St Petersburg University master’s student Nina Lobyreva took third place at the 2nd All-Russian Arabic Language Competition, which was held in Moscow. She became one of the five finalists who won the coveted prize – a scholarship to study at Qatar University for a year.

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According to Nina Lobyreva, this was a reward for her deep appreciation of the Arabic language, culture and history. She developed her interest in the East when she enrolled on a bachelor’s degree programme at the University. There she met her teachers and classmates and became immersed in studying Arabic philology. In the interview, Nina told us how the Arabic language might help in teaching oriental dances, and why an independent self-organised trip to Egypt proved to be better than any internship programme.

From actress to Arabist

After finishing secondary school in Odessa, I dreamed of going to St Petersburg to study acting. However, my father did not approve of it, for he considered such a profession to be too frivolous. He is an Oriental man – an Armenian. He is a translator and all his professional life has been connected with the Arabic language. Eventually, I gave up and decided to follow in my father’s footsteps. Arabic studies appeared extraordinary and fascinating to me.

At St Petersburg University, there is a unique academic programme called ‘Compatriots.’ It provides an opportunity for talented youth from the CIS countries, including Ukraine, to apply for state-funded places. The competition was high; however, in addition to the high grades in my school certificate, I acquired other skills that worked to my advantage. By that time, I had already completed a year of study at the Faculty of Philology in Odessa, I had a good command of English, and I spoke Armenian and studied German. Moreover, I finished a music school where I studied piano and guitar. All this raised additional points under the ‘Compatriots’ programme and enabled me to enter the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University.

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Loving the East

When I started a bachelor’s degree programme at the University, I knew very little about Arab countries – how many there are and where exactly they are located, or what is the difference between Iraq and Iran. My notions of the East were limited to general concepts about its culture and Islam. But after I entered the University, everything changed. We were immediately told that in order to cope with the heavy course load we would have no other option but to work hard. We had some serious competition inside the group. Not only did everyone try to complete all the tasks, but also all of us aspired to be among the best. Such a situation, indeed, motivated us to study to the best of our abilities.

After the first exam session, I realised that I had been enjoying my studies immensely. I was particularly affected by the general introductory course – ‘Introduction to Asian Studies’. It was then that I understood what the East meant. It is the land where life began, the cradle of ancient civilisations and world religions. Indeed, learning the language and culture of the people, we learn to see the world through others’ eyes. It was simply impossible not to fall in love with it all.

Besides in-depth studies of Arabic grammar, history and religion, our academic programme at the University includes immersion in the culture of the Arab world. For instance, every year, St Petersburg University holds ‘An Evening of the Arabic Language’ (أمسية اللغة العربية). When I was a first-year bachelor’s student, I was invited to participate in this evening by its initiator – Associate Professor of St Petersburg University Hana Yafia Yusif Jamil. I accepted her invitation and throughout my University years I was actively involved in organising these events, and I often staged musical and dance performances for them. When I was a third-year student, I gave a master class in Arabic folk dancing. All the participants learned to dance the dabke (دبكة) – a folk dance popular in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. I do believe that folk arts of the peoples of the East are closely intertwined with their languages. It is impossible to learn the Arabic language unless you like the culture of this people.

Visiting my Arab ‘mother’

First, it was the internship programmes that helped me to feel the oriental atmosphere and speak confidently in Arabic. I travelled to Morocco with the ‘Al-Hadara’ Centre for Arab Culture at Kazan Federal University, and to Lebanon with the Higher School of Economics. Then, in my fifth year, I realised that I would prefer to go to Egypt independently, without a group. So, I created a ‘customised’ trip for myself. I booked a room with a local resident and bought plane tickets. My landlady was a wonderful Egyptian woman, who immediately offered me the choice of speaking in English, literary Arabic or Egyptian dialect. I chose the latter, because in Russia such an opportunity is the rarest to be found, while dialects of Arabic, unlike literary Arabic, are almost impossible to master without a native speaker. Additionally, for five days a week, I studied at the Centre for Oriental Studies at Cairo University. That winter I spent three and a half weeks in Egypt. Throughout this time, I did not speak in Russian at all. I spoke only in Arabic: with the landlady – my Arab ‘mother,’ who cooked me breakfast in the mornings, and with local acquaintances. After returning to St Petersburg, I made a decision that I should go back to Cairo to study, but this time for three and a half months in summer. This must have been my greatest gamble that paid off handsomely, since the language learning trip proved to be more effective than any internship.

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Most complex qaṣīda of all

Two years ago, I took second place at the All-Russian Student Olympiad in the Arabic language in Kazan. And a few months ago, I was named one of the three finalists of the 2nd All-Russian Arabic Language Competition in Moscow. I believe that it was the high appreciation of my oral recitation of the qaṣīda (قصيدة, a form of classical Arabic poetry, Ed.) in Arabic that gave me the edge over other contestants.

Both in Kazan and Moscow, I recited a qaṣīda ‘Trill of a nightingale’ (صوت صفير البلبل) by Arab medieval poet and scholar Al-Aṣmaʿī (الاصمعي) who was celebrated at the court of the ʿAbbāsid caliph, Hārūn al-Rashīd. This poem is often considered the most complex qaṣīda of all. There are many phonetically complex onomatopoeic verbs that are also polysemantic. For example, there is a line that in English translation would be: ‘...and the drum went along with me “tab-tab tab-tab…”’ Indeed, each ‘tab-tab’ here is to imitate the rhythmic drumbeats. On the other hand, the Arabic verb ‘tabtaba’ (طبطب) also means ‘to caress, stroke’. Not only is it difficult for a modern Arab to fully understand the multiple layers of its meaning, but also to read this qaṣīda, let alone to recite it by heart. Hence, when it is beautifully recited by a non-native speaker, and a girl, it wins respect and admiration.

The Student Olympiad in Kazan provided a good incentive for me to learn the qaṣīda. Associate Professor Hana Yafia Yusif Jamil helped me to vocalise the text correctly and explained all its subtleties. Unfortunately, I left the task of memorising the text to the very last moment. That was clearly a mistake. During my recitation at the Olympiad, I had to pause at the end. I hoped to disguise it as ‘justified silence,’ while, in fact, I tried to recall the last four lines of the poem. That must have been the reason why I did not take the first place. Nonetheless, I received high scores for my recitation of the qaṣīda. Later, I often surprised my Arabic-speaking acquaintances by this poetic number, so I was able to learn it by heart properly. A few months ago, I recited this qaṣīda at the All-Russian Arabic Language Competition in Moscow.

In Moscow, I took third place and became the only representative of St Petersburg, as well as the only girl of the five finalists who won a scholarship to study at Qatar University for a year. We are to start our studies in September this year. I hope everything will be all right: I will graduate from St Petersburg University and then will go to study in Doha.

Fitness Centre for women in Morocco

This year I am graduating from a master’s degree programme in ‘Asian and African Economies and International Economic Relations (with Asian/African language tuition)’. At present, I am focused on my thesis on business development in Morocco. I believe that Morocco offers very good opportunities for foreign direct investment. So, I want to develop a business plan in support of opening fitness centres for women. In Morocco, there are a few fitness clubs for women, but most often they are located in tourist destinations. Indeed, there are gyms for men; however, women are allowed to use them only during certain hours, on certain days. Obviously, it is necessary to analyse the situation, the demand for fitness clubs for women as a business enterprise, to calculate the costs, et cetera.

Upon graduation, I would like to work in a company engaged in business development in the Middle East. It would be great if in the future I could put my knowledge of the Arabic language into practice.