Dr Adly Mirza


John Burns


Jhune Li


‘Adly is the most enthusiastic teacher I’ve ever had,’ posted one student on about their Arabic 101 class with Dr Adly Mirza. ‘He has inspired me to not only learn the Arabic language, but to learn about the culture,’ writes another.

Mirza, who teaches Arabic at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in Honolulu, is nothing if not enthusiastic. When he tells stories, he rises from his seat in excitement, his voice breaking at the punchlines of his own jokes. ‘This is the story of this,’ he says as a preface to anecdotes full of wild gesticulations and hearty, infectious laughs.

I’m the only Arabic teacher on the island

Originally born in Aden, Yemen, Mirza wound up in Hawaii for love, following his ex-wife, whom he had met while working for his PhD in Oregon. Although not, perhaps, what he had planned to do with his degree in horticulture, Mirza relishes in his professorial post as the only Arabic teacher in Honolulu, not to mention the tank top and flip-flops pace of island life itself.

‘Hawaii is the place that gave me the opportunity to enjoy my passions,’ he says. From cooking and singing to his drawings and photography, Mirza likes to bring these many passions into his classroom, baking his students baklava and singing old Egyptian standards to them. ‘I connect with the students though my music, through my art, through my singing,’ he says. ‘I make my classes more fun. I treat it like they’re watching a show.’

How did you get from Yemen to Hawaii?

While I was doing my PhD at Oregon State University I met my ex-wife, who was from Hawaii. She didn’t know anything about the Middle East, I didn’t know about Hawaii. It just happened. We got married and had our first child. Then she finished her degree and moved back to the island, but I was still writing my dissertation. She asked me to come and give it a chance. I’d had it in my mind that I’d go back to the Middle East and make all this money, but I came to Hawaii to follow my wife. And since then, I’m stuck in paradise.

And now you teach at the University of Hawaii?

Yes, I teach Arabic to college students.

Is that something you had planned to do? 

It’s a long story. My degree is not in education, or anything like that. My PhD is in horticulture – kind of plant physiology. There are no jobs in agriculture in Hawaii, though. But 9/11 happened, and the need for Arabic was everywhere.

And that’s how you ended up teaching the US military? 

Yeah, I was at Hawaii Pacific University before, which was affiliated with the military. I used to teach at Pearl Harbor and Hickam [air force base]. The demand started going down after the war ended in Iraq. But I was happy when it did – it was tedious working at so many places. I also teach at a high school in Ewa Beach, and that’s one of the best things that’s happened to me. I drive for one hour, but I love teaching those kids. The programme is sponsored by Qatar Foundation.

Who is easier to teach – soldiers or high school students?

It’s different. The military was hard. A lot of people skipped classes because they had to be out of the island and so on, and then they would have to start all over again. But with those children, I just find it fascinating to see them learning from scratch and getting into the culture.

How do you introduce your students to Middle Eastern culture? 

I bake for them. I cook baklava. I’m also a singer, so I teach them how to sing in Arabic. They know all those classical songs, like Abdel Halim Hafez – he’s their favourite. You know the song ‘Ahwak’? [Starts singing ‘Ahwak, w atmana law ansak…’] It’s a romantic song.

Is that what you sang for your performance at the Hawaii Belly Dance Convention’s ‘Shimmy Showcase’… 

Oh gosh! [Laughs] In Hawaii they have a passion for belly dancing, so they do that shimmy whatever-it’s-called every year. I’m not into these things but they contacted me – not to dance, of course, but to sing. It’ll be my fourth time this year. I’ll be singing with a Korean belly dancer. None of the belly dancers are Arab.

Is there a considerable Arab diaspora in Hawaii? 

We have Arabs. I meet them once in a while at the mosque, when I get a chance, or during Eid. We gather. I would say there’s maybe a few thousand. But it’s hard to recognise them because everybody here looks the same. Even the tourists – it’s the t-shirts, the shorts and the slippers. Whether you’re rich or poor, it’s the same. If you overdress, you look weird. It happened to me when I first came here – my in laws said, ‘Why is he dressing like that?’ So I started wearing tank tops and shorts.

Are the islanders interested in finding out about Arabic culture? 

Oh, I tell you. Recently, after all these things, you know, the wars and everything, once they get into the class, once they know about it, they fall in love. They don’t realise that our culture is so rich. My job is to represent the way I was brought up. The way our culture is. I’m not on a permanent contract – they could have gotten rid of me a long time ago. But enrolment is non-stop and the class is popular.

Do you speak any other languages yourself? 

I speak Hindi. My dad used to own a movie theatre in Aden, Yemen. It was one of the top theatres in Aden in the ‘60s. He used to play all kinds of films – American, Hindi, Arabic. My grandfather used to travel to India to go and get the Hindi movies and, when I was a kid, I would accompany him.

Speaking of movies, you’ve been involved with Hollywood yourself.

Yes, yes, yes. Oh my God. You’re bringing back memories. Okay. The TV series Lost was filmed here in Hawaii. I’m the only Arabic teacher on the island, so all of a sudden I received an email from them, to make sure that the Arabic they’d pulled from the Internet was correct, which it wasn’t. It was a mess. So then they asked me to be the coach for Naveen Andrews, who played the role of Sayid. They wanted an Iraqi dialect, so I got the script and I taught him how to say all of the lines in an Iraqi dialect.

Which dialect do you usually teach? 

Egyptian. I chose it because of the movies. But whenever I give the students a new phrase, I say it in Khaleeji, in Yemeni and so on.

What do you like most about Arabic? 

The different dialects. Man, each one is so beautiful. In the UAE, you have the Khaleeji accent. In Lebanon, you have the Levant dialect. ‘Chou badak’, and so on. The Arabic language is one of the most beautiful, too. I never thought I would love teaching the way I do. I could go on teaching until I’m 90.

How do you stay connected to Yemen? 

I like to cook now. I’ve missed my food. Before, I didn’t even know how to make an egg. But I came here and started to play around, remembering how my mother did this or that. People know me for my baklava. It’s special.

How come? 

I give it a tropical flavour. It’s not bland, like the Greek kind. Mine has cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and coconut.

What’s your favourite thing about Hawaii? 

I tell you. Nothing beats this place. We’re not making money, but nothing beats it. Hawaii is special. I’m connected to it because of my kids. My kids are part Hawaiian and part Arabian. You rarely see this mix. Too bad they don’t have Arabic food here. In the future, when I retire, I’ll open a restaurant. I will cook, I’ll be the singer and I’ll hang all my artwork.

What type of food would you make?

A lot of south Yemeni food, like samak – fish with spicy tomato sauce.

Have you been back to the Middle East? 

A few times. The first time I went back, after 38 years, was in 2000. I took my son after he graduated. I took him to all the places where I’ve lived. It was a shock to him. It was the first time he’d left the island. So funny.

So no plans to move back to the region?

No – this is home.

This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue. 

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