HANAN Weatherall loves language, and who could blame her.
Growing up in a village near Alexandria in northern Egypt, she developed a passion for reading and writing in her native Arabic.
She then studied English during primary school and later French in high school.
“When you gain another language, they say it’s like gaining another soul,” Hanan said.
Years later she is fluent in English. And now she lives in Bendigo, where she wants to share her love of the Arabic language with anyone eager to learn.
“When you begin to learn the Arabic language, you find out just how romantic it is. It’s not a violent language at all, even if people think it sounds abrupt,” she said.
“It’s a very musical language, full of emotion and with a lot of words about feelings. It sounds quite poetic.
“When we say ‘good morning’, we say, ‘we hope your morning is full of goodness’. There are a lot of phrases like this.”
Hanan has started her own private Arabic language lessons in Bendigo, using her skills gained as an English teacher in Egypt.
She already has two students: one is a nurse at Bendigo hospital, hoping to learn some Arabic to communicate with patients. The second is a school teacher, wanting to communicate better with the children of refugees arriving in central Victoria.
Learning Arabic is slow going. It takes careful training and commitment to master the intonations and sounds not present in English.
But, Hanan says, after just a few lessons a student can have a confident grasp of basic greetings.
“I like to teach them how to break the ice,” she said.
When it comes to understanding another culture, nothing is better than understanding the language. That’s her philosophy, which Hanan believes could be a lesson to others in Bendigo seeking to understand a diverse region with diverse faiths.
Since arriving in Australia in 2009, Hanan has watched from afar as Egypt was torn apart by revolution and the unrest that followed.
After she came to Australia to live a quiet life with her husband in Charlton, political turmoil continued to grip the country another world away as Hosni Mubarak was overthrown and eventually replaced with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood itself was later overthrown in a military coup, allowing the nation to narrowly avoid civil war.
General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed the Muslim Brotherhood with popular support, and was later elected president on a platform of reunifying the country.
The level of violence during and after the revolution was a surprise to Hanan.
She and her family are Christians, and have lived peacefully side-by-side with Muslims generation after generation. At Christmas and Ramadan, families would share plates with one another.
“It was like we were just one together when I was growing up,” she said.
“But in my country, some people had tried to cut the beautiful connection we had between Muslims and Christians.
“The average Muslims did not want this, they did not like the way the country was heading under the Muslim Brotherhood.
“But, today, I think the people are starting to become one again.”
Before coming to Australia, Hanan taught English at Saints Church in Alexandria. In 2011, the church was the target of a New Year’s Eve terrorist attack that killed 23 people.
But the violence did not shake her resolve. She was comforted to see Muslim people come out in support and give their condolences after the attack.
Even in her own village when extremists attempted to attack a church, it was the Muslim community who came out in force to protect the church and chase them away.
Hanan maintains an unwavering belief in the goodness of people – no matter their faith. Her devout Christianity helped to develop that belief, something she believes all people of faith should maintain.
The “debate” around the construction of a mosque in Bendigo, however, has been a troubling experience.
Some of the comments from those opposed to the building were confounding.
“I feel sad and sorry for them to say such silly comments in public. They are ignorant,” Hanan said.
“If the government allows people to come to Australia, they must be allowed to worship. If there are extremists in Australia, preventing the building of a mosque will not stop them from committing crimes.
Some estimates place the Christian population in Egypt at 12 million people.
They speak Arabic, like their Muslim brothers and sisters, and they have the same goals and ambitions. It’s only politics that can stand in the way.
Understanding one another is key, however.
Hanan wants people to explore her homeland, her culture, her way of life. And that starts with exploring the language.
“I just want to help people,” she said.
“Whether they are asylum seekers trying to become used to Australia, or people in business wanting to sell more things in a new market. Why not learn Arabic?”
Among her church group in Bendigo, her friends, and even her four-year-old son – who will grow up speaking English and Arabic – there has always been a level of interest and curiosity.
And at the country’s heart is Arabic, a language that could build bridges in Bendigo.
For more information about Hanan Weatherall’s Arabic classes, visit www.facebook.com/LearnArabicBendigo