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The lost Arabic school for scandal: the spy school

The Times: The lost Arabic school for scandal: the spy school

By Michael Binyon
June 22, 2004

EXOTIC, influential, reviled and mysterious, few institutions have exercised such a lasting and controversial hold over British diplomacy as a modest language school founded in Jerusalem 60 years ago this month.

The Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (Mecas), later based in Lebanon and known throughout the Arab world as “the spy school”, began as an attempt to train army officers in the language and culture of the Middle East, where Britain still ruled a dozen countries directly or indirectly. When the last intake of young British diplomats, oilmen and students, Japanese businessmen and international civil servants scuttled out of the beleaguered school at the height of the Lebanese civil war in 1978, they left behind an institution that has never been matched and will never be repeated: a piece of Whitehall nestling amid the terraces, vineyards and old stone houses of Shemlan, a sleepy Christian mountain village that became synonymous with broken plurals, weak radicals and all the intricacies of modern newspaper Arabic.

Few institutions as amateur, poorly funded and shortlived can boast such a wide reach. A few years ago the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, the head of MI6 and the Director-General of the British Council were all graduates. The list of alumni includes almost all Britain’s ambassadors to the Middle East for the past 30 years — including Sir Jeremy Greenstock, recently Britain’s special envoy in Iraq; captains of industry at Shell, BP, the British Tourist Authority and HSBC; generals, brigadiers and air commodores; authors, journalists and even two governors of the Falklands, where the demand for classical Arabic is less pressing.

Mecas was founded because too few British officials could understand the subjects they ruled, the radios denouncing British imperialism or the demonstrators on the streets of Palestine. Its first director, Bertrand Thomas, had won fame as the first man to cross the Empty Quarter of Arabia, months before St John Philby. By 1944, however, he was past his prime — “pompous, snobbish, old-fashioned, not overzealous, past his best”, in the words of Sir James Craig, one of Britain’s foremost Arabists, who was principal instructor at Mecas in the 1950s and wrote the history of the school after retiring as Britain’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Thomas rarely spoke Arabic; when he did, it was to shout angrily at a driver: “dir bloody balak” (“pay a-bloody-ttention”). The first principal instructor was Aubrey Eban, a scholar of Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac and Persian and a fervent Zionist who changed his name to Abba, resigned to spend more time agitating against the British mandate and won subsequent fame as Israeli Foreign Minister.

The school was first housed in the crumbling Austrian Hospice in Old Jerusalem, where bemused Austrian nuns cooked and catered for the first handful of students. But Palestine at the end of the mandate was becoming too dangerous, with explosions almost daily; after a brief stint in tents on the edge of the Jordan desert, the school moved to Lebanon in 1947.

From the start, the hybrid organisation, part Foreign Office, part War Office, led to obvious confusion over finance, aims and staffing. As Craig notes, both government departments were simultaneously penny-pinching and extravagant: the first course had only four Arabic instructors but eighteen servants — batmen, cooks, mess orderlies and clerks. The school made do in rented accommodation for years, with leaking roofs, primitive oil stoves for the snowy winter and spartan bachelor quarters. Beirut was an hour away down precipitous hairpin roads and there were few bars or restaurants in the village. The established families looked on the annual intake with bemusement and eager anticipation of the windfall in employment and local income; but with suspicion, too, fanned by local rumours of intelligence agents and Russian spies as well as by the rantings of Lebanon’s erratic Druze clan leader and permanent Cabinet member.

Mecas laughed off the rumours; but they were given a twist of credibility when George Blake, the KGB agent, was arrested while at the school in 1961. And the centre had to contend with gibes by the Israelis that it indoctrinated British diplomats in pro-Arab sentiment, and by the Arabs that it trained agents to subvert leaders across the Arab world.

It certainly taught plenty of Arabic. The Palestinian and Lebanese teachers sometimes believed they were teaching the Arabic three Rs to children, but gradually their grammatical sophistication grew. Generations of students committed to memory the famous Mecas list of words in commonest usage, and the British principal instructors became famous for their command of Arabic, including, especially, Sir James himself and Leslie McGloughlin.

Some of the Mecas exam questions suggest the level of attainment — What is the Arabic for: to turn over a new leaf; a storm in a teacup; to be on tenterhooks? How would you say in Levant colloquial “Let’s go Dutch”? What is the dual of dunya? (Married students only:) What is the Arabic for: nappy-rash; a dummy? (Unmarried students only:) Which Arabic verb means “to incline to youthful pleasures”?

No replacement has been found. It is impossible, in the present climate, to start another Foreign Office school in the Arab world, and language courses at Beaconsfield or in British universities are a poor substitute. Total immersion courses are difficult when local culture makes it awkward to billet young diplomats with Arab families. And nowadays not only do most educated Arabs speak English, but few are willing to believe that any Westerner can ever communicate properly in Arabic. With the threat of Islamist terrorism, the need for non-native Arabic speakers has never been greater. A whole generation of Mecas graduates — who still meet yearly like a kind of international freemasonry — looks back to the strange school on the Lebanese hillside with nostalgia.

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