak the Arabic dialects stretched my teaching skills to the limit and probably improved them more than any other student. We have been language educators for over a decade now and have found that people learn to speak Arabic for all sorts of reasons including to boost career prospects or for holidays and have their own stories that connect them with the language.
What they have in common is that they learn to speak Arabic above all to communicate in the language. The truth is, no one in the Arab world speaks Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Whilst, you might encounter it in formal situations, speeches, newspapers and television news, people speak Arabic dialects to communicate with family, friends and colleagues. This is our story with the teaching the Arabic Language so far and how we became Arabic tutors in London