Arabic. Beautiful, poetic, terribly useful, and awfully difficult to learn. In the 1940s, the British Army must have shared my opinion: they set up a special school to teach Arabic to academically inclined young officers.
The Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) was quickly nicknamed ‘the British spy school’ in the Middle East – was it more than a mere language training centre?
During the Second World War, there was a pressing need for Arabic speakers. The idea of setting up an Arab Centre ‘to bring into being a pool of Arabic-speaking and specially trained officers, primarily to meet post-war requirements of the various services of the Crown’ first emerged in 1941.
It really started being discussed in 1943, when Arabist and explorer Bertram Thomas sent a ‘Note on the Centre for Arab Studies in the Middle East’ to London. The aim of such a centre, he wrote, was
‘to give specialised training to twenty selected young British officers in the Arabic language, the peoples of these countries, their cultural and historical backgrounds and the political, economic and administrative structure of the various States themselves’ (FO 366/1348).
All the departments concerned agreed it was a good idea, but they were a bit unsure as to where they would find these 20 young men, especially as Thomas only wanted officers with ‘high educational standard’: ‘it would obviously be detrimental to have second raters,’ he wrote (FO 921/217).
It wasn’t going to be easy to recruit suitable students at a time when they were required for operational duty. Waterfield, from the Civil Service Commission, summed it up perfectly:
‘there is one very difficult point arising out of Bertram Thomas’ suggestion (…). This Arab Centre will, I imagine, be a little oasis of semi-academic, semi-administrative or political study in the middle of a world at war’ (FO 366/1348).