Once upon a time in a far away village in the English countryside, which looks a bit like the 'Heart of the Shire' from Lord of Rings, there was a short white fellow sitting in his bedroom. 16 years old, doing his religious studies homework, he was looking out over the majesty of the Cornish countryside. All of a sudden, his headphones called out sounds in a rythm which he had never heard or felt before.
He knew that it would change his life.
The story is about me... I am the short white fellow... I am him... so I'll stop using the 3rd person now...
I didn't grow up being very good at languages. In fact, I was so terrible at languages at school that my French teacher told my mum that it would be too embarrassing to let me take the French exam. I thought teachers were supposed to be encouraging!
I knew that I was becoming a Muslim. I had never met a Muslim in my life at this point!
But I didn't need to meet Muslims, I had met the Qur'an and I had met the language which
Allah's religion is conveyed to all of mankind, even short white fellows from Cornwall.
I spent months listening to the Qur'an in my bedroom, clearing the internet history so my family didn't find out, the letters trembling on my lips when I woke up until I went to bed. I found any Arabic resources I could online and in my college library. My family members would pass by my bedroom and over hear me trying to recite verses from the Qur'an. They knew that I had been a Muslim for months before I finally found a mosque, embraced Islam officially and told them.
I sacrificed everything and invested everything I had to move to London and study Arabic full time. I understood that you could try to learn Arabic by buying books or just self studying. But taking that risk with Arabic was just not worth it. How could I live with myself if I grow old and leave my future children as clueless about Arabic as I was growing up? And when you don't invest in something, you can easily get sidetracked and let it slip away.
Being severely dyslexic and having a proven track record of being terrible at languages does not put a man in good stead for completing an Arabic language degree, to be honest, I have no idea how I even got accepted. But hard work, early mornings, late nights, the right strategy, a whole load of resilience and calling upon the almighty is a remedy for success in anything.
I thought about giving up a few times. I was far away from home, tiny student room, the view of the rolling countryside I once enjoyed from my bedroom was now the back of a holiday Inn. The sunshine and fresh air I grew up with was now the smog and icy winter of London.
But with my head in my books, the cold or the grey sky never outweighed the warmth and comfort which I found in my new language.
I learnt how to digest a lot of vocabulary and grammar in that first year. But when the end of that year came, I just wanted more. I booked a flight to Cairo. I was 19 years old, on my own, flying to a country I had never been before.
When I arrived, my Arabic was fairly basic and I was quite vulnerable. One evening when I was walking home from the masjid, I got mugged. I got beaten up a bit, lost some money, I was dirty, hot and homesick. There's another time I considered giving up.
Because I carried on, In my second year I started being able to access Arabic literature. I read modern works of Palestinian literature, classical poetry and started to understand the Qur'an directly without needing to read the translation anymore.
My third year was the most frightening and amazing year of my life. 2014. Nablus, West Bank, Palestine. In 2014 the middle east was in a particularly odd situation. My university in their wisdom deemed that Egypt wasn't safe enough for the students. So the obvious answer was to send us to Palestine. You may be aware that the visa situation is a tricky one in Palestine.
The Israeli authorities basically decide on arrival if they feel like letting you in.
I explained that I needed to be there for one year to complete my university studies.
The soldier shrugged and gave me one month. During that one month, Allah gave me the opportunity to travel to masjid al-Aqsa and I took it. One Friday after I prayed Jummu'ah and was leaving the mosque to head back to my hotel, I heard chanting in Arabic: "By soul, by blood, we will defend you oh Aqsa!"
Did you know that tier gas shells are fired out of a gun and sound like a cannon? I didn't.
Not until I and a thousand other worshipers were fired at.
Did you know that a shell of tier gas will kill you if it hits you? I didn't either until I had to pray the jannaaza of dozens of people after that day.
After nearly dying that time in pursuit of studying Arabic, I almost considered giving up.
Of course, my visa expired a few days after that event and I was still there in Palestine... illegally. The prospect of being in trouble with the Israeli forces as a Muslim, studying in Palestine makes for a nervous lifestyle. But I managed to keep myself safe right up until the day when we had to leave and return to the UK. Now, if I thought that living in Palestine without a valid visa was scary, getting through Israeli military check points is a whole new level. So had to do some things that I'm not proud of. But that was the price of Arabic for me.
When I came back to my seaside home in Cornwall that summer, I was asked to deliver the khutbah in our local masjid. It was a very proud moment when I stood in the exact same spot at the front of the mosque where I had embraced Islam 3 years earlier. It was a poetic moment in my journey but what was better was how Allah had rewarded my hardships and struggles with being able to deliver a khutbah in Arabic.
That is something I could never have done in English.
For my final year, I Studied Somali, Arabic historians, Qur'an and Hadith.
A month or so before I graduated, I met a Somali woman who grew up in Saudi Arabia and had a thing for short white kids...And the rest is history as they say! We planned to get married 3 months later!
That September, I started my working life as a Primary school teacher in East London. I love working with children and their parents and at my core I simply get a huge amount of gratification from giving my time back to help others.
Within the space of about 4 months I had gone from being a single, care free student in my little room to getting married, being a teacher in charge of the education of 32, 9 year olds, renting an expensive flat in London, managing a car and on top of that, with no warning I came home to some news that would change everything again once more.
As I entered my flat from the cold October darkness...
"Sam, sit down" My wife said to me.
I was terrified.
She gave me a box. Inside it I found a positive pregnancy test a tiny pear of baby booties.
I was going to be a father too.
We had a complicated pregnancy. I had to leave my work to support my wife and when faced with the reality that I was going to be a father, I knew that I needed to be man. Most people would think that that means to stay in the job to keep the money. But I knew that I needed to be brave enough to answer my calling so my child can look up to a father who dared to go through hardship for something better for all of us in the long run.
I started teaching Arabic to kids around London. Anyone who would employ me. At almost any rate.
My mother in law got me a little job teaching Arabic and Qur'an in a Somali 'dugsi' for a while.
I failed to make it work. I tried to make a new way to provide for my wife and new baby and I had to move my family back to Cornwall. Whilst this was humiliating, it demanded that I start working online which ended up being the best thing I could ever do for myself and my students.
It has become clearer and clearer over the years that it's not enough to just teach any Arabic to anyone. Arabic is a huge topic. I needed to focus more on what really drives me to teach Arabic day in day out, often giving away lessons and resources for free.
I have seen how Arabic texts change lives and empower the Muslims with a comforting feeling of connection with our history and our prophets. Being a father myself and also an ex-primary school teacher, I care deeply about Muslim families, children and the future of our Ummah.
And that is how my infectious love for Arabic
became a program in service to students all over the world.