Studying Arabic at the Advanced-Mid/Advanced-High Level

Resources and Exercises for Arabic-Language Memoirs of Political Figures


This entry provides a list of resources pertinent to independent language learners interested in using memoirs in their Arabic study as well as their own research. This guide is intended for learners interested in politics, and studying memoirs written by elites. While many of the points below apply to all auto-biographical work, some will skew toward that focus specifically. Admittedly, these memoirs are overrepresentative of: male writers, wealthy/middle-class writers, writers with political objectives as it relates to their legacy, writers with immediate political objectives as it relates to the date of publication, and several other relatively intuitive biases. As you build these skills and advance in your language study, you will gain the tools to move beyond the types of memoirs below to encompass a more diverse array of memoirs.


Salah Ben Hammou’s database “Memoirs of the Middle East & North Africa” is currently the best publicly available aggregator of memoirs, with a particular focus and pertinence to civil military relations and politics more generally. Memoirs are of course one of the oldest types of sources used by historians, but they are often overlooked in the study of MENA in the more quantitative social science disciplines in the West.


  1. Select a memoir from the source list above.
  2. Before you begin reading, try to learn as much as you can about the author and the political context in which the memoir was written. This will help you understand the language used in the book and provide a richer learning experience. A good way to start is by reading the Arabic-language wikipedia page of the author.
  3. As you read, pay attention to the language used by the author. Try to identify new vocabulary words and phrases that you encounter, and look up their meanings in a dictionary.
  4. Take special note of any idioms used in the book. Idiomatic language is an important part of eventually achieving a superior score on ACTFL, which may or may not be important to you. These can be particularly challenging for independent language learners, as high-brow Arabic-language idioms may not have explanations in English online, and can require extensive explanation from an instructor.  That said, an important part of a language and can help you understand how the often very formal language in memoirs is used in real-life situations
  5. As you read, try to summarize the main points of each chapter or section in your own words. This will help you improve your comprehension and retention of the material. Here, it can be helpful to take a moment to think about how you would describe the text in an English-language history class if you were reading the source in translation. Keep note of which more complex descriptive terms you wish you had, and study those on flashcards later.
  6. As always, after you finish reading a section, take some time to review the new vocabulary and expressions you learned. Write them down in a notebook or flashcards and practice using them in sentences of your own.
  7. When you meet with your language mentor, consider discussing the memoir with them. This can be a great way to practice your speaking and listening skills, as well as to gain new insights into the book and the language. One effective approach can be selecting a political memoir from your language partner’s home country and having the session begin with their interpretation of how the author or figures referenced by the author are remembered in history/taught about in schools. This can be a rather organic way to start a free-form discussion exercise that can eventually move into diving into the specifics of the text.
  8. Finally, remember that memoirs come in all different shapes and sizes–so be sure to pay attention to what you are getting out of the exercise and use this to build discretion in selecting future autobiographical works for your own research.


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Resources for Self-Instructional Learners of Less Commonly Taught Languages Copyright © by University of Wisconsin-Madison Students in African 671 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.