Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…

Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam

نيقولاوس فان دام

The ambassador and authority on Syria who worked in almost all Arab countries.

Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam
  • Date of birth: 1st April 1945
  • Place of birth: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Place of residence: Andalusia and The Hague
  • Personal website: nikolaosvandam.academia.edu
  • 1970-1973: Taught Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Amsterdam.
  • 1970-1975 and 1974-1980: Field research in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Interpreter/translator of Arabic (Egypt, Lebanon, the Netherlands).
  • 1975-1976 and 1976-1980: Staff Member of the International Technical Assistance Department of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dealing with Yemen. Staff Member of the Middle East Section of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • 1980-1983: First Secretary at the Netherlands Embassy in Beirut,covering Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian occupied territories(West Bank) and Cyprus.
  • 1981: Secretary of the European Middle East mission of the Dutch presidency.
  • 1983-1985: Chargé d’Affaires a.i. of the Netherlands in Tripoli, Libya.
  • 1985-1988: Deputy Director for African and Middle Eastern Affairs at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • 1988-1991: Ambassador of the Netherlands in Baghdad, Iraq (accreditation until 2004).
  • 1991-1996: Ambassador of the Netherlands in Cairo, covering Egypt and the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.
  • 1996-1999: Ambassador of the Netherlands in Ankara, covering Turkey and Azerbaijan.
  • 1999-2005: Ambassador of the Netherlands in Bonn & Berlin,Germany.
  • 2005-2010: Ambassador of the Netherlands in Jakarta, covering Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Ambassador of the Netherlands to ASEAN (2010).
  • Retired August 1st, 2010, as the longest serving Ambassador of the Netherlands (22 years) in the most-senior rank.
  • Studied Political & Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, including International Relations and History of the Modern Middle East, as well as the Arabic Language and Islam.
  • Graduating cum laude in 1973 with the degree of Doctorandus (Drs) of Political & Social Sciences. Was awarded the degree of Doctor of Literature at the University of Amsterdam in 1977, after successfully defending his thesis on The Role of Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in the Struggle for Political Power in Syria.

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

I am the former Special Envoy for Syria and Ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.


What was your first Arabic grammar book?

Carl Brockelmann: Arabische Grammatik.


Who was Carl Brockelmann?

Carl Brockelmann (17 September 1868 – 6 May 1956) was a German Semiticist. He analyzed the grammar of almost all known Semitic languages and was a specialist in Hebrew and Arabic.

Many call him the foremost orientalist of his generation. Brockelmann was a professor at the universities in Breslau, Berlin and, from 1903, Königsberg. He is best known for his multi-volume “Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur” (1937–1949) (History of Arabic literature) which included all writers in Arabic until 1937.

His grammar analysis “Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen” (2 volumes) is still among the best you can get if you are interested in how Semitic languages are related to each other.

The book “Arabische Grammatik” is a summery of Arabic grammar including all what you need to understand Arabic. Brockelmann published it under his own name in 1941 – it was the eleventh edition of the grammar of Albert Socin, previously revised by Brockelmann several times.


What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

Fragments of Memory (بقايا صور) by Hanna Mina (حنا مينه).

There is also an English translation available. You can get it on amazon.

–> What’s the story?

Fragments of Memory is an autobiographical novel about the life of a boy born to a poor family in northern Syria. The author sets these personal events against a richly detailed description of events in the history of early 20th century Syria, as the silkworm industry gave way to modern foreign technology.

Hanna Mina (9 March 1924 – 21 August 2018) was a Syrian novelist. His early novels belong to the movement of social realism, and focus on class conflict.


How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

Four years or more (or perhaps one’s whole life). It also depends on which type of Arabic, and how many types simultaneously (Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, one or more Arabic dialects, etc.).

Sticking in the beginning to one dialect only, should be more effective. Studying full time would, of course, take shorter (except if it is a task for life). The idea of first learning a dialect as a living language and later on MSA appeals to me.

Arabic televison: Dr. Nikolaus Van Dam is interviewed in Arabic.

What is your favorite Arabic word?

سوريا – Suriya (Syria) – even though the origin of this name is not Arabic. The Arabized form of سوريا is سورية and is frequently used as well.


Which Arabic word do you like least?

إفْعَوْعَلَ (If’aw’ala)

It is the exaggerated form for “to do”.


Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

Palestinian Arabic (Jerusalem).


What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

An Omani proverb:

بعد العود ما في قعود

Ba’d al-‘Ud ma fi Qu’ud

After the incense has been served, you can no longer stay. It means that you should not overstay your welcome.


What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

الأقارب عقارب

al-Aqarib ‘Aqarib

The relatives are [or can be like] scorpions.


What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

When you fully understand two Arabs speaking to one another in their own dialect, without them being aware that you are listening to them, you can consider yourself as well-advanced in the colloquial Arabic concerned.

If you speak Modern Standard Arabic, you can be understood almost everywhere in the Arab world, but when you are being answered in colloquial Arabic, understanding may turn out to be much more complicated.


What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Self-criticism: be very critical of everything you say or write yourself.


Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

Three political leaders who could help bring the war in Syria to and end and help solving the conflict.


Nikolaos van dam

BOOKS Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam is the author of many critically acclaimed books:

The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party (2011). It was also translated into Arabic: الصراع على السلطة في سوريا: الطائفية والإقليمية والعشائرية في السياسة

Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (2017). It was also translated into Arabic: تدمير وطن: الحرب الاهلية في سوريا


What was the last great meal you had?

An Indonesian Rice Table (Rijsttafel) upon my departure from Jakarta (2010).


What is your favorite city?

Aleppo in Syria is my favorite city.

Aleppo in Syria how it used to look like before the war. This image was taken by Karl Forster from Pixabay.

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

My most recent book on Syria: Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria.


What is your all-time favorite movie?

Kaos by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (1984).

Film Kaos

Remark: Kaos (originally Chaos in the US) is a 1984 Italian drama film based on short stories by Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936). The film’s title is after Pirandello’s explanation of the local name Càvusu of the woods near his birthplace in the neighborhood of Girgenti (Agrigento), on the southern coast of Sicily, as deriving from the ancient Greek word kaos.


What music do you listen to?

Arabic music, like that of Fairouz, or classical music, particularly Bach.


When were you happiest?

Meeting my wife in 1986, and ever since.


What is your greatest fear?

Going through Israeli crossfires during the Israeli invasion in Lebanon of 1982, and other occasions of being shot at.


What is your life motto?

Follow your intuition.


Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam, thank you for your time.

Note: This page was last updated on May 28, 2020 @ 14:13.

Picture credit: Nikolaos Van Dam, pixabay, wikimedia.

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